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A quest wrapped in mystery: Michele Magwood talks to SJ Naudé about his debut novel The Third Reel

Published in the Sunday Times

© Joanne Olivier
The Third ReelThe Third Reel
SJ Naudé (Umuzi)

In London in 1986 a young man awakes in a church bell tower. He has escaped conscription in South Africa and a bullying, homophobic father, and will be granted asylum in Thatcher’s Britain. After a night of sex with the bellringer he is elated, reborn. “His body is a radar, his skin a new country, his heart a shiny machine.”

So begins The Third Reel, the debut novel from SJ Naudé. Naudé seems to have sprung, fully formed, into the South African literary world. After decades as a corporate lawyer in London and New York – he holds masters degrees from Cambridge and Columbia – he hung up his suits and returned to South Africa to study a creative writing masters degree with Marlene van Niekerk in Stellenbosch.

The result was a collection of short stories, The Alphabet of Birds/Alfabet van die Voëls, which was roundly applauded and which won several prizes, including the UJ Debut Prize and a South African Literary Award.

“The stories were written after many years of me suppressing the urge to write fiction while being a lawyer,” he says. “They flowed remarkably freely – wrote themselves, almost.”

The Third Reel, he says, was a far more laborious process. “In my experience the creative process feels like hacking at a thick layer of ice, until suddenly, when you least expect it, you break through. A few precious moments of fluency then follow, of epiphany or swooning, entailing something like the dissolution of the self, a loss of personality, almost, a hiatus in which the pen starts making its own patterns on the page.”

Naudé is a slight, poised man, tightly composed, with the long fingers of a pianist. His bearing speaks of cool asceticism but his writing burns like dry ice.

Etienne, the South African refugee, is at first a spectral presence, virtually penniless, moving from squat to squat, leaving little mark on the world. He only begins to take shape when he falls in love with a German artist, Axel. Axel, who has a huge tattoo of an oak tree on his back, moonlights as a paediatric nurse.

Etienne is awarded a scholarship to study at the London Film School. When he comes upon the first of three reels of a German film made by a small group of Jewish filmmakers in the 1930s, it ignites an obsession in him to find the remaining two.

The story becomes a quest wrapped in a mystery, especially when Axel disappears in Berlin and Etienne follows him.

Naudé layers the story with film, architecture, music and art, but there is nothing genteel about this: it is Brutalist architecture (one of Etienne’s lovers gets aroused by concrete buildings), depressing wartime black and white films, shattering post-punk industrial music. And Axel’s art kicks hard at the boundaries of decency: his installations include a flask of fresh semen that he tops up every day, photographs of dead Victorian children, and figurines woven from the hair of dying babies, harvested from those on his wards.

Just as Axel roars at convention, so Etienne tries to obliterate himself, eradicate his past; he ignores the desperate letters from his mother in South Africa, screws up his studies, refuses to join the band of conscientious objectors working for the struggle.

Scenes are often erotic, sometimes depraved, both carnal and tender. The atmosphere is at times drenched in ennui, at others poundingly tense.

The writing is acutely sensory – Axel smells of “sweat and cordite” – and the themes of illness, madness, loss and alienation that Naudé explored in his short stories are unwound again, clinging fast to the narrative.

The Third Reel is a difficult, discomfiting book. But towards the end, when the quest is over, a state of grace finally descends.

Available in Afrikaans as Die Derde Spoel.

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Naudé’s Best Books

This is a somewhat random selection of contemporary books that were exactly the right read at the right time for me, and hence made maximum impact (rather than necessarily a ‘best novel’ list):

The Book Of HappenstanceThe Book of Happenstance, Ingrid Winterbach: Invoking a cosmic scale to measure human losses provides unexpected consolation.
Mothers and SonsMothers and Sons, Colm Toíbín: Sober explorations of mother-son relationships in deceptively simple stories.
ExtinctionExtinction, Thomas Bernhard: How the rhythms of seething anger can make for unexpected beauty!
VossVoss, Patrick White: Extraordinary visions in the Australian Outback, a journey into the void.
AgaatAgaat, Marlene van Niekerk: Proof of how a novel can overwhelm and forever change a reader.
In A Strange RoomIn a Strange Room, Damon Galgut: Sparely written and deeply affecting book about travelling, memory and the inescapable self.
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