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The problem with death: Oliver Roberts reviews Don DeLillo's Zero K

In his latest novel Don DeLillo returns to imponderable themes, writes Oliver Roberts for the Sunday Times

Zero KZero K
Don DeLillo (Picador)
****

In Don DeLillo’s ninth novel, White Noise, narrator Jack Gladney asks, in relation to himself and his wife Babette, “Who will die first?” Later on, Jack discovers that Babette is taking a black-market drug called Dylar that reduces the fear of death, while Jack – after being exposed to toxic air after a chemical explosion – finds out, via computer analysis, that it is he who is more likely to die first.

Jump forward 31 years and seven novels, and the characters in Zero K are jostling with the same fears of death and loneliness, and asking (in just one passage of dialogue):

“Why should some keep living while others die?”

“What good are we if we live forever?”

“What ultimate truth will we confront?”

“Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives?”

“What does it mean to die?”

“Where are the dead?”

“When do you stop being who you are?”

Critics of DeLillo have said that he too often poses these kinds of questions without ever really answering them. For others, however, this open-endedness is precisely what they love about reading DeLillo – the experience is, at times, like having a philosophical discussion with him right there in the room with you.

You don’t read DeLillo for a strong plot, reliable structure and/or solid resolution – you read him for his charged sentences, his posing of those difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions, the way in which he lends everyday occurrences a mysterious meaning, and for the eerie, soothsayer-like prescience that has marked so many of his works.

And if the mid-2000s saw a slight straying from type in his novels Cosmopolis and Point Omega, Zero K marks a more extended return to the mystical tones of White Noise, Libra and even his magnum opus, Underworld. Considering that DeLillo will turn 80 in November, this is quite a feat. If anyone is edging towards immortality, it is the writer himself.

In Zero K, we are taken to a compound in the middle of an Uzbekistan desert where an organisation called “The Convergence” is offering cryogenic preservation to the dying or those who are still healthy but will not accept death. In both instances, the idea is that the body will be frozen until a cure for death has been found.

Protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart travels to the compound to visit his billionaire father (and Convergence benefactor) Ross, who is there to support his wife (Jeffrey’s step-mother) Artis – who is suffering with multiple sclerosis – as she prepares for the cryogenic process. The compound is the kind of trippy DeLilloworld regular readers have come to know and depend on – a strange place with humanoid and sometimes mute characters roaming the halls, multiple doors that seem to lead to nowhere, and TV screens all over showing unsettling and/or unrelated footage.

And it’s cold, too, in its architectural character – lots of glass and aluminium – in the thoughts and mannerisms of members of The Convergence, and in the ambience of the confusing white passageways, which all eventually lead to the place where the living go to be cryogenically suspended.

“I walked the halls,” says Jeffrey Lockhart. “The doors were painted in gradations of muted blue and I tried to name the shades. Sea, sky, butterfly, indigo. All these were wrong and I began to feel more foolish with every step I took and every door I scrutinised. I wanted to see a door open and a person emerge.”

The idea of this suspended state between life and death is explored with characteristic dreaminess, inanity and a kind of anxiety-ridden search for truth, for solid answers, which of course DeLillo never really gives because, as usual, he appears to adore navigating concepts that are unknowable. One chapter is simply the (imagined?) fractured thoughts of Artis as she lies in her suspended state. Her questions come without question marks, the message perhaps being that the complexity of these questions turn them into statements.

“But where is here. And how long am I here and am I only what is here,” she asks.

“Does it keep going on like this.”

“Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I’m someone.”

Zero K is not for DeLillo neophytes. A better entry into his work would be 1985’s White Noise, to which Zero K appears, either by design or development, to be a type of sequel, returning to the same kind of questions while providing different solutions, different and more desperate ways to defeat death or at least delay it.

DeLillo’s readers will be hoping that the writer himself will continue to do the latter for a little while yet.

The life and times of Don DeLillo

  • Born on 20 November 1936 in the Bronx, New York. His parents came to the US from Italy.
  • He was a copywriter at a Madison Avenue advertising agency (the TV series Mad Men is set in the same period).
  • He quit his job in 1964. “I quit my job just to quit. I didn’t quit my job to write fiction. I just didn’t want to work anymore.”
  • He is also a playwright.
  • His first novel was Americana, published in 1971.
  • His ninth novel, White Noise, won the National Book Award.
  • David Cronenberg directed the film Cosmopolis, based on DeLillo’s novel. Released in 2012, it starred Robert Pattinson.

