Published in the Sunday Times
Fred Strydom (Umuzi)
The Raft is a novel that began as a lone image – one that floated into my mind with no context, explanation or instructional guide: a weary, sun-beaten man lying on his back on a rickety wooden raft, arms and legs apart and tied down, drifting aimlessly and alone across the ocean.
That was it.
Other people who are visited by images dismiss them, choosing to partake in more practical things in life. A writer (generally having nothing more practical to do) is simply someone incapable of leaving the bloody thing alone: Okay, so who is this guy on the raft? What’s his deal? Where did he come from? Where’s he going? What’s the story behind all this? Am I willing to commit the next three years of my life to figuring this all out?
Solving these imaginary problems often feels like a socially acceptable version of mumbling to myself on a crowded train. I played with possibilities while standing in banks queues, doing dirty dishes, and walking my dogs. I mapped it all out with a handful of conceptual compass points: this isn’t a castaway scenario. My man on a raft isn’t the survivor of a sunken ship or plane crash. There’s something grander at work here. Ethereal. Mythological. A reimagining of Sisyphus with his rock or Tantalus with his grapes. My Raft Man has been put out on the ocean, condemned in some way, set to float across the earth as punishment.
Fair enough, I figured, but who is he? Does he even know who is? Well, what if he doesn’t? Maybe he has no memory of himself at all. And maybe – just maybe – there’s nobody to help him because every other person on earth has also lost his and her memory …
Ideas have whip-like tentacles, constantly stretching out, grappling for surfaces. The hardest thing isn’t coming up with them; it’s taming them, refining them, telling one to wait in reception while you tend to the ills of another. What I’m most pleased with, now that The Raft is done, is how many of these ideas have survived. That, and how many more have come along. From that initial image of a man on a raft to the details of an entire dystopian world, complete with a cabalistic regime, a Babel-esque tower in the desert, wormhole-hopping astronauts and a family of sentient machines, I’ve indulged a bit, no doubt.
But in the end, it’s the book I set out to write. A lore-laden story about memory and identity, hope and delusion, and our prevailing need to connect with each other. It is also a book that was designed to quell a single image that wouldn’t leave me alone, that begged to be explored, explained and shared with the world.
And now, if nothing else, I can say that, at least.
My man on his raft got given somewhere to go.
Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredsaidwrite
Image: Jurgen Marx-Badenhorst