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Rewriting history: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Robert Harris's Munich

Published in the Sunday Times

There’s no changing the fact of World War 2, but Robert Harris gives us an intriguing reinterpretation, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Munich
Robert Harris, Hutchinson, R295
*****

“Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination … re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture.”
 
 
For three decades, it seems that Robert Harris has been harbouring a fascination with the historical Munich Agreement of September 30 1938 – some would say an obsession. In our telephonic interview, Harris chuckled when I put this to him, but his response was measured. “I may not have felt it with the same intensity throughout that period, but I have been interested in this subject for a long time.”

The backstory is the beginnings of World War 2. After annexing Austria, Hitler demanded parts of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was signed to facilitate this. After Hitler received his piece of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain (UK) and Édouard Daladier (France) hoped a catastrophic war had been averted. However, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the world into war.

With Munich, Harris enters the fray from the unconventional angle of fiction. “Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination. It offered me the possibility of re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture,” he says.

There are real and fictional characters, but it is the latter who provide the clearest lens through which we can see “what really happened”. Two fictional characters in their late 20s — Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat – are the chief literary poles around which the narrative revolves. Through Legat and Hartmann, Harris guides the reader into the inner circle. Through their observations, as well as their unlimited access to the German Führer and the British prime minister, the reader sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels the looming war.

Given their pivotal role in the narrative, were Legat and Hartmann entirely fictional? “Strictly speaking, yes, they are. But there were enough real people like them in the late 1930s, aspects of whose biographies I used to construct these two and other characters.”

Harris’s refined ability to reconstruct setting, to recreate a sense of place and time, and his knack for the creation of believable characters, enable him to tease fiction out of history. In Munich, fiction dances with non-fiction, sucking the reader deeper into a breathtaking literary mirage.

The Hitler of Harris’s novel is neither pleased with himself nor sure of himself, before and after signing the Munich Agreement. He feels outplayed, outmanoeuvred and belittled by Chamberlain. Similarly, Harris’s Chamberlain is imbued with more grace, depth and integrity than many history books suggest. Only time will tell if Harris has done enough to rid him of the Pontius Pilate-like role assigned to him in the popular imagination.

I ask Harris what he wants his readers to feel or know after they have read the book. After speaking briefly about the precariousness of facile notions about the “politics of appeasement”, he said: “Above all else, I would like my readers to feel entertained.”

Few writers can blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as masterfully and as delightfully as Harris does in Munich. The reader must be warned: this book will be hard to put down. – @ProfTinyiko

Munich

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Book Bites: 22 October

Published in the Sunday Times

A Gap in the HedgeA Gap in the Hedge
Johan Vlok Louw, Umuzi, R230
***
Amnesia is a strange thing. How do you remember how to drive a car or make a casserole but you can’t remember what your own name is? In this novel it sometimes feels as if Johan Vlok Louw is leading us up the garden path as Karl gets closer to knowing who he is. The only clues to guide him are an old grey Ford, and a taste for Coke, whisky and Paul Revere cigarettes. As he proceeds, step by step, through his sleazy, bewildering world, you are either drawn along through curiosity or, if you are less indulgent, you leave him to his own devices. – Yvonne Fontyn

The Floating Theatre
The Floating Theatre
Martha Conway, Zaffre Publishing, R295
*****
When the steamer she is travelling on sinks, May Bedloe finds herself, for the first time, in charge of her own destiny. Joining a travelling theatre on the Ohio river, the divides between North and South and between freedom and slavery become apparent and divisive and May is drawn against her will into a dangerous war. She begins to realise that everyone makes a choice and those choices come with costs that can be hard to bear. The book starts off a little slowly, but May is captivating as she stumbles through her discovery of the complexities of life. A beautiful coming-of-age novel. – Jem Glendinning @jemathome

Did You See Melody?
Did You See Melody?
Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, R275
*****
Hannah easily transports you to sunny Arizona, to the Swallowtail – a sprawling resort spa with luxury three-bedroomed casitas surrounded by swaying cacti, sparkling pools and seemingly super-friendly staff. There’s an underlying atmosphere of menace and a group of dubious folks (residents, staff, police, and a talkshow host) – all with some sort of agenda. One of the twists is that there is no murder per se, rather a supposedly murdered girl named Melody who has been spotted by the unwitting heroine, Cara Burrows. Burrows herself has things to resolve as she has just run away from her husband and two kids in the UK. This novel works best as a binge read – Hannah is such an accomplished storyteller that solving the mystery of Melody becomes urgent. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
 

