A Mouthful Of Glass
For South Africans the murder of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966 was a defining moment comparable to Kennedy’s assassination. The difference of course is that for the vast majority Verwoerd was a racist despot whose death was greeted with widespread rejoicing. Strange then that Demetrios Tsafendas, the parliamentary messenger who plunged a knife into the chest of the architect of apartheid, is a shadowy, almost-forgotten figure.
Forty-four years after being dismissed as a ‘meaningless creature’ by the judge who tried his case the full tragic story of Tsafendas has finally been told in Henk Van Woerden’s fascinating biographical reconstruction. So who was this man who some believe belongs in the pantheon of liberation struggle heroes? Born the illegitimate son of a Greek father and a Swazi mother in Mozambique in 1918, Tsafendas was always an outsider, his life spent in rootless drifting between marginal jobs and incarceration in mental asylums on three continents. Always his wanderings led back to South Africa despite repeated exclusion orders and constant re-classification of his ambiguous racial identity. His dabbling in both Communism and Christianity suggests a heartfelt need to belong and repeated rejection eroded his fragile mental stability. Verwoerd’s killing was a last mad, desperate act in a country that was itself mad.
Tsafendas stands as an uneasy symbol of the country that refused to acknowledge him and, in A Mouthful of Glass, the man described on his funeral wreath as ‘Displaced Person, Sailor, Christian, Communist, Liberation Fighter, Political Prisoner, Hero’ has his fitting, if deeply unsettling, memorial.
The Fat Lady Sings
Jacqueline Roy’s fine novel is set on a psychiatric ward and tells the stories of Gloria and Merle, two women of Jamaican descent who are admitted to the unit. Both women have been tipped into mental illness by tragedy. Gloria is grieving for her dead partner Josie and her illness takes the form of wild, unpredictable acts and bursts of loud public singing. Following a miscarriage, Merle starts to hear voices in her head. She also hides a secret about her strict religious father.
Through direct narrative, notebook entries and taped diaries we gradually build up a picture of these two women and how they have come to be incarcerated and on mind-altering medication. Jacqueline Roy’s approach to the realities of mental illness is sensitive and unsentimental. She is particularly good at catching the small increments by which mental instability grows out of ‘normal’ behaviour and her picture of patient-staff communications, based on mistrust and contempt, is depressingly accurate. The arrogant psychiatrist Dr Raines, who interprets Merle’s troubled childhood as a case of sexual abuse, is typical. In fact her father had spent much of her childhood in prison wrongly convicted of murder.
Although the novel ends with both Merle and Gloria leaving hospital and attempting to pull together the scattered strands of their lives, there is no cosy pretence that there are easy answers or happy endings to the messy complexities of life. The Fat Lady Sings is an honest and spirited portrait of suffering and dignity, individual despair and institutional failings.
Business As Unusual
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, unorthodox entrepreneur and frenetic campaigner, has written a book. It would be easy to mock and, indeed, that was my first impulse. Everything about Business As Unusual – that awful title, the garish design and the bitty, tabloid layout – suggests disposable coffee-table dross.
Then I began reading Roddick’s actual words and it became apparent that not only is her writing informed and passionate, she is prepared to go the extra mile and engage with the debate taking place among the activists opposing globalization. How many CEOs of multinationals are prepared to do that?
Perhaps the book’s design is a marketing ploy, deliberately pitching for a readership that would pick up a book like this expecting a standard autobiography or a history of The Body Shop. If so, it is a smart tactic for, in this book, Anita Roddick puts forward clear and radical ideas on feminism, business ethics and global economics. Entwined with these more didactic passages are extracts from the diary Roddick kept while attending the Seattle anti-capitalist gathering in 1999.
Business as Unusual will not be to everyone’s taste; Roddick’s certitude verging on smugness and her preachy tone will have some readers heading for the hills. However her book will have served a very valuable purpose if it puts the vital issues of neo-liberal piracy and the corporate theft of our rights before an audience who wouldn’t dream of opening a book by Vandana Shiva or Susan George or, indeed, reading the NI.
