Author Vincent Pienaar is experiencing his own tsunami with his latest book Too Many Tsunamis – a tale of love, light. He tells DIANE DE BEER why:
With a book titled Too Many Tsunamis – a tale of love, light, and incidental humour (Penguin Books) and an opening sentence that deals with suicide – more the dilemma of being or not being – author Vincent Pienaar’s latest book is hard to resist.
And if you don’t know who this journalist/writer is, he gives some clues with a dedication that includes names like Gabriel García Márquez, Etienne Leroux, Damon Runyon, Eugène Marais, Virginia Woolf, Elmore Leonard, Akira Kurosawa, Lennon-McCartney and Harrison for the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night… and more.
All of these are hints of what’s to come. And it’s joyous. “When I wrote Too Many Tsunamis, I deliberately decided to write an amusing story that didn’t explore the standard ‘troubled country’ story lines. I set out to write a story that was only incidentally set in South Africa. I love it when people tell me things like ‘this doesn’t feel like a typical South African story’. While I don’t want to speculate what a ‘typical’ South African story is, I happily admit that I wanted to write (let’s call it) a universal story. I’m fascinated by the way storytelling has changed (catering for a faster world) and I absolutely love the challenge of telling my story at breakneck speed.”
I had asked him about what I perceived as a breakaway from his usual style and while he confessed to not having a particular style, “I do believe this is the style I want to retain. It really works for me.” It did for me too.
The story is fast-paced which, as he explains above, was the idea but there’s a filmic element to the storytelling that makes everyone on the page come alive.
“If Bert truly wants to commit suicide he certainly finds a number of reasons why he simply can’t do it right now. He is always working on a magnificent bestseller, but it is never identified – and whether it exists or not is for the reader to decide. He lives in a fantasy world, where he talks to his conscience – or Conscience the character – who does not necessarily like or support him.
“His mother – or Mother – spends a lot of time getting him a job or a woman and if the gods allow it, both.
“My favourite character is Light, an unkempt young woman who appears to be deliberately slovenly, slow, and certainly deliberately overweight. The character development (and I really enjoy this) comes from Light – and what a gem she turns out to be! Mother, Bert, Light and Conscience are the main protagonists I suppose, but I have populated the book with many minor characters who are all quirky in their own right. (Boring people really are boring, aren’t they?)
“The story, although not a mystery or anything like that, has a number of reveals that I hope induces the occasional minor gasp.
“It’s a style that is balanced (as you say) on a knife’s edge a little and might not have worked. To maintain the right balance is quite something.”
Following this Pienaar monologue, as the interviewer, I have to make a confession. It was unfair to ask a journalist to tell us about his book, because if like Pienaar, you’ve just invented this incidental magical tale, your response will have the same effect – in essence writing the interview. Apologies though, but in this instance, no one can talk about his book better than the author.
Talking about the style, he immediately used a musical metaphor and the names he drops into his book and the conversation explain why.
“I have developed a style with surprises. I enjoy the ‘duel’ with the reader to offer something unexpected every now and then, to keep the reader just a little off balance (and interested). I have, over the years, developed an aversion for ‘dead words. I don’t want to write them, and I don’t want to read them. (With this my mentors Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Benyon helped me to weed them out and slaughter them.) I like the idea of what you call the ‘knife edge’ because it is an indication that the action propels this story.” Which it certainly does.
“I applied a different rhythm to different sections. It’s deliberate and it is an attempt to make it easy for the reader to remain interested.
“A late (erudite) friend said the difference between jazz and blues is that jazz is performed for the enjoyment of the musicians themselves and blues is performed for the satisfaction of the audience. There is often that part in a jazz piece where the audience sits patiently and reverently while the musician is ‘performing his art’. I, too, don’t mind sitting quietly waiting for solos to end. But when I write, I write the blues. I work at making my writing for the benefit of the reader and not the writer.”
He’s achieved all that and more. Perhaps there no longer is a typical South African novel although we all know what he means when living in a country where reality has for most of our lives felt like fiction. How could writers not go there?
But Pienaar wanted to write something different and he achieved that with aplomb.
“A movie? I wish! I know that I write scenes instead of chapters. If I have helped the reader to forget about the words and to see the images, I’m very happy. I wanted to write a book that would make people smile. Believe me, the style was deliberate and no coincidence.”
How could it not be? When (not if) you read the book, you will discover what that means. It’s like slipping into a world of merry-go-rounds, slightly crazy, yet delightfully so. And it keeps you smiling even when there are the occasional sad undertones.
Elaborating about his own reading preferences even if he lists some in his dedication in the book, he comes up with the following:
“In my pursuit of universal writing, I have drifted further and further into the arms of the classics. I read, with admiration, works by Virginia Woolf and sections of Anthony Powell and the short novels of John Steinbeck. I have read and re-read two short novels, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (not the terrible movie) and The Great Gatsby. They both have great plots and subplots and no dead words. I ponder why they are so great. I read Hunter S Thompson as a study in breathing fire. Would he write: ‘The car drove off at high speed.’? Fuck no! He might possibly write: ‘Tyres howled and smoke billowed as the car shot from the sidewalk into the fast lane.’ Yeah!
“I watch a lot of movies and very often the classics. I think His Girl Friday (from 1941!) has the best dialogue I have ever seen. Some Like it Hot is a study in timing. The Lion in Winter has acerbic dialogue that needs to be watched in two-minute sections. (O’Toole to Hepburn: ‘Will you give me a moment’s peace, woman?!’ Hepburn: ‘I can give you eternal peace. Now there’s a thought.’)”
With Pienaar doing most of the talking, hopefully he has said enough to get you reading – and you should. Apart from the battered-feeling Bert who has written a brilliant suicide note but can’t quite get to the brilliant suicide, it’s a deliciously discordant romantic romp with much more than the haphazard Bert, although he is the perfect anti-hero in today’s world, that seldomly has you smiling for the right reasons.
Pienaar brilliantly manages that.
To top it all, his book has just been picked for the 2019 Longlist of the Sunday Times Literary Awards’ Barry Ronge Fiction Prize.