20 November 2021, 10:40 am

(Review of the Miscast exhibition/installation by Pippa Skotnes; originally published in Southern African Review of Books, Issue 44, July/August 1996, alongside reviews of same by Carmel Schrire and Yvette Abrahams. Reproduced here unedited.)

I catch a train into Cape Town and walk to the South African National Gallery to view the Miscast exhibition. Ungraced by deodorant, I will later smell like those children of my youth whom my father, among others, called boesman, hotnot. Lazy hotnots who wanted to do nothing but sit in the sun and suck marrow from bones, teachers called us all. To a South African child, one of the harshest whips language wields: stupid/ lazy boesman/ hotnot; whips we too used on our peers.

I have been following the Miscast story: Pippa Skotnes’s discovery of Khoisan skulls in the British Museum; itself in the wake of the Griqua National Conference’s attempts to retrieve Saartjie Baartman’s preserved brains and genitals from a French museum; and, from an acquaintance involved in Miscast, the surrounding controversy. She couldn’t name the organisations, but mentioned their objections to whites once again re-presenting the Khoisan.

I dismissed these reported criticisms as knee-jerk reactions. Who, my academic training cautioned me, can claim the authority of authenticity? Who can really speak for the Khoisan? Who is Khoisan?

My first visit to the gallery, I hesitate at the main entrance, take a wrong turn, try again, and finally enter the Miscast exhibition.

I start at what must be the frame of the exhibition: cabinets of material culture below panels of photographs. My imagination cants, as it always does when I see the utensils and clothing of ancient peoples. I wonder at the challenge of environment overcome in the implement, and by the imagination.

My mind wanders to the collection of Native American artefacts in the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis. An insignificant, young museum, but my first encounter of the Native American exhibited. And in that museum I saw them too in photo-realist paintings: romanticised Injuns; fantastic yearnings for absolution from the guilt of genocidal silence. But this is Cape Town, South Africa.

Spanning the material culture are photographs of the Khoisan, in loincloths, in Victorian dress. Young adults fettered by their necks. Group hangings, the attendant white commandant or veldkornet striking the obligatory pioneer’s pose, one foot on a block. A pose I often jokingly strike whenever someone aims a camera at me. A pale-skinned woman in Victorian dress, a touch of Khoi in her cheeks. Lucy Lloyd.

Then I recognise faces: my acquaintance who helped with the project; an academic whose views I respect. And more. Somewhere must be a photograph of Skotnes. I cannot remember what she looks like.

These photographs recall Skotnes’s implied agenda of questioning past representations of the Khoisan (Mail & Guardian, 16-22 Feb. 1996). But the contemporary faces gaze from their actual role of mediators. Here but for our grace, they say. Or do they claim authority? Ancestry? Who aimed the lens at the exhibitors. (For the sake of brevity, I refer to all the contemporary faces as ‘exhibitors’.)

Ask photographers whether one can take a shot of them and they respond as if one wants to train their own guns on them. After enough nagging, the photographer might hand over the instrument. But it always returns to the original owner’s hands and the order of power that the wielded camera expresses is restored.

So, while photographs of the exhibitors among those of the exhibited ironise the former’s power as exhibitor, the structures of that power remain intact. Who, for instance, and in what context, trained the camera on the exhibitors? One photograph comes from an exhibitor’s book jacket: a photograph willingly agreed to, in a professional context perhaps. Certainly the face smiles at the lens with confidence.

In no way is the exhibitor-photographer relationship even close to the exhibited-photographer one. In no way does the exhibitor as exhibited even approximate a subject position close to that of the exhibited Khoisan. Isn’t the outstanding feature of the history of representation of the Khoisan their subjugation? So that a starting point in any project challenging this history would, for one, interrogate the representational politics of, say, the photographer’s colonising gaze?

In Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, the film maker’s futile quest to interview the chairman of General Motors places Moore in a position far less powerful than normally associated with the one behind the camera. The film sides with retrenched workers, and Moore goes further to reinvent even this partisan mode of documentary film: in his quest he is denied the documenter’s conventional access to power and knowledge. In Miscast, no such gesture obtains. The photographs of the exhibitors do not raise even an oblique challenge to the history of the relationship of power underlying representations of the Khoisan.

If these photographs alert us to, ironise and thematise the fact of representation, why not use them too as a site where the history of the present exhibitors’ power to represent may be displayed. All the variables: childhood, hard work, education, funding, artistic vision, collaboration, friendships. How, in other words, does a particular contemporary face come to be there, on the wall, mediating to us? How, I want to know, does Miscast otherwise challenge past and (its own) present representations of the Khoisan. How does it say, This is how we looked at the Khoisan; here is a new way to look? At best, the photographs appear as faddish lip service to post-modern notions of self-aware representations.

Another site where Skotnes miscasts a prime opportunity to dislocate conventional subject-object relationships of representation is the cabinet of ‘face masks’. These are pieces cut (by Skotnes)* from old Khoisan facial casts, cut in such a way that the pieces look like masks; some, in fact, with glass fibre tufts left at the edges, like a fancy mask one would wear to a masquerade ball, say when the Cape was still Dutch. Surely masks present a fine moment for playing with representation. Why not facial masks cast from the exhibitors’ faces? Or the exhibitors’ names placed under the existing masks? Or would that be misrepresentation?

My parents trace lines to exotic origins: Turkey, Indonesia, Wales. They never mention the kink in our hair. In age though, their cheekbones speak silenced lineages.

But I am not Khoisan. I know not the ways of Karretjiemense. Nor do I speak the Afrikaans of the Northern Cape, or in clicks. Similarly am I not Turkish, Welsh, Indonesian. Nor white – not semiotically, not economically. Neither am I black, unless intentionally, rhetorically.

But the whips of language have left their weals on me: hotnot, kaffer, kerrienaat (curry-arse); traces of who I could/ should have been. And I view the first chamber of Miscast more and more now in agreement with Khoisan activists; more and more as the exhibited. How the structures remain intact.

For many minutes the boxes piled high – the colonial collection and codification of artefact and body – wrench at me. Then I circle the lit body casts, linger self-consciously at the cast of a naked woman, and pass through into the other two chambers.

I spend some moments on the media floor and ignore the questions that rise to me here. But I do wonder whether the miscast caption under a photograph of a man smoking (‘Roy Sesana making a fence for his garden’) does not reveal the casual, inattentive treatment of the subject matter. How can an artist (vision and imagination?) who has spent time researching the Khoisan overlook prime moments where her ironisation of representation could have been politically interesting and not fashion-driven, surface gesture without motion?

At the slide show, I sit down and think about the above as the projector loops through its ironisation of representation: slides of other representations; of the conventional Bushman coffee table book; of white children staring at Bushmen; of graffiti over rock paintings. How do these quotations of quotations necessarily invent a new mode of representation?

Homi Bhabha writes:

The Other is cited, quoted, framed, illuminated, encased in the shot/ reverse-shot strategy of a serial enlightenment. … The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse. However impeccably the content of an ‘other’ culture may be known, however anti-ethnocentrically it is represented, it is … the demand that … it be always the good object of knowledge, the docile body of difference, that reproduces a relation of domination …. (The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) p.31)

How things remain intact.

The show ends. Behind the screen, the projector clacks unendingly, like train wheels over rail joints. Like a train bound for a death camp. Boegoenwald.

Also behind the screen, English spoken with a heavy Afrikaans accent. The confluence of other histories of concentration camps.

The white owners of the voices emerge and leave the room. Almost immediately, a black attendant enters and restarts the show. Moments later, three black men huff and puff as, guided by a white man, they carry-drag a big crate behind the screen. How things hang together, I think and leave.

