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Launch Tribute from Rustum Kozain for Karen Jennings’ Finding Soutbek

Karen Jennings

The launch of Karen Jennings’ debut novel, Finding Soutbek, at The Book Lounge on Wednesday night, was a literary treat for the many readers who arrived and filled the house. Joining the author at the microphone, was Rustum Kozain, who sang the novel’s praises in unmistakeable terms. Published by Holland Park Press, he said Jennings was “a writer to be watched.”

Karen Jennings and Rustum KozainFinding Soutbek“The story is set in Soutbek, a west coast town, and revolves around Pieter Fortuin, its mayor, his wife, Anne, and a number of characters connected to them. Central to the story is a history of the town that Pieter Fortuin has written with a retired history professor, Terence Pearson.

Interspersed with the narrative of present day Soutbek and its characters, are accounts of old VOC expeditions in search of the fabled Monomotapa. The history of Soutbek suggests that, rather than the famed treasures of Monomotapa, the town of Soutbek actually has a history as a sort of pantisocracy, and it is this history that Fortuin and Pearson unearth,” said Kozain.

“There are thus three narratives, acting as commentary on each other and raising interesting questions about the interaction and complicity between history, fiction and politics. Thus the themes of the novel – although, do note that the plot is far more beguiling than my short, matter-of-fact summary.

“I avoid talking about plot simply because I don’t want to spoil it for readers and, in talking about the style of the novel, I don’t mean to separate the one from the other, but it is so that I think Finding Soutbek sells itself to me stylistically,” he said.

For Kozain, the understated quality of the writing was most noteworthy: “The writing does not announce the writer’s talent with a fanfare of verbal gymnastics. The writing is not trying to show off the writer’s cleverness by zapping together flashing metaphors or by straining towards new, fresh adjective or adverb use. The prose is measured, classically realist. The writing quietly gets on with the work of story-telling, allowing the writer, the mechanic of the story, to disappear.”

This strong element made Finding Soutbek “deeply immersive” in Kozain’s opinion. “Karen has a strong talent for character and, through this, plot in itself seems to disappear. That is, plot unfolds naturally and nowhere does one have the sense of the writer manipulating plot or even manipulating characters in service of the plot. The world is as it is in Soutbek, the characters are as they are and behave as they do, and this all makes the story, as if there wasn’t a writer conjuring it all.”

Kozain described “an estranging quality to the novel, again something I find remarkable given the understated style of the telling. I’ve been grappling with a label to describe the stylistics of the novel. The closest I can come is ‘magical realism’, although the label does a disservice to Karen’s writing. Too often, magical realism as found in SA fiction comes across as a gimmick tacked on as evidence of a writer’s wild imagination, and tacked on as a gimmick external to the world of the fiction. The artifice behind much magical realism is then readily discernible. But here, with no bells and no whistles, with nothing in the writing itself that jumps out screaming at you to be recognised as the otherworldly, and atmosphere of the unreal hangs over the novel.”

Kozain referred to Martin Trump, who said in the 1990s that South African literature depended too much on the South African reader’s recognition of the world and its characters portrayed in fiction and poetry. “That is,” said Kozain, “the literature is or was populated with easily recognisable tropes and scenarios. In Finding Soutbek, characters exceed or escape their tropes and this, again, shows what can happen when a truly novelistic imagination goes about its work. The characters are lifelike, remarkable, familiar yet unrecognisable, surprise the reader, and hum with the writer’s imagination.”

Labelling the book as “the literature of transformation”, Kozain concluded that it was not the political themes of the novel that mattered, but the writer’s approach and “magicking of her material”.

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Liesl Jobson tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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