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Feuding Faiths: Elizabethan England provides the intrigue-filled setting for Ken Follett’s latest blockbuster, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Ken Follett and a sculpture of himself in the Plaza de la Burulleria in Vitoria-Gasteiz, northern Spain.
Picture: © Mikelcg Wikimedia

 

A Column of FireA Column of Fire
Ken Follett, Macmillan, R350
****

‘This struggle for religious tolerance is the foundation of the range of freedoms that we enjoy in many countries today.’

On the downside, Follett does take his own sweet time to deliver. On the upside, he is not one for half measures. For the fans of the enormously popular Kingsbridge series of historical fiction novels it has been a decade-long wait for the third volume, A Column of Fire. All 750 pages of it hit the market with the momentum of a brick going through a glass window.

There is nothing modest about the scope of Follett’s work. The first Kingsbridge novel, Pillars of the Earth, covers the lives of the inhabitants in the eponymous town during the 12th century, as they erect its iconic cathedral.

The second, World Without End, carries the tale into the 14th century. The latest novel revisits the townsfolk’s descendants after a 200-year gap, in tumultuous 16th-century England, with plots to dethrone or assassinate Elizabeth I, the plague of the Black Death, the Gunpowder Plot, and the threatened invasion of the Spanish armada.

It’s a rollicking saga of love and death, violence, intrigue and treachery, tracing the roller-coaster fortunes of two families, the Willards and the Fitzgeralds. The backdrop is the religious turmoil that followed the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I to the throne and set all of Catholic Europe against England.

It was the battle between these two religions that made the period an attractive subject, says Follett. “The conflict between tolerance and fanaticism has echoes, has a resonance, in the extremism and religious warfare of today.”

Follett is sceptical, however, of the potential for learning lasting lessons from history or literature. “[But] we do get a wider perspective from history and historical novels. Once one knows about the past, has spent time imagining it, one really can’t come up with such simple views and simple solutions that one otherwise might be tempted to do.”

In A Column of Fire, it is when personal and political worlds intersect that the complexities become especially acute. Families and communities are torn asunder, as power seesaws between the contesting Protestants and Catholics.

While both the Willards and Fitzgeralds are prominent Catholic families in Kingsbridge, the latter are more doctrinaire and have great social ambitions for their daughter Margery. It makes the Fitzgerald clan determined to thwart the love between her and Ned Willard. This divide becomes a yawning gulf when Ned enters the service, while Margery is forced to marry a scion of the aristocracy. Over the next 50 years, while Ned and Margery cling to their individual beliefs, their love apparently doomed, England and the Continent are in a state of upheaval.

One of the determined young Queen Elizabeth’s earliest moves is to set up the country’s first secret service, to neutralise the plots of her many enemies. Young Ned becomes one of her spymasters.

For Follett, who made his name as a writer of espionage novels before making the historical genre his own, it’s something of a full circle to combine the two. “I like writing about spies,” he enthuses. “There are always two stories: the official version that governments tell us and the actual one, the truth behind it all. Spies are interesting, because they know the true story.”

Follett is proud of the historical veracity of his writing. While there are authors who twist history for dramatic effect, and Follett says he has no issue with such creative licence, it is not for him. “I will not violate history. It means sticking to the truth, as best we know it.”

In a narrative that encompasses four centuries of history, in thousands of pages, this is no easy task. Just his draft, outlining the plot and characters of the book, is as long as a shortish novel.

“It is easy, with a minor character, to forget small details, like whether they have blue or green eyes. Readers, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the same problem, and are quick to point out the errors.” He uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track, so the character’s age will automatically be updated by the program as the story progresses through the various chapters.

Accuracy is paramount. The manuscript is submitted to three or four professional historians, whom Follett pays “very well” to scrutinise for anachronisms and dubious interpretations of events.

He works a conventional nine-to-five workday week and says he is not unusual in his approach. Even the “bad boys” of writing, with reputations for carousing, tend to have a disciplined, measured approach to their work.

“It’s a fascinating, challenging, completely absorbing task. There’s an enormous satisfaction taking every bit of knowledge, wisdom and skill that one has, and turning that into novels that millions of people enjoy.”

