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Book Bites: 14 October

Published in the Sunday Times

Broken Ground ****
Val McDermid, Little Brown, R325

Val McDermid is not known as the Queen of Tartan Noir for nothing – apart from her cleverly crafted plots she serves up fabulously atmospheric settings. In this latest offering we find ourselves deep in the Highland countryside where a body is unearthed from a peat bog. As it has evidently been there so long it falls to DCI Karen Pirie and her historic cases unit to solve the mystery. Pirie, described as “a dumpy wee woman with bad hair and terrible dress sense” is a deliciously grumpy character, given to such observations as “What they needed was support, not some strutting Glasgow keelie who thought he’d been sent to be their saviour.” Rich with idiom and description, this is a satisfying escape. Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Insomnia Museum ***
Laurie Canciani, Head of Zeus, R265

At 17, Anna can’t remember ever being outside her father’s crammed flat. She can’t read and spends her time re-watching The Wizard of Oz with a plastic Jesus figurine. Her father, a drug addict and hoarder, leaves only to bring back more junk for them to tinker with for their Insomnia Museum. Then one day her father doesn’t wake up and Anna calls the only other person she knows, a good Samaritan she met through the closed door. Anna’s experience of the outside world is dreamlike and distorted, creating an almost untrustworthy narrative where the reader encounters dysfunctional characters in a violence-ridden council estate from a child-like perspective. It makes for a dizzying read. Sally Partridge @sapartridge

Agatha Christie: The Mystery of the Three Quarters **
Sophie Hannah, HarperCollins, R320

If this is a homage to the Queen of Mystery then Hannah has somewhat failed. This is tedious, with an enormously pompous, arrogant and twirling mustachioed Poirot that is very much like Kenneth Branagh’s bombastic creation in his film Murder on the Orient Express. Four letters accusing four people of murdering Barnabas Pandy are sent to them by someone pretending to be Poirot. The detective is at once insulted and intrigued. Who sent these letters? Who is Pandy? And was he murdered? It’s a dry read. There is a lack of pacing and Hannah’s normally clever plotting becomes obvious. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

Anna Burns awarded Man Booker Prize for Milkman

Anna Burns has been announced as the winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her fourth novel, Milkman!

Booker chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, described Burns’ winning title as “incredibly original”, lauding the author’s ability to “challenge conventional thinking and form”.

Burns told the BBC that she was “stunned” to be awarded this coveted prize, presented to her at London’s Guildhall on 16 October.

Burns is the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Booker.

About the book

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous.

Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman.

But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Book details

“Children need to be encouraged from an early age to learn another language or languages” – a Q&A with academic and language activist, Zakeera Docrat

Nal’ibali Column 26: Term 4, 2019

By Carla Lever

Zakeera Docrat

 
Congratulations on your two recent awards – having your MA thesis voted the best in Southern Africa by the African Languages Association of Southern Africa and winning the Albertina Sisulu Doctoral Fellowship at the SA Women in Science Awards. What will this recognition mean for you personally, and for your research specialty professionally?

Thank you very much! It’s an incredibly gratifying feeling to know that my research is being recognized at the highest levels of academia and government. It also casts the national spotlight on a relatively new field of forensic linguistics – or language and the law. Including African languages in the legal system enables real justice: it’s an issue that’s finally being placed on the national stage.

Your academic work looks at how African languages are represented in the legal system. Can you tell us a little about your current research?

My PhD research focuses on language and the law, specifically looking at the language of record in South African courts. In 2017, English was made the sole language of official record, but only 9.6% of the population in South Africa speak English as their mother tongue. Language affects people’s rights in courts. If you are an African language or Afrikaans mother tongue speaker and you have no or limited linguistic competency in English, then you are solely reliant on an interpreter. In my opinion, that’s both unfair and untransformative.

How do you think it changed your worldview, to be able to communicate with a wide variety of people in their own language?

By acquiring an additional language, in turn you acquire a cultural key to navigate cultural barriers. We live in a diverse, linguistically rich country, where the majority of our people speak an African language as their mother tongue. I couldn’t imagine being unable to communicate with the majority of people in the province of my birthplace, the Eastern Cape. You’re able to see the world through someone else’s perspective, to relate to fellow citizens and be respectful and aware of their traditions.

Since 1996, courts have made translation available to anyone who needs it. Why, in your opinion, is this not enough to really ensure people are fairly represented? How can it still place defendants at a disadvantage?