On my way to the station, I stop for coffee at the Off Moroka Cafe Africaine, Adderley Street. A white woman serves me. The wall to my left sports a naive watercolour of a Bushman hunter. In the kitchen, black women. On another wall, graffiti – Albie Sachs: ‘Viva the lekkerness of life’. Outside, black workers walk past, oblivious to this Cafe Africaine. A woman appears from the kitchen, Khoisan cheekbones. Her name tag reads ‘Catherine’. Our eyes meet momentarily. I feel like a voyeur who has seen Catherine’s genitals. I want to drink myself to death. Someone screams outside. My back to the door, I imagine a taxi war breaking out in Adderley Street. I fear any moment now AK47 slugs will rip into my back. How things hang together. It is time to go home.

On my walk home from the station, I buy a bag of avocados. I grip the plastic netting and feel my fingers negotiate history. I wonder how past (ancestral?) hands felt clasping a net of leather thongs, such as a nomad might use to carry his possessions; such as the one I saw at the gallery.

In my kitchen, the bag tears and the fruit roll all over the floor. I am too tired to bend and pick them up. I have walked a lot today. And, ungraced by deodorant, I smell like a hotnot, as my father would say.

* Pippa Skotnes’s correction as an aside in her response to mainly Yvette Abrahams’s review: “Rustum Kozain is also mistaken in thinking that I cut out pieces of the casts. The eyes which remind him of masks were cast separately later to be slotted into the heads, as part of the original casting project.”


Port Nolloth, 00:01

31 March 2017, 9:06 am

From the archive, a short piece of fiction written for a Sunday Times special, set in South Africa, 2030.

“Fifty dollar!” the tuk-tuk driver yelled over the noise of helicopters chopping air over heavy loads at the docks nearby and revellers in the streets banging drums and setting off fireworks. The Atlantic was black as oil, the outlines of two abandoned diamond dredgers visible in the light spilling from the perimeter of the United Northern States of America naval depot. Out in deeper water blinked the lights of a hospital ship.

Lionel Powell wasn’t in the mood for haggling; he paid and crossed the road to Hunan Joys, a resto overlooking the docks. He was jumpy and winced at a loud bang from a large cracker. It was Freedom Day, the holiday celebrating the peaceful settlement reached between colonial settlers and native peoples back in 1913, but all he cared about was some rutting and recreation after the major fubar three weeks ago at Cuito Canaveral.

The resto was noisy with troops either back and battered from Cuito or fresh-faced and anxious on their way there. The kitchen was down to serving seal steaks and rice and salt fish. On special were PRC ratpacks, pilfered from bases after China’s withdrawal from the People’s Republic of Xaoteng. Hunan’s hosts and hostesses were struggling against waves of groping hands by troops who couldn’t afford them. But the simbays were full and the staff had to keep the hope of sex alive.

“Beer?” Hunanje, the owner, asked him.

Early skirmishes with Southern African troops had emboldened UNSA and Brazil, who poured more troops and equipment into a massive push north, the front stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. But behind this canon fodder, well-bunkered in Ximbabwe, Xambia and central Angola, were the PRC’s 6th, 7th and 3rd armies. The UNSA advance had stalled under a series of fire storms for which its troops were ill-prepared. Old hands like Lionel were veterans only of suppressing civilian uprisings in Canada, a last-gasp land grab as UNSA influence dwindled elsewhere, and they were shaken by the PRC armies’ ferocity.

Sechuana was scorched earth, its network of frack wells and pipelines, extending from the Carew in the south, had been set alight during the PRC retreat and was now a toxic no-go area. After the setback at Cuito, UNSA was consolidating, allowing troops who had been on long tours back as far south as Port Nolloth, its major base on the west coast from which it hoped to advance a prong through Namibia in order to encircle the PRC 6th and 7th armies in Ximbabwe, while its allies, lead by Germany, battled through the east coast and interior.

“Susy or Sean tonight? Or both?” Hunanje winked at him.

Lionel wasn’t in the mood.

“Simbay? I’ll put you on the short list.”

Most of the troops distrusted Hunanje, but Lionel liked the old man. At least he knew a bit of the history of the place. Historical South Africa.