Pip Pip - A Sideways Look at Time
Jay Griffiths’ splendidly quirky book could be summarized, in an echo of EF Schumacher, as ‘Time as if People Mattered’. Declaring emphatically that a book about time needs to be more than a mere history of clocks, she takes our western, work-ethic concept of time (‘time is money’) by the scruff of the neck and shakes loose a wealth of alternative wisdoms. In 13 fascinating chapters (one for each hour and one for unclocked ‘wild time’) the author challenges the assumption that there is such a thing as the time. She shows how other cultures have viewed time, from Navajo Sundance time to the Dreamtime of Australian Aboriginal people.
This extraordinarily wide-ranging book touches on, among much else, the age-old relationship between time and power; from Druids and stone circles to the globalization of time in the ‘24 hour society’. Particularly impressive is the description of the profusion of pagan festivals that have celebrated time and chaos and how we have gradually been dispossessed of these life-affirming carnivals.
Griffiths perhaps tries to cover too much ground, leading to a scatter-gun approach and a relentless pace – odd for a book that is a hymn to ‘slow time’. That apart, Pip Pip is an absorbing and radical study of the uses and abuses of time; provocative, impassioned, often outrageously witty but also emphasizing the political import of the subject. After all, as the anonymous authors of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote in 1370: ‘There is nothing more precious than time. Time is made for man, not man for time.’
European Klezmer Music
Klezmer music takes its name from the Yiddish word for musician. But thereafter attempts to define the genre fall short. Here’s an attempt: it’s Central European – or is that Greco-Turkish? — dance music whose cadences come from the prayers of Askenazi synagogues, with Gypsy lauteri tunes and Balkan folk melodies thrown in too.
Klezmer music was born in the early eighteenth century and, as the Nazis swept through Europe, fell silent in the twentieth century. But not entirely. Steven Greenman and W Zev Feldman – the two Americans who form the mainstay of Khevrisa – are part of a recent movement to research and preserve the music which even before the Holocaust was changing under the weight of migration and urbanization. Theirs is a labour of love. Extensive sleeve-notes give clear histories of klezmer’s developments and changes: how the clarinet took over the violin’s lead and how the quavering mysteries of the cimbal — a kind of dulcimer — were translated, in modern klezmer, into a rhythmical powerhouse. For their part, Khevrisa are firmly in the old camp. No clarinet or sax here. With Greenman leading on violin and Feldman on cimbal, the pair’s freylakhs – or dances – are vibrant affairs, even in their more melancholy aspects. Three leading latterday klezmer exponents – Alicia Svigals, Stuart Brotman and Michael Alpert – flesh out the works, making this an album to be reckoned with.
Rough Guide to Klezmer
It’s still klezmer but from the first few bars of ‘Fun Tashlikh’ played by the Klezmatics, it’s clear that this 18-track compilation is approaching the music from a very different direction. Whereas Khevrisa has a scholarly touch, the Rough Guides’ disc picks up klezmer in all its US-based history and mutation. And not just America. The Klezmatics’ track – taken from their album Rhythm and Jews – blends Arabic beats and a bit of ululating in with their wild violins and squawking clarinet. It’s immediately balanced by the crazy energy of the next track, a version of the same tune by the great clarinettist Naftule Brandwein who dominated the scene from the 1920s and turned the music towards a jazzy overlap that’s still heard today. That’s the way this album works: by threading modern klezmer (Brave Old World, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, David Krakauer Trio) with the old (Harry Kandel, Brandwein and the Balkan rootsiness of Di Naye Kapelye), the sense of both history and a future for the music is created. The Krakauer Trio’s ‘Bogata Bulgar’ looks towards Latin American fusion, while the Klezmokum’s ‘Der Gasn Nigun’ uses a sonorous jazz piano to tease out connections with jazz. There is a necessary duplication of names from the Khevrisa album, although the material is quite different. Some musicians appear in quite separate guises: Alicia Svigals’ Romanian Fantasy No 1, for instance, marks out its own reflective mood. This CD also offers some enhanced features — essentially the klezmer chapter from the Rough Guides’ World Music book (Volume II).
The King of Masks
Rarely does a film so successfully deal with gender discrimination without proselytizing and while delivering good art.
Interestingly, King of Masks comes from China – a country where 98 per cent of aborted fetuses are female.
