Alan Paton, The Hero of Currie Road

25 August 2008, 10:29 am

The Hero of Currie Road: Complete Short Pieces, by Alan Paton (Umuzi, 2008)

[Review originally published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 24 August 2008]

The Hero of Currie Road collects a variety of short pieces by Alan Paton: short stories, biographical pieces and the odd miscellania, all from Debbie Go Home/ Tales from a Troubled Land (1961) and Knocking on the Door (1975). In short, all Paton’s short pieces are now available in one volume. The end pages include brief notes about either a story’s print publication date or when it was read first by Paton, and so the volume is a convenient source for literary historians.

Not having been a fan of Cry, the Beloved Country when I was a university student, and therefore not having read any Paton beyond that, I nevertheless approached the volume with a degree of openness. Youth, after all, can be blind in its passions. Read the rest of this entry »

Rachel Holmes, The Hottentot Venus

14 September 2007, 11:49 am

The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, Born 1789 – Buried 2002, by Rachel Holmes (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 14 September 2007]

The story of Saartjie Baartman is both fascinating and tragic. Smuggled from the Cape when barely an adult in 1810, she became an exhibit in an England obsessed with freak shows. Eventually freed from this indignity by abolitionists, Baartman ended up in France, modeling for French scientists. She died in 1814, of a combination of illness and alcoholism, and, I am sure, the psychological effects of the past four years of her life.

I first came across her story in Stephen Gray’s volume of poetry, Hottentot Venus and Other Poems (1979), and her story has filtered through into more literature and art in more recent times. Newspaper readers will also remember the struggle over having her remains returned to South African soil from France, and her eventual interment in Hankey, near the Gamtoos, in August 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

16 August 2007, 1:59 pm

Bloomsbury, 2007

[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 16 August 2007]

This novel is a quick, easy read and introduces readers to images and lives from Afghanistan not easily found in mainstream media. In this way it reminded me of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), a novel set among the desperately poor of India and a novel far more accessible than Salman Rushdie’s over-written Midnight’s Children. In economic, realist prose, Mistry nevertheless achieves a rich and evocative texture. Read the rest of this entry »

HONDERD JAAR LATER – Ter viering van die publikasie van Eugène N. Marais se “Winternag” op 23 Junie 1905

20 November 2006, 2:00 pm

[One Hundred Years Later: In Celebration of the Publication of Eugene Marais’ “Winternag” on 23 June 1905]

compiled and edited by Johann Lodewyk Marais. Praag, Dainfern, 2006. (Hardcover, xi + 58, 1-920059-04-0)

Published in Die Burger, 20 November 2006

As with any crazy genius-cum-Renaissance man, Eugène Marais’ place in South African history and culture remains contested. Dependent on one’s perspective, he is either proto-Nationalist or eccentric rebel – and a host of other things in between, including a depressed suicide. But that Marais (1871-1936) has a place is certain, and his story remains fascinating: among other things, largely Afrikaans poet who grew up in an English home, editor prodigy, scientist, law scholar, drug addict, loner in search of the unnameable, and, of course, writer of those immortal lines: ‘O koud is die windjie en skraal…’ [How cold is the wind and sharp]. Read the rest of this entry »

Ziauddin Sardar, Desperately Seeking Paradise

25 November 2005, 5:39 pm

Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, Granta Books, 2004/2005

[Published in the Mail&Guardian, 25 November 2005]

BORN IN 1951 in Pakistan and raised in London, Ziauddin Sardar is a prolific 21st century universal man. His Google hits amount to thousands, referring the googler not only to Sardar’s own writing, but to writing about him. His own topics range from information technology to scientific futures, from literary reviews to Islam.

As columnist, he is interpreter and critic of Islam to the West, while understanding the role of colonialism in the decline of Islamic culture. In short, his project is to show and emphasize a strain of scepticism in Islam. This provokes the ire of both American patriots and less sceptical Muslims. To the former, he is an apologist for Islam; to the latter, a traitor (there are some scary blogs out there).

Desperately Seeking Paradise continues this project, tracing the writer’s journey from his youth as a Muslim student activist in the 1970s to his role in various Muslim think-tanks. From his hurtful breaks with dogmatic former comrades to reconciliation with them post-9/11. Throughout, Sardar traces the history of humanism and scepticism in Islam, using it as antidote to various forms of bigotry he encounters as he himself searches for some Islamic movement or think-tank in which he can play a role.

And the book is a hoot, cultural criticism as comedy. Frequently, Sardar is approached by a pair of characters who either want to ‘help’ him find ‘true’ Islam, or who seek his help in matters religious or political. Having identified himself as a seeker (‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’ is an oft-quoted saying of the Prophet Muhammad), Sardar readily falls in tow with whomever knocks on his door.

Sooner or later, though, he discovers his companions to be absolutist and unforgiving in religion. The comedy is created by the way in which Sardar caricatures these characters and his conversations with them, throwing the naïve simplicity of their belief into sharp relief. Sometimes, this verges on uncomfortable stereotype, and one wonders about Sardar’s less explicit motives. But he redeems himself by his own, witty self-effacements.

Desperately Seeking Paradise is a must read for the way in which its extended argument against absolutism is interwoven with a history of scepticism in Islam. It also contains a wealth of information around the history of interpretation of the Koran, early Islamic jurisprudence, literature and culture and so on. So, for instance, the book explains how Shariah (Islamic Law) started out as jurisprudence in action, as a method of interpretation after the prophet’s death. But it is the interpretations of ‘eighth century, classical jurists’ themselves that then become codified as Shariah, making their historical interpretations an unchanging Law.

And, underneath the comedy and scepticism and frustration at absolutism, the book is also a paean to the history of Islam. This is evident in the chapter on Sardar’s time in Mecca, establishing the Hajj Research Centre. The aim was to study human movement during the pilgrimage and to use such analysis in town-planning so that Mecca could be developed without losing its history. At some point Sardar reenacts the pilgrimage on foot, and the reader encounters the voice of a sceptic filled with the passion of a believer. The voice of someone who understands the importance of history and culture and ritual, who understands the spirit of Islam and believes in it far more passionately than any of his dogmatic opponents.

Mark Sanders, Complicities

15 March 2005, 1:22 pm

Mark Sanders, Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid, Philosophy and Postcoloniality Series. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Published at H-Net Review.

MARK SANDERS’S Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid is a difficult book and it is difficult partly because of its intellectual genealogy. Though developed from what the author calls “incidental remarks in the responses of Jacques Derrida and others” during the mid-1990s debates about complicity, European intellectuals and Nazism, carried out mainly in the New York Review of Books, Sanders’s affiliation to a Derridean form of reading is more than incidental (p. x). I do not mean this in a pejorative sense (as is now de rigueur in contemporary reactions to the work of late-twentieth-century theory). On the contrary, the strengths of Derridean reading come to the fore in this book because it makes difficult or complicates notions of resistance, responsibility, and complicity. Another intellectual affiliation of this book may illuminate this point.

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