The PRC had been driven north, but its allies, India and Indonesia, still ruled a third of the place, their respective territories stretching along the east coast. And the Republic of Xaoteng – the part that China had occupied – was a mire of ever-shifting allegiances among the Africans and the 50 million Chinese settlers. Things were precarious.

“Happy Freedom Day!”

A civilian had burst through the door and set off a cracker. As Lionel winced, there was a much louder bang outside. Lights and machinery clicked off. The hush lasted a few seconds, then the sirens began wailing…

Dear comrades, II

26 February 2016, 7:52 am

Dear comrades, we see you

we see you
and sermonise
in tweets
of desperate guise

while fattening
off our purse

rolling around on fairways
and on greens
next to your fancy cars
or some American superstar

patting each other
on the back
lips and cheeks
glistening at tables
of half-eaten food

in photographs
at expensive restaurants
in New York, London and Beijing.
You name it, the city
has been eaten

drinks drank
of acquired taste
far more

than a worker makes in years.

We see you
into town
playing West Wing or CIA
playing gangster
on someone else’s coin

our coin, our coin
for your acting dream
on lurid sets
of chintz that flash of thievery.

We’re all actors
in this
I suppose
the five cent extras

but we see you
over hot coals
when we’ve seen enough.


29 November 2014, 11:03 am

Morning, under its wind-still, sun-gold halo.
Occasional only the frisson of a breeze
through a palm tree across the road,
the green oak, the break of red hibiscus
and the slow start of Saturday
humming in a car passing leisurely by.

Down the road gently rock at their moorings
the tugs at harbour.
Ships like play things
at anchor in the now gentle crook of the bay.
The sky blue as every one of its clichés.

Somewhere under this peaceable excess,
a woman wakes with bruised eyes
or ribs, split lips
or she doesn’t rise at all.

Somewhere in this city,
on this beautiful, god-forsaken morning,
in an alley or a backyard,
a dog twists in confusion
by the still form of its owner;

or in a plush lounge,
somewhere in this country
with its miracles and its wonders,
a woman will not rise
but lie slain – shot, hacked,
disembowelled by a lover,
a husband, a father or brother.

Soon, another one will fall.

Somewhere a girl-child,
a baby
who will withdraw forever from touch,
who will drown
in shame
in a sea never sought
nor comprehended
where words turn in on themselves
in the recursive savagery
of the unspeakable…

Politicians flap their arms, open and close their mouths,
launch campaign upon campaign
of empty gesture
then turn backstage
to fondle a comrade’s daughter
with whom just now they’ll lead the march.

Another march. Another speech.
By a brigadier or police commander
festooned with tin medals
invented for some moral war won only in their heads;
by community leaders agitating still
for their time at the trough;
by spin doctors and advertisers
crowd-sourcing and monetizing
petitions to end the violence;
by NGO and foundation heads on a break
from their 4×4 safaris to the organic market –

all come to be seen
mouthing dull platitudes
from which the sky recoils.

Leave it to us

12 November 2014, 6:50 am

Leave it to us

Do this, not that
leave it to us

eat this, not that
leave it to us

drink this, not that
leave it to us

sit like this, not like that
leave it to us

talk like this, not like that
leave it to us

walk like this, not like that
leave it to us

wear this, not that
leave it to us

pray like this, not like that
leave it to us

have sex like this, not like that
leave it to us

do not abominate
leave it to us

A Manuscript belonging to a girl whose body tasted so sweet – Aslan Abidin

5 February 2014, 7:52 pm

A MANUSCRIPT BELONGING TO A GIRL WHOSE BODY TASTED SO SWEET – Aslan Abidin (transl. from Indonesian by Mikael Johani)

—circa 1789
what could be crueler than our own beaches?
they ran many ships aground, stuffed with
colonialists, missionaries and rats.

—they once greeted speelman* and
palakka** who came to destroy
the kingdoms of gowa and tallo.—***

i remembered this
beach, which has never ceased to
produce traitors. i was born
on the sand of this beach
that night, before i said:
“your body is as sweet as aren juice.”#

i got drunk on your body,
i could not find my way home.

