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KZN Literary Tourism reviews contemporary South African fiction and poetry.  Reviews are done by academics and members of our KZN literary community (contact us if you would like to review for us).  View reviews as articles or list.

Review of A Book of Rooms by Kobus Moolman PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 05 August 2015 13:44

Review By Alan Muller

Even if I have the help only of yellowing snapshots, a handful of eyewitness accounts and a few paltry documents to prop up my implausible memories, I have no alternative but to conjure up what for too many years I called the irrevocable: the things that were, the things that stopped, the things that were closed off – things that surely were and today are no longer, but things that also were so I may still be.

It is with this epigraph, taken from Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood (1975), that Kobus Moolman opens his newest collection of poetry titled A Book of Rooms.  Divided into four sections – Who, What, Why, and When – the collection traces the life of a South African man born with a “hole in his heart” and a physical condition that destines him to wear an orthopaedic boot.  Throughout this assemblage of narrative prose poems, the man grapples with his bodily afflictions, love, sex, an ineffectual father, and his obsessive desire to become a writer.  Although the collection does have a chronological narrative arc, these themes become pervasive obsessions that mostly boil just beneath the surface and yet sometimes erupt ferociously into the consciousness of the speaker.

Each entry, named after a Room of sorts, recounts a specific moment in the life of the man as he explores his past.  While these ‘rooms’ are more psychological that physical, the physicality of the rooms is nevertheless always palpably present.  This, I believe is one of the greatest strengths of the collection as Moolman, in A Book of Rooms as in his preceding collections, relentlessly explores the physicality of the human condition. The physicality of the collection itself explores a room that is not expressly included in the titles of the pieces: the Room of the Body.  The entries all conform to a rigid form of alternating long and short lines, mimicking the unbalanced gait of the man with one heavy orthopaedic boot.  While the narrative flows smoothly from one line to the next, the visual impact of the lines leaves the reader with a constant feeling of being slightly off balance; a constant reminder of the Room of the Body into which all people are locked.

Playing with the nature of memory and recollection, Moolman makes sparing use of punctuation, creating a flowing torrent of episodes and scenarios that bleed into each other and often digress and converge in the way human thought is wont to do.  The general mood of the collection is dark with glimpses of light and happiness that seem within the man’s reach but are then often brutally taken from or squandered by him.  The cover, a painting by South African artist Andries Gouws, is a visual reminder of this.  His oil painting, ‘Grahamstown residence room with red curtains’, depicts a dark confining room in a residence with thing red curtains drawn across a small window. The room is one that denies a view of a bright outside world while still allowing a glimpse of the light just beyond the curtains.

Moolman’s newest offering continues the work evident in his previous collection, Left Over, by exploring the themes of memory and the body, allowing the two collections to be read as companion pieces that would allow the reader deeper insight into the workings of this remarkable poet.

A Book of Rooms is published by Deep South.

Review of Tossie van Tonder's My African Heart PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 05 August 2015 13:26

Review by Tamar Meskin

I am generally not a fan of memoirs, especially ones written by people about whom I have little knowledge and whose reminiscences, as a result, seem somewhat inconsequential in my life.  So it was with mixed feelings that I embarked on reading Tossie van Tonder’s My African Heart.  As someone who works in theatre, I knew a little, mostly anecdotal, about van Tonder, but what I knew was restricted almost entirely to her work as a contemporary dancer.  I was surprised, therefore, to find a story that encompassed so wide an array of engagements with what it means to be alive in South Africa today, what is means to have a white skin with all that that signifies, and what it means to be an artist at this critical moment in our history.

More than an autobiography, the book is a chronicle of one woman’s search for identity, a seeking for a space in which all the contradictions of one’s past, one’s family, one’s nationality, one’s heritage (sought or resisted) may coexist.  For van Tonder, this process is integrally connected with the twin experiences of being an artist and being a mother.  Using the metaphor of her ‘dance’ as an access point for her narrative, she charts the often-fraught journey from the entrapment of history into the freedom of acceptance, and the conscious decision to choose her own path through the minefield of South Africa’s painful past.   The metaphorical journey is mirrored in the choice to become not simply Tossie van Tonder – white woman, Afrikaner woman, product of a proud heritage and also of silent familial struggles – but also Nobonke, or ‘She of all People’, a claiming of a self-generated identity, belonging to a citizen of the re-imagined South Africa that is the focus of her aspiration throughout the book.

The book uses the device of three different narrative voices: the artist in the present seeking to understand her selfhood; the daughter in the past probing in imagined letters her relationship with her parents, and theirs to each other, in order to own – and forgive – her roots; and the future-looking unborn child whose commentaries imagine a new beginning for all the victims of South Africa’s traumatic history. The device generally works well; for me, it is the latter two sections which carry the most humanity and to which I found myself really connecting. In particular, the letters which reveal the child’s view of her history, and her family, through adult eyes – able to comprehend the failings but also the beauty and miracles of her everyday life growing up – offered the most powerful insights.  The exquisite detail of the descriptions of ordinary, mundane moments, turned into magically lyrical expressions, which left indelible images that shaped my experience of the work.

