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…


Review: Paul Auster, Winter Journal

13 December 2012, 1:22 pm

(Originally appeared in Afrikaans, in Rapport, 2 Dec. 2012 )

Paul Auster, Winter Journal, Faber and Faber, 2012, ISBN 978-0-571-28321-7

Just before he turned 64 (in 2011), Paul Auster started on Winter Journal, a sort of memoir. Feeling partly lucky that he has reached his 60s and that he is still healthy, but also feeling that he is now nevertheless reaching the winter of his life, the book is a collection of reminiscences about childhood, youth, and adulthood, as well as the most recent past.

Unlike his friend, JM Coetzee, who wrote his autobiographical Boyhood and Youth in third person, Auster writes his Winter Journal in the second person: “You are ten years old, and the midsummer air is warm, oppressively warm,…” The point Coetzee was making was clear: autobiography contains fictions and manufactured memories. The “I” doing the writing is not the same “I” being written about. By writing about himself as “he”, Coetzee thus emphasizes this distance and forces us to think about the line between the “truth” of autobiography and the inventions of fiction.

But why write autobiography in the second person?

One reason for avoiding the “I” could be to lessen the self-regard that a collection of first person pronouns may create: “I grew up in Paarl. At six, I was the 100m sprinter for Blouhuis. I won the medals for the 100m and 400m relay.” The second person “you”, when it stands in for “I”, creates distance between the writing “I” and the “I” being written about. But it also draws the reader into identifying more closely with the person being written about: “You grew up in Paarl. At six, you were the 100m sprinter for Blouhuis. You won the medals for the 100m and 400m relay.” The effect of such a switch in autobiography, I would suggest, is perhaps more narcissistic than use of the “I” would have been. Overall then, I feel that Auster’s use of the “you” is more gimmick than a thought-through literary device.

Winter Journal does not present the writer’s life in a chronology. It ranges back and forth in time, using, instead, thematic associations and disassociations as connecting points. It is as if one is either in Auster’s head as he ruminates on his own life or listening to him during an after dinner conversation. The writing, in other words, flows smoothly and the changes in topics also occur organically.

And so one learns that Auster was a boisterous boy, who liked the physicality of play, who liked to play baseball, who injured himself often, and who did not hesitate to defend himself but soon turned away from situations where he would need to defend himself with violence. One learns about his adolescence and his burgeoning sexuality, his largely unsatisfying experiences with prostitutes and a freer, more satisfying sexual life at university. One learns about his parents’ divorce. One learns about what he liked to eat as a growing boy. Via a descriptive list of 50 pages one learns about all the places – the apartments and houses – he has lived in, by himself, with lovers, and finally with his wife (unnamed, but who we know is novelist Sviri Hustvedt). We learn a lot more.

I am always interested in reading writers’ autobiographical writing. There is often much to learn; more important is the confirmation I find as a writer – assonance with another writer’s obsessions or habits of mind. And given the intelligent fictions that Auster is capable of, one also reads his autobiographical writing hoping to come across some inkling of the source – or the mind – that produces those fictions.

What one encounters in Winter Journal, I have to admit, is bereft of intelligence. In both style and content, the book strains to find the profound in the mundane and ends up being, rather, banal. The language is flat, and often extraneous: “you will go down the hall to the library and stretch out on the sofa, which is long enough to accommodate your full extended body”. There are many such redundant explanations and qualifications.

In one short passage, where Auster considers an anecdote involving James Joyce, the language suddenly comes alive. Someone wants to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses. Joyce offers his hand and says that the hand had also done many other things. Auster delights in how Joyce leaves all possibilities of the hand’s activities to the listener: “what a delicious piece of smut and innuendo, all the more effective because he left everything to the woman’s imagination.” Would it that Auster had left most of his personal life to the reader’s imagination.

Royaumont Hash-up

15 June 2012, 8:44 am

This essay was originally published in Home Away (Zebra Press, 2010), edited by Louis Greenberg. Sadly, the book is being remaindered, an all too common fate for books in South Africa. “Paris, a kiss” is a companion piece, covering the same period and event.