All accused persons have a right to a fair trial and to be legally represented. But can a legal representative defend the accused fully when they communicate through an interpreter? In my opinion, no. When people use interpreters to give evidence, meaning is often lost or changed. If the presiding officer only speaks English there is no possibility of picking up any inaccuracies. There are also often cultural concepts and traditions that can’t be interpreted directly into English.

Are there countries in the world where legal language policies are inclusive and work well? Who can we look to as an example?

Indeed there are! We could emulate a Canadian model, which is fully bilingual with judicial officers and legal practitioners being fully bilingual. Cases are heard in either of the official languages. Although South Africa has eleven official languages as opposed to Canada’s two, there is no reason why there can’t be language policies for each province, given that there are two languages spoken by the majority in each province.

Academics are often theory-driven, but was there a practical moment or discovery that really brought home the injustice and shortcomings of a legal system that can’t accommodate people’s lived, language-based realities?

I’m actually trying to find the answer to a very practical question: how do we enable access to justice for the majority of our people who are not English mother tongue speakers? The case of State v Sikhafungana (2012) really brought home to me how difficult it can be for South Africans to navigate our legal system. It saw a Deaf complainant needing to testify about being sexually assaulted, but being at a severe disadvantage because she couldn’t understand English or communicate using South African sign language. It was heartbreaking to see how there were so many barriers to justice for her.

People often counter policy suggestions by saying expanding options will prove too expensive. In your opinion, are there incremental or simple changes that might already make a big difference, or should South African invest in a large system overhaul?

The expense argument is one that is constantly used, yet there is always money available for wasted expenditure. Language is seen as a problem rather than a right and a resource. It isn’t valued.

We can’t expect to wake up tomorrow and have the entire legal system fully functional in all eleven official languages. What can be done, though, is for universities to begin to train prospective lawyers in languages other than just English. African languages and Afrikaans should also be language of record where practical.

Of course, the legal system isn’t the only one that is failing to truly represent our country’s diverse needs. Education, healthcare, policing…do you think all these areas could benefit from drawing on the richness of our languages as resources rather than sideline them as problems?

Indeed. Miscommunication in services such as healthcare, education and the legal system can have disastrous effects. It’s sad that pupils and parents think that English is the only language that will give rise to job opportunities. The power of the mother-tongue in acquiring a sound education and learning content subjects isn’t recognized in policy. Language is also key to the decolonization and transformation of our universities, yet we continue to see an emphasis placed on what we learn rather than what language we’re learning in. There’s a real need to create awareness on the importance of language as a tool to empower and transform South Africa.

How do you think we can develop and nurture a love for, and practical engagement with, all of our country’s languages in South Africa?

It starts in the home! Children need to be encouraged from an early age to learn another language or languages. Mother tongue speakers also need to value the power and status of their language – by doing this, others will be encouraged to learn those languages too.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.

“If I had known what I was getting myself into, I would probably never have begun.” Simone Haysom on writing The Last Words of Rowan du Preez

Published in the Sunday Times

The Last Words of Rowan du Preez: Murder and Conspiracy on the Cape Flats
Simone Haysom, Jonathan Ball Publishers
R275

Towards the end of 2013 a friend came to me and said: “I’ve just returned from Cape Town and the craziest things have been happening to a friend of mine.” I had recently moved back to SA after several years studying and working abroad and I was looking for a story, something that could help me understand the baffling, violent country I loved.

This turned out to be it.

The woman he was talking about was Angy Peter, and she was accused of necklacing a young man, Rowan du Preez, who she had been trying to rehabilitate from a life of crime. Angy, a criminal justice activist involved in a campaign to fix the dire state of policing in Khayelitsha, claimed she was innocent. She had been set up, she said, by a policeman she had accused of corruption, and a police force that considered her an enemy had gone along with it.

But the state had, on the face of things, a strong case: eyewitnesses to the assault, and a declaration supposedly made by Rowan himself – to three policemen – as he lay dying.

I spent the next five years researching and writing the story: attending the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry, Angy Peter’s trial, and asking questions in Mfuleni, where the murder took place, poring over transcripts and chasing leads that often didn’t work out.

The story turned out to be as much about the toll that impunity – at high levels and low – has taken on our society, as it was about these specific events.

Sometimes the degree to which the truth refused to be pinned down was so extreme it became absurd. At one point in the trial, during a cross-examination of a witness who was being infuriatingly evasive, the defence advocate asked him: “What do you think the motive for the murder was?”