It is clear that the book is very much a part of one individual’s attempt to heal her own wounded spirit.  Early in the first section, tellingly entitled Exile, she says: “In the deeper recesses of my history, every fact recorded gravitates towards a misaligned and contorted self-esteem, minority-inferiority and the ominous knell that the word apartheid rings, unceasingly” (47).  It is the wounds of the apartheid-weapon – “the cross of humiliation” (47) – that drive the narrative.  Perhaps the most significant aspect is the recognition of the power of art – here, the dance, but by extension, all art forms – not just to explore the world for others, but also to make meaning for oneself.  If there is a criticism to be leveled, it is that the unrelenting inward-focus can, at times, feel indulgent; it is redeemed, however, by the unwavering certainty that this is a woman driven to pursue the question to its bitter end in order to weave a future for herself and her unborn child “beyond [her] pitiful history” (61).

As an autoethnographic study, this memoir offers a rigorous interrogation of a particular moment in time and one woman’s view of it.  Van Tonder claims that “South Africa’s gift is everyone’s own truth” (80), and this observation captures the essence of the book: the complexity and challenge of difference, the fear and pain of oppression, and the power of freedom to elicit forgiveness, all elements of what she calls “the credo of the African requiem” (164).  It is presented somewhat idealistically – a fairly uncritical notion of the rainbow nation ideal is imagined – but it is nonetheless a brutally honest and insightful exploration of how we may begin to heal ourselves, and each other.  The voice of the unborn child, telling us that we “cannot be what you hope to become – until being African and being white, be one” (171), offers a philosophy for the living, a way out of the guilt and into a new ‘birth’ – one that is both literal and metaphorical, manifested in the signature to her final letter “I of all people” (245), a description that proudly trumpets its absence of race.

My African Heart (2014) is self-published.

Review of Z.P. Dala’s What About Meera PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 05 August 2015 12:31

Review By Bettina Pahlen

The torn image of a marigold on the book’s cover should serve as a warning to unsuspecting readers: this book delivers an unrelentingly hard look at the multiple motives behind dehumanizing psychological and physical abuse. It unflinchingly portrays experiences that place Meera, the main character of the novel, on a trajectory that leads her well past her psychological breaking point. Vivid hallucinations of alter egos begin to populate her consciousness – especially in moments of particularly intense emotional distress. Moments in which she is torn apart by having her desire for real love abused or all hope of love is deferred. Her desire to end the destructive pattern and finally strike back is most notably personified by a hallucination called Susan, who is grounded in the conviction that “White girls don’t take shit”.  The outcome, once Meera allows herself to be driven by this desire, is invariably tragic. It is the point at which Meera becomes the destructive force she despises and causes irreparable damage in order to symbolically destroy the trigger of her most recent emotional distress.

The storyline is generally difficult to follow as the general chronology of events is unnecessarily disjointed. The book begins and ends with several chapters set in Dublin, Ireland at which point you think, if browsing, that the cover was placed on the wrong book. However, sandwiched between the parts of the story set in Dublin is a disturbing account of Meera’s life in the Indian community of Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal, prior to her escape to Dublin. Invariably, reading becomes a task of fitting the storyline into a coherent sequence while under constant barrage of voyeuristic accounts of the varying degrees of social tolerance of a variety of human relationships, however abusive - be it on the grounds of religious persuasion, tradition or social hierarchy based on caste or gender.

The book comments on the lengths various characters are prepared to go, simply in order to belong, to be valued and loved - only to find that the price to be paid is the destruction of their physical and mental soundness. It manages to rip apart all actions associated with the beautiful, righteous, whole, praiseworthy or complete and expose it as charade, a way of disguising and justifying the physically and emotionally damaging actions driven by human desires. What remains is an open, disfigured corpse of what once was seemingly beautiful, innocent, praiseworthy or complete about a person or human society and culture. The lingering aftertaste of this book is a dark certainty that things worse than death reside in the deceptively normal shadows of the socially acceptable.

In the end, Z.P. Dala appears to have drawn on her knowledge of psychology and physiotherapy to produce a book that writes back at societies that produce the mental constitutions she may encounter professionally to raise awareness, as a form of catharsis – to condemn and not excuse, to vomit and not swallow, to rip open and not cover up abusive aspects of human society. As such, the superficial blurb does not quite prepare the uninitiated reader adequately for the contents of this book. What about Meera is a tough read and belongs to the type of books best served chilled.

What About Meera (2015) is published by Umuzi.

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