TWO SOUTH AFRICAN TALES

There are many things that could make one feel despondent in South Africa: politics, corruption, crumbling infrastructure, potholes, the lack of water – and increasing bouts of load-shedding that leave us sans electricity for hours at a time. Rural towns are falling into disrepair and even our town – a centre of education in the country – is overrun with cattle, donkeys, and an increasing number of goats. South Africans learned a long time ago to ‘make do’ and generally rely on their sense of humour to get through some of the darkest times.

This is a situation that is not always easy for outsiders to understand and so I was delighted to be lent a copy of The Miracle of Crocodile Flats: an affectionate satire by Jenny Hobbs.

You cannot imagine many places more rundown and desolate than Crocodile Flats: a decaying country town adjacent to a sprawling community of poverty-stricken shack-dwellers. Life here is a daily grind. Then, a young schoolgirl believes she has encountered the Virgin Mary, who is as brown-skinned as the people around her. As news of this miracle spreads like wildfire, we meet some of the leading characters in this cosmopolitan community which is a microcosm of South African society.

While the Catholic Church seeks verification, other religions want their share of the glory too. Jealousy and rivalry abound as the town is flooded with journalists, politicians, police, pilgrims and the curious. There is money to be made: people need to be fed and watered, have a place to stay – and who can miss out on an opportunity to get into the limelight?

A run-down hotel bursts into life; the Chinese shop quickly diversifies by providing food; a gang of thugs are frightened off by an old nun sleeping where she shouldn’t be; an Afrikaans farmer’s wife breaks out of the enclave created by her menfolk by driving a tractor and joins forces with the first (of several) wife of a black charismatic religious leader – there is definitely money to be made.

As Crocodile Flats begins to burst at the seams one cannot help laughing at the old spinster who wishes to murder her sister; feeling angry at the exploitation of the little girl who had the vision; being sympathetic to the plight of many of the characters who inhabit this world; admiring of the way communities pull together during adversity; and sighing at the satisfactory ending. This is South Africa!

Okay, Okay, Okay by Finuala Dowling is a very different look at what is currently happening in this country.

Her focus is on university life and the changes that are being wrought as a result of student protests, political correctness, poverty, bureaucracy and the combined effect these have on the people who both work and study at the university. Although the setting is Cape Town, similar situations have become common on other South African university campuses.

A student dies; cars are set alight; people are accused of being insensitive; some academics try to hold things together, while others give up completely. A man loses his job and almost loses his family as a result of the turmoil. Throughout the proceedings lessons are being learned in the most surprising ways.

The unfolding events are sad, tragic, very annoying, unbelievable – and laughable. One cannot help feeling helpless in the face of such changes and wondering about who the real winners are. The story is uncomfortable at times, enlightening and is beautifully written. It is indeed a witty snapshot of South African academia.

Both of these novels make excellent holiday reading.

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WHAT WE CAN DO WITH BOOKS

Read them? Of course we can read them!

So?

Did you know you can cook them – although you shouldn’t! This is not a recipe for book soup or book stew or even book bobotie, but a cautionary advisor not to follow in the footsteps of many a bookkeeper or accountant who has dishonestly altered facts or figures in order to illegally enrich themselves. Their nefarious activities often end up in newspaper reports, leaving me gasping at how they must have explained their legally unexplainable wealth to family and friends.

It is not only individuals who do this, but some companies may employ such accounting sleight-of-hand tricks to make their financial results look better than they really are and so fraudulently encourage more investors. In December 2017, for example, a local headline read Cooked Books Leave A Bad Smell At Steinhoff, referring to allegations that Steinhoff had made false statements about its earnings and invented bogus sales in order to hide major losses inside the company.

Interestingly enough, you can bring someone to book by calling them to account for their misdemeanours or punishing them appropriately for the offence they have committed. In this country millions of Rand and years have been spent getting various people in high places to explain their corrupt dealings … so far to little avail.

Ah, but we can also throw a book at someone. This isn’t recommended literally if you care about your books and prefer to keep them and their covers intact. Restrain yourself should you feel a desire rising to toss the book you are reading at someone who has annoyed you.

On a different level, many South Africans are waiting for the day when a judge finally throws a book at some of the people mentioned earlier. Leniency has not helped the country, any more than turning a blind eye to certain goings-on has. Instead, we would love to see public miscreants being punished as severely as possible. In this case the book would contain the required laws or rules.

On a much brighter side, you can always take a leaf out of someone’s book. Careful here: if it is flat and dry it may be in the book for sentimental purposes and you may find yourself in trouble. If it is juicy and green … well, you may be thanked. No, we’re talking about books here and because we are readers we know that the pages of books are also called leaves. To be precise, a single page is a page but the sheet of paper that makes up two pages is called a leaf [all to do with printing and binding and none of it convenient for our purposes]. Warning: never literally tear a leaf (page) from anyone’s printed book! Our brighter purpose would be that if we wish to try out a new idea or improve on what we are already doing we can emulate someone else who seems to have been successful at it – thereby taking a leaf out of their book [copying their experience].