So intent on dodging questions was he, he replied: “Which murder?”

“This one!” bellowed the advocate, and I thought for a second he might be about to commit another.

If I had known what I was getting myself into, I would probably never have begun. In a story like this, your head can get done in, both by what you don’t find out and what you do.

Working through hundreds of pages of eyewitness and medical testimony on a necklacing begins to take a toll. You tell yourself it’ll be worth it when you find the truth, but that’s elusive. Though I was able to find out far more than the official story, my limitations to getting to the heart of what happened caused me angst.

You can’t get all the access you need: the story is shaped by the gaps you get through. @simonehaysom

Book details

In Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel there is no distinction between the real and the magical, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

The Theory of Flight ****
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, Penguin Books, R270

Imogen “Genie” Zula Nyoni, the gap-toothed heroine of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel, The Theory of Flight, is said to have hatched from a golden egg.

She inhabits an idyllic childhood, playing among the sunflowers with her friend Marcus. Her life changes when adult concerns interfere. Marcus’s parents take him away. And soldiers – the feared red berets – bring death and horror to the village.

When the author was just seven the men with the red berets entered her own idyllic childhood on the plot of land her grandfather owned in Zimbabwe.

“I remember the sunflowers and having that space to let my imagination run wild. And I also know we had droughts, we had the men with the red berets. My memories of my childhood have to contain both those things. Not to take away from the atrocity, but people are able to go through horrible things and still live and laugh and love each other.”

This is the challenge of post-colonial literature, says Ndlovu.

“How do we tell the story of where we come from without reducing it to the doom and gloom you see on the TV news?”

The novel is set in an unnamed southern African country – a smart choice which relieves her of the burden of a real country’s deep history and inevitable complexity.

She is able to look at the issues of Zimbabwe – war and HIV and homelessness run through this book – without them overwhelming the essentially human story, the story of Genie’s life, and the author’s other themes: love and loss and friendship and the transformative power of imagination.

The tale emerges through the lives of a few families and intriguing characters, from colonial times to the present.

There’s Genie’s father, Golide Gumede, a revolutionary who endured Soviet winters to study aeronautical engineering and build a plane, “because he understood that after the war – when independence arrived – people would need to know that they were capable of flight”. And her mother, Elizabeth Nyoni, a self-styled Dolly Parton in a blonde wig, with dreams of Nashville. There are farmers, war veterans, a journalist, street kids and the brutal bureaucrats of The Organisation of Domestic Affairs.

Ndlovu is a gifted storyteller, skillfully interweaving the real and the magical, beauty and devastation, historical and personal perspectives, simplicity and complexity. She has a vivid imagination and the tale shimmers with magic, though she balks at the “magical realism” label.

“I simply told this story as honestly as I could, in the way stories have always been told around me, with no distinction between what is magical and what is real. My job as a writer is not to confine my imagination, but to use all the elements I need.”

Her background as a filmmaker informs her writing: “It was important to me to try to capture all of what was happening from the best vantage point I could have. As a writer you have this all-seeing ability but in real life you only see something from a certain angle. So each character sees Genie differently, and she has a definite understanding of herself, even when the other characters don’t. When you have multiple viewpoints and voices, there is nuance.”

She adds: “I experience the world visually and try to communicate that vision through the careful use of words. If I can’t get you to see why Golide has fallen in love with Elizabeth’s ankle, then I’ve failed.”

In this case, she succeeds – both in the telling of Golide’s ankle-inspired infatuation, and in the book itself, which is a marvellous and unusual flight of fancy. When Genie dies, and flies away on huge silver wings, she will take a little piece of your heart with her. @KateSidley

Book details

If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness, writes Michele Magwood of Louis de Bernières’ new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis de Bernières’ latest novel is character-driven. Picture: David Levenson/Getty Images

 

So Much Life Left Over ****
Louis de Bernières, Harvill Secker, R290

Louis de Bernières’ new novel picks up where he left off in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, though you do not have to have read that to appreciate this book. It opens in a valley in colonial Ceylon in the years after World War 1, where two former fighter pilots are shooting the breeze as well as a row of tin cans.

“Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death.” They, and other survivors, “had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with”.

Daniel loves Ceylon and his job on a tea plantation, but when his wife Rosie gives birth to a stillborn baby, she falls into a depression and insists that they return to England to the bosom of her sprawling family.

