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If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness, writes Michele Magwood of Louis de Bernières’ new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis de Bernières’ latest novel is character-driven. Picture: David Levenson/Getty Images

 

So Much Life Left Over ****
Louis de Bernières, Harvill Secker, R290

Louis de Bernières’ new novel picks up where he left off in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, though you do not have to have read that to appreciate this book. It opens in a valley in colonial Ceylon in the years after World War 1, where two former fighter pilots are shooting the breeze as well as a row of tin cans.

“Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death.” They, and other survivors, “had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with”.

Daniel loves Ceylon and his job on a tea plantation, but when his wife Rosie gives birth to a stillborn baby, she falls into a depression and insists that they return to England to the bosom of her sprawling family.

De Bernières employs a multi-hued, multi-voiced technique to narrate the story, which is character- rather than plot-driven.

Rosie has three sisters: the giddy Sophie, married to a doubting Anglican minister, Ottilie who is in love with Daniel’s brother but who settles for another, and Christabel, a Bohemian who lives with a woman artist in a distinctly Bloomsbury setup.

If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness. Affairs abound, loves go unrequited, they burgeon or sour and are compromised. Some fly. One senses a society bewildered, groping for purpose even as it trudges towards another war.

Colourful and quickly moving, De Bernières counters humour with darker strokes. Daniel’s heroic, officer brother becomes a street-sweeping drunk; his son will have nothing to do with him.

Most moving of all is the character of the gardener, Oily Wragge. Wragge spends his days hiding in a cave beneath the conservatory, trying to shut out his nightmares of the war in Mesopotamia, the death marches and his slavery in Anatolia: “Starved and ill, in heat so scorching it can’t be imagined or told, without food, without water, we are driven along by Arab horsemen. The beatings with rifle butts, the trampling of the dying. Shit running down our legs, pains like childbirth in our guts. Yallah! Yallah! Move on! Move on!”

As the guns of war sound yet again, De Bernières leaves the stage open for the last book in the trilogy. @michelemagwood

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Launch: Green as the Sky is Blue by Eben Venter (18 October)

Simon Avend, a South African living in Australia, can be unruly. He often sets out to exotic destinations, indulging his desires in places like Bali, Istanbul, Tokyo, and the Wild Coast.

But along the way unsettling memories arise, of people and also places, especially the cattle farm in the Eastern Cape where he grew up. He approaches a therapist to help him make sense of his past, a process that leads them both on a journey of discovery.

When circumstances bring Simon back to South Africa, he must confront the beauty and bitterness of his country of birth, and of the people to whom he is bound.

Green as the Sky is Blue is a bold, unflinching exploration of sexuality, intimacy, and the paradox that lies at the heart of our humanity.

Event Details

La Bastarda: the Equatorial Guinean novel that defied the censor’s order to shut up

Published in the Sunday Times

By Tiah Beautement

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda has won universal acclaim for its commentary on the harmful nature of genderised societal norms.

 
La Bastarda ****
Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Modjaji, R220

Calling a novel brave has become a cliché; but La Bastarda truly is a work of courage. It’s written by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. Yet Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country banned the book.

“This novel was a scandal in my country,” Obono says, via her book’s translator, Lawrence Schimel. “It was forbidden to discuss its homosexual content in the media. It had a great success in Spain and reached Equatorial Guinea on the rebound. Its success was such that even though I have written four novels, nobody forgets La Bastarda. It’s the book of rebellion, they say.”

The story follows teenager Okomo. Defying her maternal grandmother, Okomo attempts to locate her biological father, not considered her dad in Fang tradition. During her search, she meets her gay uncle, who has been cast out of the community.

Through friends and acquaintances, Okomo finds herself questioning traditions in village society and Fang culture. This leads her to revelations about her own sexuality, taboo in her society.

In one of the story’s most heart-wrenching moments, Okomo discovers that while her culture has a word for gay men, there isn’t one for women. The teen laments: “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights.”

Obono explains: “In Okomo’s tradition, women are not people but just property of men. A woman’s sexuality is in the service of her ethnicity, of reproduction. Okomo, who represents womanhood, vindicates the right to be visible, to be an activist, and to enjoy a fundamental right: sexuality.”

The story came at huge personal cost to the writer. “I already lived openly,” Obono says. “But a book like La Bastarda in a closed society pulls you out of the closet on an institutional level. Relatives and friends called my mother to tell them her daughter disobeyed tradition and her place as a woman inside it, writing this filth.”

