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The savant of the biltong – Diane Awerbuck reviews Nick Mulgrew’s The First Law of Sadness

Published in the Sunday Times

Nick Mulgrew’s short stories explore the varieties of human experience in all their horror and comedy, writes Diane Awerbuck.

The First Law of Sadness
Nick Mulgrew, David Philip Publishers, R120

You don’t have to hate The Talented Mister Mulgrew: prize-winning poet, publisher and wannabe publican. But you can learn from him. And there’s a lot to take away from his new collection of short stories, The First Law of Sadness.

One takeaway is that Nick Mulgrew is easily the best thing we have. Another takeaway is that absolutely everything can be written about, regardless of how squeamish it makes us. This collection allows us to see how an accomplished writer handles both the horror and banality of experience.

Most of us have a comfort zone. Mulgrew has only discomfort zones, and he is determined to share them with us. A little dog eviscerated by an eagle; the terrible truth behind the sale of a boy’s Momo mags; a man who finds he quite likes being filmed for a gay porn site: they’re all nestled here between the pages, preserved for our perusal.

And there is something more than usually voyeuristic about the stories in The First Law of Sadness. It’s hard to say what it is – Mulgrew’s ability to negate his own persona completely in the pursuit of characterisation, perhaps, fused with an intimate knowledge of the (many, varied) settings he chooses.

We get the sense that real life had its way with some of the stories: a couple of them seem to be the processing of grief. In “Ever Elizabeth”, the protagonist decides that “…[t]here is the universe, I have come to know, and it is full of pain. This pain can neither be created nor destroyed: only transferred. For every pain healed in someone, a new one felt in another. The amount of pain in the universe is thus constant. This is the first law of sadness.”

That projection is philosophically risky, but it works. And, like the man in the giant practical joke that is the story “Jumper”, Mulgrew often emerges as the end of the tale with some useful, practical truth.

But the interesting thing with Mulgrew is that he’s also here for the lols. “Bootlegger”, for example, is a pretty hilarious and definitely dire depiction of res life, ingenuity and the immigrant experience of South African culture. How does he get the diction right? Don’t ask me. But the story reads like William Blake in a room with Roald Dahl, and it slips into some technical detail about biltong-making too.

Spare a thought for Yerodin Fermin, who finds himself a victim of his own drug-induced culinary success: “The residence-mates, they are too enthusiastic. They tell more of the others. I’m woke that evening at 11pm by an alcoholic acquaintance of Bubbles, asking for biltong… [T]he man says he will pay one hundred rand for one Ziploc of biltong. He sways like the palm trees…He says I’m a savant of the biltong.”

Funny-peculiar; funny-ha-ha. Maybe that’s the takeaway, more than Mulgrew’s startlingly apt imagery, or the pathos of the other characters’ mourning processes. He understands that life is various, and we must all make the rules we want to live by. Now there’s a manifesto that ought to be signed into law. Mulgrew for president.

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