De Bernières employs a multi-hued, multi-voiced technique to narrate the story, which is character- rather than plot-driven.

Rosie has three sisters: the giddy Sophie, married to a doubting Anglican minister, Ottilie who is in love with Daniel’s brother but who settles for another, and Christabel, a Bohemian who lives with a woman artist in a distinctly Bloomsbury setup.

If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness. Affairs abound, loves go unrequited, they burgeon or sour and are compromised. Some fly. One senses a society bewildered, groping for purpose even as it trudges towards another war.

Colourful and quickly moving, De Bernières counters humour with darker strokes. Daniel’s heroic, officer brother becomes a street-sweeping drunk; his son will have nothing to do with him.

Most moving of all is the character of the gardener, Oily Wragge. Wragge spends his days hiding in a cave beneath the conservatory, trying to shut out his nightmares of the war in Mesopotamia, the death marches and his slavery in Anatolia: “Starved and ill, in heat so scorching it can’t be imagined or told, without food, without water, we are driven along by Arab horsemen. The beatings with rifle butts, the trampling of the dying. Shit running down our legs, pains like childbirth in our guts. Yallah! Yallah! Move on! Move on!”

As the guns of war sound yet again, De Bernières leaves the stage open for the last book in the trilogy. @michelemagwood

Book details

La Bastarda: the Equatorial Guinean novel that defied the censor’s order to shut up

Published in the Sunday Times

By Tiah Beautement

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda has won universal acclaim for its commentary on the harmful nature of genderised societal norms.

 
La Bastarda ****
Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Modjaji, R220

Calling a novel brave has become a cliché; but La Bastarda truly is a work of courage. It’s written by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. Yet Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country banned the book.

“This novel was a scandal in my country,” Obono says, via her book’s translator, Lawrence Schimel. “It was forbidden to discuss its homosexual content in the media. It had a great success in Spain and reached Equatorial Guinea on the rebound. Its success was such that even though I have written four novels, nobody forgets La Bastarda. It’s the book of rebellion, they say.”

The story follows teenager Okomo. Defying her maternal grandmother, Okomo attempts to locate her biological father, not considered her dad in Fang tradition. During her search, she meets her gay uncle, who has been cast out of the community.

Through friends and acquaintances, Okomo finds herself questioning traditions in village society and Fang culture. This leads her to revelations about her own sexuality, taboo in her society.

In one of the story’s most heart-wrenching moments, Okomo discovers that while her culture has a word for gay men, there isn’t one for women. The teen laments: “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights.”

Obono explains: “In Okomo’s tradition, women are not people but just property of men. A woman’s sexuality is in the service of her ethnicity, of reproduction. Okomo, who represents womanhood, vindicates the right to be visible, to be an activist, and to enjoy a fundamental right: sexuality.”

The story came at huge personal cost to the writer. “I already lived openly,” Obono says. “But a book like La Bastarda in a closed society pulls you out of the closet on an institutional level. Relatives and friends called my mother to tell them her daughter disobeyed tradition and her place as a woman inside it, writing this filth.”

She continues, “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta. I feel alone for not lightening my skin. I feel alone for not putting on make-up or wearing high heels. I feel alone for not belonging to the masculine gender nor the female: I’m a mix of both.

“The moment comes when you decide to be yourself, without complexes or categories. And you’re happy. I have friendships that don’t abandon me, books, writing – by loving them so much I keep myself sane.” @ms_tiahmarie

Book details

Charles Massy’s book on agriculture in drought-stricken Australia has incited furious debate, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth *****
Charles Massy, Chelsea Green, R500

Charles Massy seems an unlikely revolutionary. Yet this softly spoken 65-year-old Australian farmer, bird lover and zoologist first won plaudits for exposing the political skulduggery that led to the decline of the Australian wool industry in his 2011 book, Breaking the Sheep’s Back.

He is now leading the charge for an agricultural insurrection with Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth.

It is a 500-plus-page tome so persuasive it incited furious debate in farming circles in Australia prior to its South African release this month, with prominent environmentalist Tim Flannery likening its power, scale and honesty to Rian Malan’s great saga of SA, My Traitor’s Heart.

Massy, who still tends the farm his family has tilled for five generations, prefers to describe the book as “a gentle course in teaching landscape function through lots of stories”. But he is quick to acknowledge that many of the revolutionary ideas he describes in it, indeed, “came out of Africa”.