She continues, “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta. I feel alone for not lightening my skin. I feel alone for not putting on make-up or wearing high heels. I feel alone for not belonging to the masculine gender nor the female: I’m a mix of both.

“The moment comes when you decide to be yourself, without complexes or categories. And you’re happy. I have friendships that don’t abandon me, books, writing – by loving them so much I keep myself sane.” @ms_tiahmarie

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Launch: Plus One by Vanessa Raphaely (17 October)

‘Outside, in the road, behind what looks like some hastily erected barricades, I see a crowd.

Television cameras. Lights. Paparazzi. Press photographers.

They’ve materialised out of nowhere. What looks like over a hundred locals and tourists are peering into every car leaving this area. Crowding against the car doors, pushing cameras up against the windows. Jostling. Screaming. Shouting. In all my anxiety, hard- nosed journalist that I’m not, during the hours spent shifting around in the plastic seat in the waiting room I had somehow not understood the enormity of this story.’

As deputy editor of the glamorous FILLE magazine in London, Lisa Lassiter had almost passed up the chance of a weekend on a billionaire’s yacht off the coast of Mykonos.

But her best friend Claudia Hemmingway, on her way to becoming one of the hottest movie stars on the planet, could be very persuasive when she wanted something.

Not only would they get there by private jet, she’d told Lisa, they would also get to rub shoulders with VIP guests – not least a famous Hollywood film producer. It would be a weekend of fun, sunshine, champagne and partying. And it was all of those things. Until it wasn’t.

Lisa has spent ten years trying to get past that weekend. If she has learnt anything, it is that unfinished business and secrets always work their way to the surface. Moving on is one thing; forgetting is another, and forgiving … well, where to start?

Event Details

Die eerste boek in die Lord of the Rings-trilogie kan nou in Afrikaans geniet word!

Drie Ringe vir die Elf-konings onder die hemelwerf,
sewe vir die Dwerg-here in klipsale gekroon,
nege vir Mense, gedoem om te sterf,
een vir die Donker Heer op sy donker troon
in die Land van Mordor waar die Skaduwees draal.
Een Ring om oor almal te heers, Een Ring om hulle te vind,
een Ring wat almal bring en in die duisternis saambind.
In die Land van Mordor waar die Skaduwees draal.

 
Wanneer Frodo Baalens sy oom Bilbo se towerring tydens dié se een-en-elftigste verjaarsdagpartytjie erf, is dit die begin van onvoorsiene avonture.

Eers verdwyn Bilbo spoorloos en dan daag die towenaar Ghandalf op met die nuus dat Frodo in lewensgevaar verkeer: wie ook al in besit is van die Ring, vertel Ghandalf, sal uiteindelik deur die korrupterende mag daarvan verwoes word.

Daar is net een uitweg: om die Skeure van Verdoemenis in die dieptes van die Vuurberg te vind, die Ring daarin te gooi en dit só vir ewig buite die bereik van die Vyand te plaas. Saam met sy kamerade Sam, Mannetjies en Pippin val Frodo in die pad met die hoop om die donker mag van Sauron vir altyd te verslaan.

Oor die outeur en vertaler

Hoewel J.R.R. Tolkien se ikoniese Die heerser van die ringe geen bekendstelling nodig het nie, is die Afrikaanse vertaling daarvan ’n geweldig opwindende eerste.

Tolkien self was baie krities oor die vertaling van sy werk (“That this is an ‘imaginary’ world does not give [the translator] any right to remodel it according to his fancy, even if he could in a few months create a new coherent structure which it took me years to work out,” skryf Tolkien in ’n brief aan sy uitgewer met betrekking tot die Nederlandse vertaling van die teks), en Janie Oosthuysen se vindingryke dog uiters sensitiewe benadering tot die wêreld van Middel-aarde skep ’n verbeelde werklikheid wat tegelykertyd bekend én splinternuut is.

Boekbesonderhede

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story." Jonas Bonnier discusses his first true crime novel, The Helicopter Heist, with Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times

The Helicopter Heist is Swedish author Jonas Bonnier’s riveting first true crime novel. Author picture supplied.