It tells the story of an elderly masked street performer who longs for a male successor – girls are forbidden – to whom he can teach his secret ancestral art. In 1930s Sichuan, where children are sold or given away as servants, he finds such an heir in a starving eight-year-old boy nicknamed ‘Doggie’ whom he adopts as a beloved grandson. The old man is delighted until he discovers that Doggie is female – masquerading as a boy because she was abused by seven previous owners who didn’t like girls.
Bitter and betrayed, he gives her money and leaves. When Doggie jumps into the river trying to reach him on his houseboat, he grudgingly allows her to stay; but now he is ‘Boss’ instead of ‘Grandpa’. She can never learn his craft but he will tolerate her if she cooks and cleans. He teaches her acrobatics and she becomes his performance partner. Unable to reconcile his growing fondness for a child of the wrong sex, he berates her for not being a boy. Desperate to be loved, Doggie rescues a kidnapped little boy and presents him to the street performer as the long-desired grandson. But it all goes horribly wrong and the girl ends up risking her life to save the old man’s before the film reaches a happier resolution.
Sexism, poverty and government corruption are all explored in this film. But so are more nebulous issues such as the masks behind which we hide and the dissolving boundaries between theatre, philosophy and real life. Beautiful, thought-provoking and moving.
Vanessa Baird meets two new
There’s an absolutely haunting line in Okey Ndibe’s debut novel Arrows of Rain: ‘The story that wants to be told never forgives silence.’
The fact that the writer is Nigerian and comes from a continent that is saddled with some of the world’s most repressive governments – supported by Western business interests – gives added poignancy and depth to the phrase. The hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa, a writer who did not remain silent, is not forgotten.
But what does one do in the face of tyranny? What would you do if you saw an act of evil committed – but to speak out could well cost you your life?
To tell this story (see review in NI 328) and explore these issues Ndibe, a seasoned journalist and magazine editor, has chosen fiction and a narrative style that lies somewhere between a ‘thriller’ and a ‘confession’. But he goes way beyond this to create an emotional atmosphere that is at once brooding, sparse and lyrical. The story, which starts with a body washed up on a beach, explores issues of moral complexity and human frailty that are universal and eternal. As Ndibe says: ‘I was writing this story and I felt it was grappling with an important human drama that just happened to be set in Africa.’
Both Okey Ndibe and his compatriot Ike Oguine acknowledge the tremendous debt they owe to the liberating works of such giants of African literature as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. But they are not overwhelmed by the legacy. Ndibe and Oguine belong to a younger generation who need to find new ways of telling stories, partly because the stories of themselves have changed.
‘[In Africa] we have countries whose leaders are deliberately setting them towards a state of anarchy for their own interests. The corruption is far greater than in Achebe’s time,’ Ndibe explains. ‘Our story is becoming impossible to understand through our conventional forms of story telling. Our experience is beginning to outstrip the metaphors we have for capturing it.’
Ike Oguine has approached the story he needs to tell from almost the opposite position. He lives in Lagos but his novel A Squatter’s Tale is set mainly in Oakland, US. It’s hero, Obi, is a young Nigerian engaged in the hectic pursuit of the ever-elusive ‘American Dream’.
‘Immigrant novels’ are not new to African literature, but Oguine’s humorous and fast-paced offering is something else. According to Oguine: ‘The earlier generation of African immigrants felt they were outsiders and so culture clash was a central theme. But this generation almost feels entitled to belong to Western culture; they have been exposed to Western culture through TV, films, music and books and think it is theirs. They feel sophisticated enough to cope with any culture anywhere in the world. But the reality is not quite that.’
With its aggressive, hedonistic pursuit of success, measured in cars, designer suits and sex, Squatter’s Tale could be seen as a universal story of contemporary mores. But it has a more serious core in the sense of alienation its characters feel, made worse somehow by the web of self-agrandizing fabrications with which they surround themselves with. What interests Oguine is how people, uprooted from home, have to create value systems afresh for themselves. He describes his work as ‘a sideline’ to the core themes of war and the crisis of the African state that preoccupy the continent’s literature. But like Ndibe he is touching upon themes of moral integrity that are global and universal.
And for both these interesting new writers, silence is clearly not on the agenda.
Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe (ISBN 0 435 90657-7) and A Squatter's Tale by Ike Oguine (ISBN 0 435 90655-0) are both published by Heinemann African Writers Series.