He is eager, too, to confess to his own agricultural crimes, and to the palpable sense of urgency that drives Call of the Reed Warbler, which is at one level a momentous history of industrial agriculture and the ravages it continues to wreak upon global landscapes at a moment in “this Anthropocene epoch where”, says Massy “we are entering unknown and frightening territory”.

At another, it is the deeply personal story of a cluster of individuals who have transformed their farms from drought-blighted dustbowls into moist, fertile, financially viable farmlands by using a range of regenerative techniques – “techniques that many regard as counter-intuitive”, says Massy.

Among the many techniques he details in the book are the radical livestock grazing practices advocated by controversial Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory, whose story, along with that of fabled South African botanist John Acocks, is one of many he tells in Call of the Reed Warbler.

“It was influences like that that helped save me,” says Massy, who advocates the Savory method of rotating livestock regularly and rapidly through small paddocks to imitate herd behaviour of wild hoofed animals in Africa.

This brings intensive bursts of manure and urine to the soil which in turn stimulates all important microbial and fungal activity – as well as greater germination of perennial grasses and cereal crops. He also advocates – and uses – a form of farming called Keyline, which deploys contours in the land to maximise water and conserve rainfall.

All in all his book is an elegant and exhaustively detailed plan to enhance five key landscape functions: the solar-energy cycle, the water cycle, the soil-mineral cycle, diversity and health of ecosystems at all levels, and the human-social.

For Massy, the latter is the key, and the most difficult. It is our very Western industrial mindset or what he calls the “mechanical mind”, that has led to such wholesale degradation of our soils and food.

He first began questioning the reigning agricultural paradigm in the wake of the ’80s drought.

“Every day for five years there were mocking blue skies; it got to the stage where the district was dust. We’d never seen anything like it. I had a little family, my father was dying and I was depressed but didn’t realise it. My mindset was that old paradigm – ‘I’m going to fight it and beat this drought.’ It’s a fairly arrogant statement isn’t it?” he now quizzes, “and of course I lost.”

His painful honesty in detailing how he dug himself out of “decades of debt” – and, more crucially, out of the “mechanical mindset” which led him to perpetuate the mistakes that turned the family farm into “a dustbowl” – is part of what makes this vast hybrid of a book so compelling.

Massy’s unparalleled ability to convey the beauty and complexity of the natural world to the page is another. He is keenly aware, too, that in writing about the destructive impact of industrial agriculture on the one hand, and proffering counter-intuitive solutions on the other, he is rubbing up against the same paradigms and vested interests that reacted with vitriol to Savory’s earlier ideas.

“But there is more receptiveness to change now,” he says, “because farmers intuitively know something is not right.”

Since the book’s release he has addressed farmers and scientists in various parts of the globe about the regenerative agriculture he describes. Yet he shrugs off the rigours of piling those added labours onto the demands of farming in the interests of transforming the way we farm, eat and think about the earth itself.

“You only get a small unique window of advocacy, and if you believe in something, well, you’ve got to grab it, haven’t you?” @bronsibree

Book details

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story.” Jonas Bonnier discusses his first true crime novel, The Helicopter Heist, with Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times

The Helicopter Heist is Swedish author Jonas Bonnier’s riveting first true crime novel. Author picture supplied.

 
The Helicopter Heist ****
Jonas Bonnier, Bonnier, R270

Nordic noir is all the rage nowadays – from Jo Nesbo to Henning Mankel to The Killing – yet Jonas Bonnier, author of the Scandi true crime thriller The Helicopter Heist, is “not at all interested in crime or crime novels”.

The Helicopter Heist is an exhilarating read based on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery; the heist was executed by four men and one spectacular helicopter roof-landing. The foursome broke into a Group 4 Securicor (G4S) cash depot in Stockholm, making off with 39-million kronor (about R88m). The criminals were caught. The money was never retrieved.

Marketed as “true crime fiction” (much to the affable Swede’s amusement), Bonnier states that he never considered writing a non-fiction account of the heist, reasoning that “I’m not a good non-fiction writer”.

Bonnier was approached by his agent to write the book; hesitant at first, he was persuaded when his agent asked him whether he would be interested in meeting the perpetrators.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the characters in my book before’,” he laughs. (The Helicopter Heist is his ninth book.)

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story. I can’t even imagine this novel written by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meeting with them convinced him to write the book.