He has already embarked on the drafting of his next book, although he is cagey about what it is, “mainly because it is early days and I don’t yet know whether it is going to work out”. However, he leaves the door open for a continuation of the Kingsbridge series.

After all, “this struggle for religious tolerance that we see just starting in the 16th century is really the foundation of the wide range of freedoms that we enjoy in many countries today”.

“That’s because once you have the right to make up your own mind about your God, you can’t help but wonder why you shouldn’t make up your own mind about the king and the laws.” @TheJaundicedEye

Book details

Book Bites: 15 October

Published in the Sunday Times

Late Show
Michael Connelly, Orion, R275
***
Fierce, flawed and fallen from grace, Detective Renée Ballard now works “The Late Show” – the graveyard shift at the LA police department. Every night she opens cases and every morning turns them over to an investigating unit. Then she lands two cases she’s determined to keep – a multiple shooting and an assault on a transgender prostitute. Although Ballard senses the presence of “big evil”, she can’t know that her investigation will loop back to her department. Ballard is not as nuanced or compelling a character as Harry Bosch, and Connolly is perhaps too eager to show us he’s done his research, describing every detail of police paperwork and procedure, but this is nit picking. The book is fast-paced, clever, and delivers a gritty view of LA’s seedy underbelly. – Joanne Macgregor @JoanneMacg

Believe Me
Eddie Izzard, Michael Joseph, R340
****
This is not a shock-horror celebrity memoir; there is no profanity, gossip or exaggerations. It’s a story of damn hard work, passion and determination. Eddie Izzard knew from a young age that he wanted to be a performer. It took 12 years for him to officially break into the entertainment world. Out of each failed attempt, his determination grew, until he became the international celebrity he is today. At the same time, Izzard knew his sexuality was not easy to define. Being a self-proclaimed “action transvestite” has meant that he has taken on a unique view of the world and presents this in his performances and daring fashion choices. His well-deserved self-confidence is inspiring and catchy. – Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

The Rhino Whisperer
Evadeen Brickwood, Sula Books, R250
***
Brickwood turns an observant eye on Southern African problems, setting much of her story in the fictional Shangari Safari Park. When rhino poaching and murder come to Shangari, it’s like the serpent entering the Garden of Eden. We are given a cast – Tom and Sofia, who run the park; Barry the alcoholic vet; Sofia’s best friend Gugu, and Gugu’s dodgy billionaire boss Stan Makeroff (think Sol Kerzner meets Radovan Krejcir) – with the suspicion that one of them is Mr Big, the criminal mastermind behind it all. Delightfully exuberant, but needs editing. – Aubrey Paton

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Lincoln in the Bardo wins 2017 Man Booker Prize

The 2017 Man Booker Prize has been announced!

As per the press release:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is named winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Lincoln in the Bardo is the first full-length novel from George Saunders, internationally renowned short story writer.

The 58-year-old New York resident, born in Texas, is the second American author to win the prize in its 49-year history. He was in contention for the prize with two British, one British-Pakistani and two American writers.

Lola, Baroness Young, 2017 Chair of judges, comments:

‘The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.’

Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on a single night in the life of Abraham Lincoln: an actual moment in 1862 when the body of his 11-year-old son was laid to rest in a Washington cemetery. Strangely and brilliantly, Saunders activates this graveyard with the spirits of its dead. The Independent described the novel as ‘completely beguiling’, praising Saunders for concocting a ‘narrative like no other: a magical, mystery tour of the bardo – the “intermediate” or transitional state between one’s death and one’s next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism.’ Meanwhile, the Guardian wrote that, ‘the short story master’s first novel is a tale of great formal daring…[it] stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.’

Saunders told TIME magazine that he didn’t really want to write about Lincoln, ‘but was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instil the same reaction I’d had all those years ago.’

Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury, making it the third consecutive year the prize has been won by an independent publisher, following Oneworld Publications’ success in 2015 with Marlon James and 2016 with Paul Beatty. Bloomsbury has won the prize three times before, with Howard Jacobson (2010), Margaret Atwood (2000) and Michael Ondaatje (1992).

Saunders’ win comes in the month that 1989 Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro was named as this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature recipient. Ishiguro follows in the footsteps of other Booker Prize-recognised authors who have gone on to win the award including: V. S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, William Golding, J. M. Coetzee and Doris Lessing.