“it destroyed me, trying not to remember you,”
you said one morning, as you were packing to leave.

—dutch flotillas came
to take away slaves, to sell them
alongside pigs at the cape of good hope.—

then foot soldiers brought you to baron
van reede tot de parkelaar, exiled ##
far away at the palace of the surakarta sunan.###
the senior resident loved to read the bible
while you sucked him off.

what could be crueler than our own beaches?
these ports have destroyed our bay
these ports have forced us to say too many goodbyes
these ports have shed many tears.
“it destroys me, trying to forget you,”
you said, as if suffering can have an end.

Makassar, 2008-2010

* Cornelis Speelman, governor of colonial Dutch East Indies, 1681-1684
** Arung Palakka, Speelman’s Buginese ally.
*** Gowa, Tallo: places in Southwestern Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes), where Makassar is situated. The rebel, Sheikh Yusuf, as well as many slaves were brought from there to the Cape, thus Macassar in the Cape, where Yusuf was buried.
# aren – feathered palm
## Van Reede tot de Parkeler – Dutch colonial merchant
### Surakarta Sunan – Sunan = ruler

Poem taken from What’s Poetry – Antologi Puisi, Henk Publica 2012, pp.240-241

Breyten Breytenbach: Reflections of a prisoner-poet

25 November 2013, 3:47 pm

Rethabile Masilo of Poéfrika sent me a clipping of an interview conducted by Adriaan van Dis with Breyten Breytenbach for NRC Handelsblad a week after Breytenbach’s release from prison at the end of 1982. The Star then ran it on 3 January 1983. It was tricky scanning it – on pages 1-2 and 4-5, follow the columns across the page-break (paragraphs are repeated after the page-break):





Spring – light and dark

6 April 2013, 9:55 am

(Published in VISI Magazine, December 2012)

I have been living in Cape Town for 25 years and enjoy living here, even if this city is, after all, a visdorpie compared to most cities the world over. More than anything else about Cape Town as a city, I enjoy walking the streets of the CBD and discovering yet another small, independent coffee shop or another view or angle onto a street with its mix of hidden mosques and colonial, apartheid and modern-global architecture.

But almost every Spring something both light and dark tugs at the heart. It may be a bush of jasmine pouring over a wall in Tamboerskloof or the change of light on the face of Table Mountain that draws me back to what I call my home-home, the house and garden where I grew up in Paarl, the environs of the town, the mountains surrounding it. Then tugs at my heart a nostalgia lit by Boland sun, yet dark as any winter.

Many of my city friends react with disbelief to my childhood stories, which strike them often as stories of a rural idyll, notwithstanding that my home town, Paarl, was, even back in the 1970s and 1980s, peri- and semi-urban. But it was still a place where you had to negotiate Bothma’s cows being herded to a nearby grazing field on your way to (primary) school, or where, on your way from school, you might stop at a stream to catch tadpoles with friends.

Before we had climate change and shifting seasons, back when the seasons coincided with certain months, schoolboys celebrated 1 September by arguing with their mothers to be allowed to go to school barefoot and in shorts. It was indeed as if something tightly coiled had suddenly sprung free. And it is this verve that I associate with spring, a verve, alas, not always visible in the city and not always so tangible in adult life.

When I do see a jasmine bush in the city, it enlivens me and takes me back to the bush we had back home, just outside the kitchen door, pouring its green vines through the terra cotta wall closing off the front garden from the backyard and sweetening the morning air. It takes me back to my late father’s garden: a magnificent bush of mint growing underneath the garden tap a few feet away from the jasmine, and also, in other parts of the garden, yesterday, today and tomorrow, katjiepiering (gardenia), wisteria, sweetpeas, bottlebrush, violets, pansies. Mrs. Martin next door also had jakob-regop (zinnia) and leeubekkies (snapdragon).

Spring in Paarl. In my memory it is always about colours brightening. In high-school years, it was the oak trees with bright buds in front of the white school building: Noorder Paarl Secondary, an old-world school, built with community funds, opened in 1926, and left – during apartheid – in a then white area. Across from the school, on the banks of the Berg River, a veld of green with white clumps of varkblom (arum lilies).

