Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel
It doesn’t matter how much good streaming is available to us in our brand new world, quiet time with a good book cannot be replaced by any of the noise around us and gives us a chance to escape to somewhere completely different – and we can decide how and where. DIANE DE BEER looks at a few of her most recent choices…
In a time when lots of reading is possible, it’s been great to catch up with books by authors I have neglected for far too long. Damon Galgut is one of those and I sure picked the right one to enter his world.
I have found when reading as much as I do now but also as I grow older, that the thing that interests me most when it comes to choosing books and really getting into the heart of whatever matter the author wishes to explore, is innovative storytelling.
And that’s what moved me most with Galgut’s latest, which already has the accolades and possibility of awards (Booker, for example) streaming in. The topic, our apartheid past, has long not yet been exhausted, but to keep readers engaged you have to find a way to look at familiar tropes and topics that is as innovative as it is engaging.
The Promise (UMUZI) does that in spades – for me. I have heard others complaining with passion about his lack of empathy with his characters and more, but none of this came into play for me in his particular telling of the story.
One of the many podcasts I listened to about the novel and the writing is that Galgut was exploring a new way of telling the story. He found the magic carpet for my ride and he loved that he had found a different voice, as did I.
I could feel that even when dealing in very heavy subject matter, especially for readers in this country at this time, there was a lightness about the telling which was joyful to read.
It’s the story of four siblings in a particular family and the events unfold around four funerals of different generations of this same family. This means it is set in different times in a country that underwent huge changes , with a different president , for example, at the telling of each tale. Not that the president and the politics are in the forefront.
What plays out in this particular family is the dictum that where you are born and how you are raised, all have an impact on who you become. And it all circles around a promise that was made a long time ago which has never been kept and has everything to do with the country we live in.
I loved the originality, the elegance of the writing and what lies underneath the story for each individual reader to unwrap.
For something completely different, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who wrote so sharply about the Vietnam war in The Sympathizer turns his gaze to a different country – and even continent – France. I couldn’t help smiling in The Committed(Corsair) as he turns his acerbic gaze on the French; and as we have discovered, those who read the first novel, in the way he treated the Americans and turned their interpretation of the Vietnam war on its head, he takes few prisoners.
But while he might be telling the story in colourful gangster style, there’s nothing rough and ready about his opinions of the latest country he has decided to tackle.
Walking through Paris (even today) with even its touristy streets very sharply defined by different races, it’s easy to spot the heart and soul of this majestic city.
And in this time of refugees, Nguyen starts his latest novel with the following penetrating sentence: “We were unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark.”
This is not going to be an easy read and yet, the pace is fast and furious, and you have to get with the programme to keep up with his sharp comments and incisive opinions as he tells a story of corruption, complicity and companionship only if you can bring riches to the table.
“That’s not a French name they would say … All I had to do was change my name. I’ll admit, I tried on some different names, it didn’t feel right. And I thought, I went to your schools, which are my schools. I learned your language, which is my language. I don’t feel Arab at all, except when people call me an Arab. And that’s not enough? Now I have to change my name, which my parents gave me? And I knew this would not be the end. They would never stop. They would not be happy until I married a woman who looked like them, gave them children who looked more like them than me, made friends only with them. Either I could be one hundred percent French or I could just be a dirty Arab, so instead I decided to be one hundred percent gangster.”
It’s a small passage in a large book, but it captures the essence of both the story and the world we currently find ourselves in, where everything that has been done to others has festered and turned into a ferocious beast who has no way of protecting itself or those of us watching.
There’s a third in the trilogy on its way and I can’t wait.
If you’re a Deon Meyer fan there’s no need to read this but if you’ve never met the detective duo Benny Griesel and his partner Vaughn Cupido, get a life.
Most of us read a thriller at some stage of our life and because it has meant big money for many authors (probably in this country as in many others, the only authors who have any chance of making money), there’s a landscape of books to choose from.
South Africans are blessed to have one of the most successful in the world in this genre in our midst – Deon Meyer. Personally, I fell in love with his stories because of the South African landscape he established.
He might be wearing rose-tinted spectacles but I prefer to think not, because what he has done is focus on the characters and no one can argue that while we might have some of the worst politicians in the world (they didn’t really have any role models?), we also have some of the best people.
There’s not a day that goes by that one of my fellow citizens doesn’t put a smile on my face, and it is that element that Meyer captures so well.
Then of course he also spins a good yarn. He has all the fodder available right under his nose but also in today’s zeitgeist, and he has captured that brilliantly in the past. And again in this latest novel, Donkerdrif (Human&Rouseau), (if you can, read it in Afrikaans, but the translations are good and should be available very soon) which latches onto all the evils that drive our world today: greed, power, money, corruption… and the list is endless.
We know the formula although Meyer is too smart to make it thus, but Benny and Vaughn will win the day and we will be there rooting for them all the way.
Starting this column with a book that is all about the writing and the storytelling, it is perhaps apt that I conclude with one that didn’t succeed for me in especially the familiar way the story unfolds.
We’re still reading about World War 1 and 2 and I suspect it will go on for a long time, as it should. Lest we forget and the horrors are repeated is the age old explanation and that’s true, but if you are going to focus on telling stories that capture a specific time, you are going to repeat versions of stories that came before which happened for me in mark Winkler’s Due South Of Copenhagen (Umuzi).
After all, the two boys with surnames Fritz and Udengaard aren’t the first with German or German-sounding surnames bullied by their schoolmates even 30 years after the war. So come at it with a fresh angle, a different vantage or you won’t keep my attention. I have heard and seen too many different versions and after a while, you switch off.
Winkler’s snapshot of the past is beautifully captured, he writes masterfully and perhaps from my point of view, it is best read by a younger generation who would not know about these intimate stories set against a larger backdrop.
But for me, the small-town idiosyncrasies of a specific time and place, two youngsters thrown together because of the prejudice against them, wasn’t enough to keep my attention. Because it was well written, I finished the reading, but it was in one ear and out the other as quickly as I turned the last page.