Royamont Hash-up

For two weeks during July 1994, I was one of six aspirant black South African writers on a fiction workshop with Denis Hirson, a South African writer by then established in Paris for more than twenty years. The other writers were Joan Baker, Sipho Mahlobo, Isaac Mogotsi, Roshila Nair and Mango Tshabango. Sponsored in its entirety (travel, accommodation, stipend) by the French Ministry of Culture, the workshop included five or so days in Paris – staying with Parisian families, doing readings at two bookshops. But the main part – the workshop proper – took place at Royaumont Abbey, close to a small village thirty-plus kilometres north of Paris.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1979

23 November 2011, 2:39 pm

Peter Horn, 1979, “The right of the people to censor the arts”,  In National Union of South African Students (Ed.), Dead in One’s Lifetime, Cape Town: NUSAS (1979) pp.92-105

The state which does not censor the arts, does not take the arts seriously. The state which does censor the arts, regards its citizens as minors, incapable of making rational choices. Any discussion of censorship and the relation of the state to the arts, which does not deal with both horns of this dilemma, will not come to grips with the complexity of the subject, and will end up with the irreconcilable dichotomy between the liberal stance of laissez faire and the authoritarian imposition of censorship.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1989

23 November 2011, 2:25 pm

Peter Horn, 1989, “Censorship: Creating pockets of ignorance”, in South, 22 June 1989, p.18

(South [Weekly] was an independent newspaper generally aligned with the UDF and ANC, edited by Moegsien Williams, 1988-1991.)

Any form of censorship assumes that there is one group – usually a minority – which is wiser, more intelligent, more moral than another, which protects another group which is prone to be seduced, led astray, outraged or insulted by some form of writing, painting, music or other form of self-expression. Any form of censorship therefore denies the full equality of all the members of a society. The censors depict themselves as adult and responsible, and insinuate patronisingly that the rest of humanity, the majority, is in a childlike state of irresponsibility.

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Ramadan: not fasting but feasting

9 November 2010, 7:57 am


When a northerly wind blows, and the roads are quiet and the atmospherics right, I can hear the athaan (call to prayer) from one of the mosques down the road in Salt River. And sometimes I can hear more than one. Out of sync with each other, two calls to prayer can produce either an eerie echo or, if the pitch of both are similar, a harmony. Having grown up Muslim, there is something about the drawn out Arabic phrases, something about its familiarity, that casts me, at once, into spells of nostalgia and melancholia. But hearing the call can also be estranging. In Paarl, where I grew up, the two mosques in use during most of my childhood and teenage years were the mosques of the old Muslim neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act. No Muslims lived in earshot of the mosques anymore, and I didn’t grow up hearing the call to prayer from my house. I heard it when I was at or inside the mosque.

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Waar die kranse antwoord gee

11 April 2010, 2:06 pm

Following is the English version of a column published in Rapport today, 11 April. This is a translation of the submitted original, thus prior to sub-editing. There are minor variations in expression and a few editorial additions (for the sake of nuance or precision) to the English translation.

Every now and then I fall down a rabbit hole on the internet. A few months ago, I wandered through a maze of broadly white right-wing South African blogs and forums. Some present a dry, professional political image with historical and constitutional analyses, seeking legal precedent and constitutional justification for a white Afrikaans volkstaat. Some factions seek an all-white volkstaat, other factions feel anyone who speaks Afrikaans as mother tongue might be welcome.

There are many factions amongst this broad movement of white dissatisfaction with the New South Africa. Some talk about armed resistance, while others caution against such ‘irresponsible’ talk. Some blogs focus on recording violent crime statistics, especially where crime victims are white. However, some blogs have now started to include all violent crime, irrespective of the victim’s race, so as to avoid accusations of racism.

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Sergey Gandlevsky – The Monument

21 August 2009, 9:56 am

UNCLE SERYOZHA has lost his marbles, and, very spryly for a man of his age, jumps onto the running board of the general conversation in order to dictate its itinerary:  the storied times when sour cream was so thick a spoon would stand upright in it, and he could have dinner for a ruble and still have enough for a Belomor smoke and beer, keg beer with some heated beer poured into the cold, and salted crackers shaped like rings . . . . Now it’s all over:  the hosts are embarrassed, the guests slink away.  Uncle Seryozha—that’s me.

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Dagga in African Cities

15 July 2009, 5:30 am

The inaugural edition of African Cities Reader is now available and an extract from unfinished “Dagga” appears in it:

Contents Page (PDF)

“Dagga” (PDF)

Paris, a kiss

27 February 2009, 8:33 pm

IN JULY 1994, I flew to Paris as one of six aspirant Black South African writers invited by the South African writer, Denis Hirson (resident then in Paris for twenty years), to a once-off fiction workshop sponsored by the French minister of culture. The other writers were Joan Baker, Sipho Mahlobo, Isaac Mogotsi, Roshila Nair and Mango Tshabango. Most of us had had bits and pieces published here and there, most notably Tshabango, who had had a story published in an early Staffrider. The workshop – ten week days – took place at Royaumont Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian monastery close to a small village 30-plus kilometres north of Paris. Apart from these ten days, our programme included five or so days in Paris, staying with Parisians and taking part in readings at two book stores.

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