BEFORE WAKING

We are probably all too familiar with that truly comfortable semi-conscious state experienced before waking fully. It is that time of the morning when your bed feels the most comfortable and during which you might either want to prolong your dream or indulge in being oneirocritical by trying to interpret or make sense of your dream. This is when you might listen to the dawn chorus with your eyes closed and your body still in the relaxed mode of sleep. Such a condition is known as hypnopompic and is experienced before we have to ‘snap out’ of it to attend to the demands of the day.

In his delightful book, The Horologican, Mark Forsyth brings to light this and other long disused words in the English language. Another pertinent one here is uhtceare, meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying’. Far too many of us allow the potential concerns of the day to disturb our hypnopompic state or what is also known as the antelucan hush of pre-dawn.

Speaking of which, Forsyth draws our attention to another delightful word, day-raw, which describes the first streaks of colour in the dawn sky. According to him, eighteenth century farmers would have called this the day-peep time of the day – what we now moan about whenever we have to rise ‘at the crack of dawn’ for some compelling reason!

BOOK REVIEW: THE WALLED GARDEN BY CATHERINE DUNNE

This sensitively written account about the healing of the relationship between a dying mother and her daughter is compelling. Catherine Dunne’s fine-tuned descriptions and imagery draw the reader right into the context and setting of her story:

Listening to the uneven breathing of the frail, elderly woman [her mother] beside her, Beth hoped it wasn’t already too late for her to feel beyond the years of sharp exchanges, the slow foxtrot of anger and disappointment that had kept them at arm’s length from the other, dancing to the same old tunes.

The narrative follows Alice through a series of small strokes that leave her increasingly incapacitated. Reconciliation, she realises, will have to come in the form of writing letters to her daughter while she still has the capacity to do so:

God alone knew how long she had left. Now, she was going to give Him a run for his money.

Her daughter, Beth, finds the letters whilst sitting at her comatose mother’s bedside. It is through them that we learn about the background to their estranged relationship; of sacrifices made; of hurts, disappointments and misunderstandings. There is no sentimental soppiness about these letters. Rather, readers are more likely to identify with aspects of their own relationship with their parents or children: life is not always easy.

Alice concludes that:

It was time she apologised to her daughter for holding on too tight, for making hoops of steel out of bonds of love. Mothers and daughters needed ties that would give a little, would bend and stretch with generosity, not break and unravel at the first tugs of defiance and misunderstanding.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about the relationship between Beth and her brother, James. Like her, he has domestic troubles of his own to contend with. For now though their focus remains on their dying mother.

I found this novel to be a quick, satisfying read that has left me with a lot to ponder about in its wake. My paperback edition was published by Picador in 2000.

A LIGHT READ

On occasion a very light read is in order: a novel that introduces you to characters, places and situations far removed from your own. A novel that will give you a ‘lift’ when you need one. Roisin Meaney’s It’s that Time of Year fits the bill perfectly.

The right ingredients are there: Annie, the central figure, who has fostered numerous children during her working years. She invites three of her former charges to her wedding. Although they do not know each other and live very different lives – they all love and respect Annie and wouldn’t miss being with her on her special day.

There is Julia, a successful songwriter and singer living in a luxurious apartment in Paris. Her fame was unexpected, but now she is unable to compose either the music or lyrics needed for her next CD: For the first time she’s seriously blocked, and it’s terrifying. What if she’s lost whatever ability she had? What if she never manages to write another song? How will she find a way through this blank wall?

Then there is Steph, living in Spain and now thinking about Ireland: The thought of it, of seeing it again, prompts a small rush of nervous excitement. She knows exactly how long it is since she left – but why does she leave Spain so furtively?

The third of Annie’s former charges to be invited to her wedding is Eddie the chef: Dark shadows under his eyes, the whites bloodshot, the strain showing of too many late nights and rushed meals, and not enough money. He dreamed big, but still has a long way to go. Is he following the right path towards future happiness and success?

First they need to celebrate Annie’s marriage to the man she has loved for practically her whole life. At 61, her dream comes true … but, there is the impending sale of her house, unexpected snow, and lingering concerns about her three ‘children’.

We learn about the strong friendship between Annie and Cora; about building trust; how apparent disasters can shake us out of a rut; and about the inherent goodness of people. This quick and light read is bound to banish the blues, leaving you with a more benign view of the world.

I leave you with the quotation at the start of the story: Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction – Rumi.