 
The Helicopter Heist ****
Jonas Bonnier, Bonnier, R270

Nordic noir is all the rage nowadays – from Jo Nesbo to Henning Mankel to The Killing – yet Jonas Bonnier, author of the Scandi true crime thriller The Helicopter Heist, is “not at all interested in crime or crime novels”.

The Helicopter Heist is an exhilarating read based on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery; the heist was executed by four men and one spectacular helicopter roof-landing. The foursome broke into a Group 4 Securicor (G4S) cash depot in Stockholm, making off with 39-million kronor (about R88m). The criminals were caught. The money was never retrieved.

Marketed as “true crime fiction” (much to the affable Swede’s amusement), Bonnier states that he never considered writing a non-fiction account of the heist, reasoning that “I’m not a good non-fiction writer”.

Bonnier was approached by his agent to write the book; hesitant at first, he was persuaded when his agent asked him whether he would be interested in meeting the perpetrators.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the characters in my book before’,” he laughs. (The Helicopter Heist is his ninth book.)

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story. I can’t even imagine this novel written by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meeting with them convinced him to write the book.

The eccentric millionaire character known as Zoran in thenbook (Bonnier provided pseudonyms for the four perps) made a profound impression on Bonnier. He describes the man as a “larger than life character” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This owing to the fact that “Zoran” ordered a glass of lukewarm water which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fictionalised version of the criminal) and his wealth and extravagant lifestyle (think annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this character!” says Bonnier.

The other three perpetrators who, despite previous incarcerations, remain involved in Sweden’s underworld, were eager to meet Bonnier.

“There’s this hierarchy in prison in Sweden and if you’re a robber you’re the shit,” Bonnier explains.

“And if you’re a robber and you used a helicopter – to some extent,” Bonnier interrupts himself, “I hadn’t used this word yet – but to some extent I think they’re proud of what they actually did.”

Bonnier maintains that the characters’ back stories are “very accurate”.

Zoran aside, the character of Sami is a petty thief-turned-family-man who reverts to his old ways; Michal, a charming and savvy Lebanese criminal who grew up in the impoverished suburbs of Stockholm; and the reckless adrenaline junkie, Niklas, whose appetite for adventure makes him agree to participate in the heist before one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

During the “hours and hours” that Bonnier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d committed, but focused on character sketches.

“I asked them if they played Nintendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very specific questions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you order?’”

Bonnier believes two members of the heist squad have read the book and knows for certain that the Michal character had “loved it”.

“I specifically asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no – everybody on every end-station likes it’.”

“End-stations” refers to the final stop of a Swedish subway route and they’re usually in very rough neighbourhoods. “So, the criminals enjoy it!” Bonnier relays with unbridled mirth.

As The Helicopter Heist is based on true events, Bonnier had to maintain a balance between fact and fiction; he says it is “tricky”. Readers would regularly ask him if particular passages were true, and after delivering his first draft to his publishers, he was told that a certain scene was not believable. “Well, that scene was something true!” says Bonnier.

Bonnier used the age-old adage of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction to his advantage: “I realised that nobody would be able to tell the truth apart from fiction and if I had presented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fiction’, I would have skipped the fiction parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chortles.

That the criminals were able to pull off the heist was “almost unbelievable”, says Bonnier. He was fascinated by how the foursome went about planning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many different techniques and find roofs in Stockholm that are constructed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amazing! I really enjoyed listening to them telling their stories. I also learned a lot about explosives,” he says, cracking up.

This is the first time Bonnier set out to write commercial fiction and he describes the experience as more time consuming than usual as he had less free rein with the content and was reliant on the advice of his publishers and crime-fiction writers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I really tried!” is the exasperated response when asked whether he read any crime novels as preparation for writing The Helicopter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies – I love movies, and I generally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fanatic.

Bonnier isn’t the only fan of heist movies – his gripping romp has been commissioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company and will be released as a Netflix film. Bonnier is credited as a co-producer which, according to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) will be responsible for the script.

“This is a large production, no way will they involve some amateur from Sweden,” Bonnier laughs. “But names are good. Big names are good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next – if it doesn’t involve having to kill off a main character (“I get very, very attached to my characters, as long as they’re alive they’re interesting”), or a disillusioned, divorced drunkard of a detective as protagonist (this man really has it in for his fellow Scandi scribes!) – Bonnier’s definitely interested in trying his hand at a second true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre definition makes him snigger. Ja, tak! @mila_se_kind

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