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South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 28 May 2010 04:34
(eds.) Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht. 2009. Berkeley, California: Whereabouts Press. R179.95

The first thing to strike one about this handy, attractive book is the interesting mission statement from the publisher. Boldly they assert (which is music to our ears at KZN Literary Tourism), “Whereabouts Press is dedicated to publishing books that will enlighten a traveler to the soul of a place. By bringing a country’s stories to the English-speaking reader, we hope to convey its culture through literature”. Other Traveler’s Literary Companions which the publisher has commissioned cover countries as divergent as Cuba and Vietnam, Israel and Japan; together with the cities Prague and Amsterdam.  These, then, are literary companions for the “curious traveler”, the type who likes to read and look at the same time. 

Appropriately, the book starts with a map of South Africa which is followed by a Preface written by the editors. In it they discuss their choices, making the comment that the history of South Africa is one of contested spaces and thus the literature that springs from it will no doubt reflect this. They have chosen a mixture of selections from old and new writers over the past 100 years: from Olive Schreiner (and, sadly, not an extract from that most evocative of ‘landscape’ novels The Story of an African Farm), to Herman Charles Bosman, to Richard Rive and Alan Paton. Most ‘chapters’ are short extracts which give a taste of a place and a time; except for the long piece from Mphahlele entitled “Mrs Plum”. The volume, by the way, is dedicated to this writer. Each author represented is summed up in a short biographical sketch on the title page which is a quick, handy way to contextualise the writer, era and region. 

In keeping with the connecting linkage between writer and place set up by the editors the book is divided into regional sections: ‘Gauteng’, ‘KwaZulu-Natal’, ‘Western Cape’ and ‘The Rural Areas, the Farm and the Game Park’. An obvious gripe from us, given our interest in KZN, is the very small space accorded this rich region – a paltry 16 pages as opposed to 75 for Gauteng, and over 30 for the Western Cape. The KZN representatives (excluding Gcina Mhlophe who appears under ‘Rural Areas etc’) are Alan Paton with the atmospheric opening page from Cry, the Beloved Country, Ronnie Govender with an extract from “1949”, and a short opening piece from Lewis Nkosi’s Mating Birds which imagines the segregated Snake Park Beach in apartheid times. Something from Daphne Rooke on the South Coast (Rattoons), Credo Mutwa on ‘Zululand’ (Indaba My Children) and Aziz Hassim on Grey Street (The Lotus People) could have added to a fuller word picture of the variety of locales in this province. 

That niggle aside, this volume makes for a different kind of guidebook – one the literary pilgrim will certainly enjoy.

 
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