But spring also carries its toll. With the warming weather, the lawn had to be mowed more regularly. What child wants to be emptying grass cuttings onto a compost heap that was now starting to “talk” as the days warmed? What child would not want to be out with friends, barefoot and in shorts, playing cricket on the sandy patch under a stand of pines in the veld just across the road from our neighbourhood?

The dark undertow to spring is that it is also, in a manner of speaking, short-lived, temporary, ephemeral as the buds and blossoms that define the season and not mitigated by the fact that, like all seasons, spring will come around again. As much as the child wants to jump out of his shoes and forget the chills of winter, as much as spring symbolises new life, one is always aware that, soon enough, next March, a sudden chill will fall over the late afternoon, that the vine leaves will turn red and brown. Squirrels know this.

If spring represents rejuvenation and life, looking at spring past and present is as much a reckoning of past winters and, perhaps, a dread of future ones. What has gone, what will be gone. The school still stands, but the stand of pines is gone – it had to make way for more houses, for more human lives, for that very thing that spring symbolises: life. The picturesque white mosque with the palm tree in Breda Street, central Paarl now stands largely unused, painted in a cast-off colour, as the Muslim community has expanded in the once new Group Areas, where they are served by an ugly, modern mosque and madressah complex – three storeys but nevertheless a squat building. Not all newness rejuvenates, not all change is as good as a holiday.

What would Jesus do?

6 April 2013, 9:48 am

JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus, Harvill Secker, 2013 (Review published in Cape Times, 22 March 2013)

In “A House in Spain”, a ‘story’ by JM Coetzee in Architectural Digest (2000), a protagonist crabbily considers the inflated language by which people define their relationships with objects, e.g. to fall “in love” with a house. In that rarefied mixture of autobiography and fiction that JM Coetzee has made his own, this man (perhaps Coetzee?), who has bought a house in Spain, realises that his fastidiousness about the slackness of such language hides “the envy of a man grown too old, too rigid, to ever fall in love”. This is so because he finds that the house he has bought occupies his mind when he is not in Spain. Details of the house – of its identity – occupy his thoughts and he starts thinking of the house as if it were analogous to a woman. His attentions in fixing the house assume the modalities of love, where previously he had considered ownership of property as simply functional.

There is enough autobiographical information in the story to suggest that the protagonist is a version of Coetzee. At the same time, the competing forces of different truths – in autobiography, in fiction – have been one of Coetzee’s own enduring intellectual preoccupations, so that Coetzee autobiography can be as enigmatic as Coetzee fiction. But I refer to “A House in Spain” because his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, is set in “Spain” and the protagonist, Simón, seems similarly crabby. And so one looks for the autobiographical in the fiction. Not for the plots and crude facts that one can graft onto the real life of the writer for the reader’s prurient confirmation, but for the parallel situations that spur the protagonist/s to discourse on their preoccupations, for the facts that make the writer’s fictions and autobiographies.

A refugee from somewhere unknown, Simón has been given this name by the functionaries at a refugee camp and he is urged, like all refugees here, to forget his past. In this new place, where everybody, especially the bureaucrats, behave with dull decency and goodwill, Simón reacts against such denatured living. Passion is what he is looking for.

With Simón is a boy who was also given a new name: Davíd (all refugees are given new names). Simón has ended up, by happenstance, as a guardian to Davíd, the boy having travelled unaccompanied and having lost a letter which identifies his mother. Simón has promised Davíd to help him find his mother, a promise which is a keystone to Simón’s ethics. In this new place, the bureaucrats are kind, decent, helpful (even if the help often leads Simón and Davíd up the garden path), but their systems come across, nevertheless, as less than humane – lifeless. It is a place full of worthiness, but it fails to recognise what Simón considers worthy: keeping his promise. When Simón asks a friendly bureaucrat, Anna, to give him access to registers so he can trace Davíd’s mother, Anna shows him the futility of the task, in the dull and decent bureaucratic logic of the bizarre utopia in which they find themselves. Here, no one cares about the past and the bureaucracy is built on ridding people of “old attachments”. People have been “washed clean”, as, moments later, Anna will tell Davíd to tell Simón that he has been washed clean.