Luke Ellis, CEO of Man Group, comments:

‘We are pleased to congratulate George Saunders, along with each of the shortlisted authors, for his fantastic achievement this year. At Man Group, we are extremely proud to be sponsoring the world’s foremost literary prize and celebrating exceptional literary talent for a fifteenth year. We understand the importance of intellectual capital and creative thought – and indeed, the ability to view the world from different lenses matters more than ever today, in this age of rapid and inexorable change. We also believe that businesses like ours have an important duty to advance progress in education at every level: from prizes like this, which recognise global talent, to the local grassroots initiatives championed by the Booker Prize Foundation and the Man Charitable Trust, which we are honoured to support.’

Lola, Baroness Young was joined on the 2017 judging panel by the literary critic, Lila Azam Zanganeh; the Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Sarah Hall; the artist, Tom Phillips CBE RA; and the travel writer and novelist, Colin Thubron CBE. The judges considered 144 submissions for this year’s prize.

George Saunders’ win was announced by Lola Young at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. He was presented with a trophy from HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and a £50,000 cheque by Luke Ellis, Chief Executive of Man Group. Saunders also receives a designer bound edition of his book and a further £2,500 for being shortlisted.

At the event, which was broadcast live on the BBC News Channel, actors Maxine Peake, Rhashan Stone and Olivia Williams, read extracts from the shortlisted books. All the shortlisted authors attended alongside a number of former winners.

George Saunders will take part in his first official public event as winner at a New Statesman-partnered event at Foyles Charing Cross Road on Thursday 19 October 2017.

Royal Mail is again issuing a congratulatory postmark featuring the winner’s name, which will be applied to millions of items of stamped mail nationwide on Wednesday 18 October and Friday 20 October 2017. It will say ‘Congratulations to George Saunders, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize’.

Man Group, an active investment management firm, has sponsored the prize since 2002.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Book details

Van kant gemaak vertel ’n broeierige verhaal vol dorpsgefluister wat tydens die Eerste Wêreldoorlog afspeel

Van kant gemaakIn België loop die negentiende eeu ook ten einde. Elisabeth, die dogter van die smid, trou met die jong dokter, Guillaume Duponselle. Dit sal nie ’n gelukkige huwelik word nie. As Elisabeth agt maande later aan ’n tweeling geboorte skenk, is die eersgeborene ’n pragtige seun, Valentyn. Die tweede kind is so mismaak dat Guillaume weier om hom ’n naam te gee.

Tog bly Naamloos lewe. Omdat sy voorkoms sy vader en die dorpenaars ontstel, gaan Naamloos gesluierd deur die lewe. Dan tree die Eerste Wêreldoorlog op die toneel.

Van kant gemaak vertel ’n broeierige verhaal vol dorpsgefluister. Vir almal verloop die toekoms anders as wat hulle verwag.

OOR DIE OUTEUR
Kris van Steenberge (1963) is (toneel)skrywer, regisseur en dosent. Stories van sy oupa, wat by hulle ingewoon het, oor die “Groot Oorlog” vorm die kiem vir sy debuutroman Woesten. Sy tweede roman, Blindelings, het in 2016 verskyn.

OOR DIE VERTALER
Fanie Olivier is ’n bekende Afrikaanse digter en akademikus, maar ook joernalis en regsgeleerde. Hy het ses digbundels gepubliseer en was die samesteller van drie ander, waarvan Die heel mooiste Afrikaanse liefdesgedigte reeds vyf uitgawes gehad het. Die Nederlandse Reina Prinsen-Geerligsprys is aan hom toegeken vir die manuskrip van sy eerste, gom uit die sipres. Naas sy studiejare in Utrecht, het hy ook vir die grootste deel van sy akademiese loopbaan kontak met Nederlands behou as dosent in Nederlandse letterkunde. Hy het in hierdie proses heelwat Nederlandse poësie vertaal, maar dit nooit gepubliseer nie. As deel van sy werk as besoekende professor by die Adam Mickiewicz-universiteit in Pole tussen 2004 en 2016, het hy ook begin met ’n projek om Poolse gedigte saam met studente in Afrikaans te vertaal. Naas enkele vroeëre gepubliseerde vertalings uit Engels, was hy ook verantwoordelik vir die vertaling van J.M. Coetzee se Disgrace.

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