By Thomais Armaos
A self-published life account by Cyril James, Many a Cold Night tells of this Durbanite’s journey towards finding peace – or even a stable job after a lifetime of hard living. Born to a coloured mother and an Indian father in Durban in 1945, James provides a grim account of trying to gain acceptance from his father’s strict family. Having roots in such racial diversity as having family from Hindi, coloured and Zulu cultural backgrounds, his childhood is surrounded by diversity but with no real hope of assimilation and belonging to any one of these backgrounds. However, this challenge during his youth helps him adapt and develop the strength needed to face the challenges of life that were presented to him in these diverse forms. Alcoholism, abuse, racism, drugs, crime, gangsterism, rape, murder, poverty, near homelessness, and prison form part of a visual landscape that had surrounded the life of the writer. His is a story that all South Africans can identify with in one way or another, regardless of the circumstances surrounding your birth. James, in this instance, is a sort of South African everyman.
The title, Many a Cold Night, gives the reader somewhat of a hint about its attachment with colloquialism. Like any avid reader, I had high hopes that this title would reveal some deep insight, some universal truth that the writer had become aware of in his late age. Unfortunately, even in the most fruitful of critic’s mind, there is no artistic meaning in this work. Rather, I believe, it to be a story that must be told, for the sake of telling it. Perhaps, this, if any, might be a fair response to a life that had endured so much. Perhaps it is a reflection of human endurance in the face of trial and affliction. The reader will gain a sense of this almost immediately in a reading of the title and from the cover art.
The cover depicts a graveyard with petrified stone angels grasping baskets of flowers with a prayer on their lips, for the dead perhaps or for a man who crawls between the stone slabs that mark the lives of those long passed. Dark clouds form a shadow in the distance as a full moon sheds a supernatural light over the graveyard, providing a portal into what is a grim depiction of the writer’s circumstances. This provides the reader with a sense of foreboding as to what the narrative is about, and the solemn story would undoubtedly follow.
The story is a first person narrative told from the viewpoint of the writer himself, looking back at the events and circumstances of his life. It is a very simple read, almost too simple as that which any writer or critic might deem essential to any novel – dialogue – does not exist in this memoir. Although it seems as though it may lack any essential artistic description, Many a Cold night does give us a considerable degree of insight into the life of the writer; one that I have not experienced in all my years of reading. It is raw, and solemn; perhaps that is where the art lies. It is a slice of life. It is what people do, say, think, feel, how they react, it brings the reader closer to a more real version of the South African experience. It is clear that Cyril James has experienced an unbelievable variety of traumatic and painful life experiences but it does not dwell on the unfamiliar. Many a Cold Night essentially tells a story that we know but will not acknowledge. It distances itself from the good, light-hearted commercial South African narrative. Primarily, this is the case because the author is not a writer by occupation, and the reader must take this into consideration when reading his work.
Although it is as rough as only a seaman could have written it, it does offer some indirect references to historical, political and socio-economic circumstances of the greater Durban area from the 1940’s till today. Whether these depictions are accurate or fair representations of the people who are in them, however, is to be debated. I find that this text does not try to alleviate the racial and character stereotypes of various ethnic groups that were formed during apartheid. Even worse, I believe that that some racial stereotypes of the time are upheld in this text – negative stereotypes are evident in depictions of characters such as James’ paternal grandmother. The reader can easily be drawn in to attribute this depiction as a desire on the part of the writer to belong. However, in post-aparthied South Africa, this book does nothing to provide historical substance to any youthful Durbanite. What it can provide, however, is insight into the trauma of everyday life; a life full of choices and the trauma being a result of poor choices. In a way, I would call this novel a motivational book – one that undoubtedly uses the shock factor to convey its message. The message is clear, and reminiscent of the stories of our collective history as South Africans: in spite of one’s circumstances or experiences it is quite possible for the spirit to prevail and live without any bitterness.