So dogged is Simón in keeping his promise that he will fulfil it even if by fiction. He will later convince a woman, Ynes, that she is Davíd’s mother, a role she takes up with eventual conviction. So much so, in fact, that she rescues Davíd from the education authorities when they want to send him to a school for rebellious and delinquent children. By now Simón and Ynes have become convinced that there is something special about Davíd. When the boy gets into trouble at school, they are quick to take his side, even to believe his version of events when reality clearly contradicts him. In short, they have faith in his fictions. Eventually, the three of them set off in a car, heading north towards a place called Estrellita (little star, feminine).

Since his youth, the Coetzee who has bought a house in Spain “has had a fondness for Spain”, but his “bookish” Castilian marks him as an outsider to the Catalonian locals of Bellpuig. “What he hopes for, and what he gets, is toleration.” He tries to meld in with the village, using the same colour paints for the house, planting, like his neighbours, geraniums in terra-cotta pots beside the front door. But as much as he wants to disappear, he also wants to leave a mark of sorts. Moreover, unlike his functional relationships with previous property, here “he hopes that in some sense the house itself will bear the memory of him” (“House”).

When is the outsider no longer an outsider? The foreman of the stevedores among whom Simón finds work early on, remarks on Simón’s apologetic, halting Spanish: “As for your Spanish, don’t worry, persist. One day it will cease to feel like a language, it will become the way things are.”

In its quietly compelled probing at the borders of human life – what is it to be a refugee in a place that nurtures an overwhelming, all-encompassing semblance of decency yet bears little of the substantively human with its contradictions and waywardness, with its passions and blind faith? – The Childhood of Jesus is signature Coetzee.* But whereas in books like Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians the outsider is set against systems of malicious intent, in Childhood this opposition is set against an anodyne world – or, at least, a world where systems that process people, specifically refugees, are evidently decent, even as they are the shucked shells of humanist discourse. The novel may well be a meditation on what might happen were Jesus to be a child refugee in the European Union. But then again, it’s a Coetzee fiction – only, marvellously so.


* For some inexplicable reason this sentence was sub-edited to: “In its quietly compelled probing at the borders of human life, what is it to be a refugee in a place that nurtures an overwhelming, all-encompassing semblance of decency yet bears little of the substantively human with its contradictions and waywardness, with its passions and blind faith?// The Childhood of Jesus is signature Coetzee.” The title was changed to “What would Jesus have done?”

Love Poem – Kelwyn Sole

2 February 2013, 1:28 pm


I am a coward. Away from a suffering homeland
I feel very little and can tell you even less.
What would you need to know? That the sun squeezes up
like a pip in a pale blue bowl, regularly? I yawn
and rub gum from my eyes as I watch it.
There is the stumble of lightning
in the distance.

I build myself a house in the desert,
white and tiny, where birds flirt and tangle
and thunder on the tin roof: here I weld poems
under the vast sky that mocks me,
kick sloughed adders’ skins out of the way,
get drunk, fall monotously in love.
My thighs wrinkle into shadow

I cannot think of a precision of ideas
brighter than lovers’ teeth, and undending generation
from their dark cavities.
It’s not that I fear touch – it’s easy to fall in love –
it is easy to fall in love…

Everything is quiet in the village. Girls weep over
unforseen pregnancy and take brutal husbands.
Their speech, mine, is full of consequences.
All this has happened before.

We find time for beauty simply in the violence of the rain.
People die quickly from alcohol
or being stood upon by snakes:
these and adultery our only pastimes,
the burgeoning pumpkins we tend. And shudder
at the thought we may already have surrendered.
To what, nobody knows.

Kelwyn Sole, The Blood Of Our Silence (Ravan Press, 1987)

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