Tuesday, 9 March 2010

South African Writers – Coetzee, Brink, Gordimer, Paton et al.

Off to beautiful Cape Town for a holiday and a bit of research I packed my novels: one of the best bits of the holiday – wall to wall reading. A last minute panic that these might run out, I looked on my bookshelves for unread paperbacks. Coetzee. Perfect. A South African author. Immerse myself in the culture sort of thing.

Now I have read a few books by Coetzee. Brilliant writer if not a bundle of laughs. Disgrace was a novel that certainly gets to the heart of South African life and the violence that wrecks lives. But what did I pick up? Slow Man. I should have checked first.

I am going to South Africa. I want to read a South African writer writing about South Africa. What do I do, I pick up a novel by Coetzee (A SA writer alright) but find the novel is set in Australia. That’s where he lives now. Australia.

It’s good, no doubt about it. Slow novel about Slow Man. Very readable, touches of humour and perception. But as Slow Man never leaves his flat he could be living anywhere. I suppose he could even have been living in a suburb of Durban, Port Elizabeth or Cape Town.

Of course, I could have chosen to read some of the other great names of SA literature. One of the most well known books must be that of Olive Shriener – The Story of An African Farm – made famously into a film. Although it describes a fate that has befallen women throughout the centuries, her character makes a choice that we do not often read about. However, the life she describes hardly exists anymore in the Cape.

Ask any Capetonian whom one should read when visiting the Cape and those of a certain age will suggest a favourite of theirs, Laurence Green. His easy style travelogues are a pleasant read but leisurely travel, drawn out three course lunches and descriptions of picturesque spots are largely a thing of the past for South Africans. Set from the nineteen twenties on his stories are now period pieces.

Of course, there are later famous novelists. Nadine Gordimer, for one, an exceptional writer, so perceptive, but she gets down to some pretty gritty realism in her work. A bit dated now, in some ways, but sadly totally up to date in her descriptions of shanty towns and life for the average unemployed South African.

Andre Brink, another big name, can also be a bit of - well, how can I put it – a depressing read. The Other Half of Silence is pretty brutal and his others are also fairly heavy work in my opinion. In an attempt to be more upbeat I could perhaps suggest some younger or more recent South African writers.

There is Barbara Trapido’s book, Frankie & Stankie, detailing what life was like in the Cape in the fifties. She doesn’t do the ‘great work of literature’ bit but what a good story teller she is. This novel is a much lighter read than the others I mention and one (at last) with laugh aloud humour. And Mark Behr; his first novel The Smell of Apples is very good. Definitely an insight into modern African life in the Cape – but an unsettling one for several reasons.

But to choose just one, after all these, I would still plump for Alan Paton’s classic, Cry, The Beloved Country. In my opinion it still deserves the prize for epitomizing life in South Africa. A more simple, moving and sad story would be hard to find. Although, as in Gordimer’s short stories, it is heartbreaking to notice the lack of change for the better in such an absolutely blessed and beautiful country.


PS If you can suggest other authors you think give a good picture of the Cape please comment but if you prefer to make a private point you can always email me at LucyAnnWhite@googlemail.com


Jenny said...

Hi Lucy,

Perhaps for insights into a (now thirty-something) South African poet's perceptions, Killing Time , Poems by Arthur Attwell


Happy musings! Jenny

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