The eccentric millionaire character known as Zoran in thenbook (Bonnier provided pseudonyms for the four perps) made a profound impression on Bonnier. He describes the man as a “larger than life character” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This owing to the fact that “Zoran” ordered a glass of lukewarm water which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fictionalised version of the criminal) and his wealth and extravagant lifestyle (think annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this character!” says Bonnier.

The other three perpetrators who, despite previous incarcerations, remain involved in Sweden’s underworld, were eager to meet Bonnier.

“There’s this hierarchy in prison in Sweden and if you’re a robber you’re the shit,” Bonnier explains.

“And if you’re a robber and you used a helicopter – to some extent,” Bonnier interrupts himself, “I hadn’t used this word yet – but to some extent I think they’re proud of what they actually did.”

Bonnier maintains that the characters’ back stories are “very accurate”.

Zoran aside, the character of Sami is a petty thief-turned-family-man who reverts to his old ways; Michal, a charming and savvy Lebanese criminal who grew up in the impoverished suburbs of Stockholm; and the reckless adrenaline junkie, Niklas, whose appetite for adventure makes him agree to participate in the heist before one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

During the “hours and hours” that Bonnier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d committed, but focused on character sketches.

“I asked them if they played Nintendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very specific questions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you order?’”

Bonnier believes two members of the heist squad have read the book and knows for certain that the Michal character had “loved it”.

“I specifically asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no – everybody on every end-station likes it’.”

“End-stations” refers to the final stop of a Swedish subway route and they’re usually in very rough neighbourhoods. “So, the criminals enjoy it!” Bonnier relays with unbridled mirth.

As The Helicopter Heist is based on true events, Bonnier had to maintain a balance between fact and fiction; he says it is “tricky”. Readers would regularly ask him if particular passages were true, and after delivering his first draft to his publishers, he was told that a certain scene was not believable. “Well, that scene was something true!” says Bonnier.

Bonnier used the age-old adage of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction to his advantage: “I realised that nobody would be able to tell the truth apart from fiction and if I had presented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fiction’, I would have skipped the fiction parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chortles.

That the criminals were able to pull off the heist was “almost unbelievable”, says Bonnier. He was fascinated by how the foursome went about planning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many different techniques and find roofs in Stockholm that are constructed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amazing! I really enjoyed listening to them telling their stories. I also learned a lot about explosives,” he says, cracking up.

This is the first time Bonnier set out to write commercial fiction and he describes the experience as more time consuming than usual as he had less free rein with the content and was reliant on the advice of his publishers and crime-fiction writers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I really tried!” is the exasperated response when asked whether he read any crime novels as preparation for writing The Helicopter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies – I love movies, and I generally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fanatic.

Bonnier isn’t the only fan of heist movies – his gripping romp has been commissioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company and will be released as a Netflix film. Bonnier is credited as a co-producer which, according to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) will be responsible for the script.

“This is a large production, no way will they involve some amateur from Sweden,” Bonnier laughs. “But names are good. Big names are good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next – if it doesn’t involve having to kill off a main character (“I get very, very attached to my characters, as long as they’re alive they’re interesting”), or a disillusioned, divorced drunkard of a detective as protagonist (this man really has it in for his fellow Scandi scribes!) – Bonnier’s definitely interested in trying his hand at a second true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre definition makes him snigger. Ja, tak! @mila_se_kind

Book details

Editor needed for New Coin

New Coin is looking for a new editor to begin work in January 2019 (first issue: June 2019).

The editor should have a good sense of the range of genres and sub-cultures in South African poetry today, and be willing to engage constructively with new writing and writers.

The main responsibilities would be:
• selecting and compiling material for each issue
(two issues a year – typically 50 poets submit work to each issue)
• selecting cover art for each issue
• identifying and selecting new books to review, and finding knowledgeable reviewers
• corresponding with poets, notifying them of acceptances and rejections, as well as making constructive editorial suggestions
• appointing a judge for the annual DALRO Prize
• liaising with the designer of New Coin on production matters
• proofreading
• maintaining the New Coin page on Facebook
• promotion of New Coin
• liaison on administrative matters with the publisher – the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

The editor can be based anywhere in South Africa. He or she will have the support of an editorial advisory board appointed by the ISEA. A small stipend is paid for the work.

If you’re interested, please send a letter of motivation spelling out your vision for the future of the journal, together with a short CV, to isea@ru.ac.za before 31 October 2018.