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Mongrels make good watchdogs – Diane Awerbuck reviews William Dicey’s new collection of essays

By Diane Awerbuck for the Sunday Times

Mongrels make good watchdogs – Diane Awerbuck reviews William Dicey’s new collection of essays

 
Mongrel: EssaysMongrel
William Dicey (Umuzi)
*****

William Dicey has been talking about Saul Bellow’s “poor dizzy spook” since forever. That seems about right as a starting point for the collection of six lyrical essays in Mongrel, Dicey’s brilliant second book. Except for one thing: by the end of this collection, Poor Dizzy Spooks doesn’t work as a title. This is why.

Ranging from the ordinary craziness of Afrikaner nostalgia and the brutal reality of carnivorous commerce at the Hantam Meat Festival, to his own wrestling with Derrick Jensen’s nihilist, apocalyptic manifesto, the essays in Mongrel seem to detail Dicey’s own travails as a thinker. In other words, he paints himself as a poor dizzy spook.

But the act of writing is more canine than spectral: a determined unravelling of the old, unsatisfying narratives – and their reconstruction into a more coherent worldview.

Dicey’s essays have sprung from forcefully altered circumstances: of geography and culture, vocation and identity. The Portuguese have a word for the hankering after a more blessed time that probably never existed: saudade – the sad happiness left when we grasp that things have changed. Thus, the more terrifyingly existential essays, such as “No Ship Exists” and “D’Arcy and I”, discuss modern purpose and meaning. But Dicey moves through the easy despair. The real work after abandonment, loss and disappointment is to make them revolutions, not reversals, and his conclusions get the chance to do what decent philosophy and fiction should: rearrange us so we understand that we are “alive in this little corner of the world right now”.

Stylistically, Dicey has a highly developed eye and ear; he incorporates funny ha-ha and funny peculiar; he does his best work with straight reportage rather than the occasional De Botton-esque comment that insinuates itself. Here he describes perfectly a prisoner in “A Story in Which Everyone Looks Bad”: “The skin on his face was pulled tight, as if his life were pressing up hard against it.” This movement between prose and poetry is another of the “mongrel forms” that engage him.

Dicey doesn’t need epigraphs. The notions included on the front pages are par for the course. His real strength is that he deals with ideas in the specific context of this country, in order to be “straighter-backed” and “less isolated and oblivious and petty and scared and – in a low-level, bourgeois kind of a way – less evil”.

“South African Pastoral” goes on to examine what it means to be a fourth-generation white farmer as well as an engaged and liberal individual. Dicey reflects that in the rural areas, civil rights are regarded as quaint urban constructs: nice-to-haves but not strictly necessary, an observation worthy of Bertrand Russell, who asked: “If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?”

Russell also said that if we wanted to know what people will do, we must know not only their material circumstances, but rather “the whole system of their desires”. Mongrel, in its honesty and philanthropic passion, examines the whole system of our desires and comes out deliberately on the side of enlightened optimism.

For sure: those of us who want change and make change must start out poor and dizzy, chock-full of shadowy conventions. But we don’t have to end up that way. We may put on the more substantial flesh of reason, worry at the bones of prejudice, embrace domestication. Mongrels make good watchdogs.

Diane Awerbuck is the author of Home Remedies

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