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Top chefs reveal the food they make for the people they love in The Great South African Cookbook

The Great South African CookbookThe Great South African Cookbook: The food we love from 67 of our finest cooks, chefs, bakers, farmers, foragers and local food heroes!

Ever wondered what Reuben Riffel likes to eat when he’s at home with his family? What about the secret to Cass Abrahams’ curry or Jan Braai’s perfect steak? And how exactly does an oyster farmer prefer to eat her prize molluscs? We asked South Africa’s favourite chefs, cooks, producers and local food heroes a simple question: “What is the food you make for the people you love?”

The result is The Great South African Cookbook – 67 contributors, 150 recipes and 372 pages with personal stories from each contributor alongside stunning photography shot entirely on location around South Africa.

Culinary legends and renowned chefs including Luke Dale-Roberts, Ina Paarman, Dorah Sithole, Pete Goffe-Wood, and Siphokazi Mdlankomo star alongside local food heroes: from salt harvesters in the Limpopo to strawberry producers in KwaZulu-Natal and Kalk Bay’s catch of the day in the Western Cape; from Mpumalanga to the Northern Cape and the suburbs and townships of Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, these food heroes opened their homes and hearts and shared recipes they make for the people they love.

“My past has a big impact on how I cook today. I love it when I get to see my kids’ smiling faces as they tuck into bowls of hearty goodness, pretty much the same food that I used to enjoy as a child. What more can a parent ask for?” says restaurateur and MasterChef judge Reuben Riffel.

For Justine Drake it’s all about love; “The secret to preparing, cooking and serving delicious food is keep it fresh and simple, but more importantly to do it with love,” she says.

Siba Mtongana agrees: “Food is all about family and friends, and putting your heart into preparing a meal is the same as presenting them with a wonderful gift.”

The Holy Cow’s Yudhika Sujanani was inspired by her grandmother; “I grew up doing my homework at the kitchen table, cherishing the warm aromas and hearing the gentle swish of my gran’s sari as she moved about from one kitchen task to the next. The kitchen was the heart of our home, and the heartbeat was the food that came out of it. Love is always the secret ingredient that turns ordinary food into magnicent feasts.”

This uniquely South African collection of recipes, guided by editorial steering committee Cass Abrahams, Hilary Biller, Phillippa Cheifitz, David Higgs, Reuben Riffel, Dorah Sithole, Errieda du Toit and Anna Trapido, and brought to life by the distinctive art of Conrad Botes, will support the Nelson Mandela Foundation who will receive all royalties from sales of the book to develop and support community food and agricultural projects to aid in the upliftment of the impoverished through food sustainability and empowerment, in partnership with Food & Trees for Africa.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Chief Executive Sello Hatang said, “The Great South African Cookbook is a showcase of what we have, rather than what we don’t have, as a country. For both me and for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, it means we’ll be able to touch and change lives with food; it’s in everyone’s hands to help make a difference.”

Inspired by Madiba’s example, Tiger Brands, who is the principal sponsor of the book, wanted to give South Africa’s future chefs an opportunity to showcase their talent. “No initiative that pays tribute to Madiba would be quite complete without weaving in his passion for our youth”, says Group Executive for Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Tiger Brands, Bridgitte Backman. The company partnered with the Department of Higher Education to identify culinary colleges in all nine provinces, and invited students to enter a competition in which they answered the same question as all the other contributors: “What do you cook for the people you love?” The 10 winning recipes that appear in the book are testament to the fact that the inspiration to cook always comes from the heart.

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Pound of flesh: Annetjie van Wynegaard reviews The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

This South Korean novel addresses the plight of women everywhere, writes Annetjie van Wynegaard for the Sunday Times

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian
Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Hogarth)
*****

South Korean author Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian is about what women put up with for the sake of being perceived as normal. It’s about crossing boundaries — both mental and physical — and severing the familial ties that bind you to society.

The novel starts when Yeong-hye — up until this point a docile, unremarkable wife, according to her husband — decides to become vegetarian.

The first vignette is told through the eyes of her husband who finds her in the kitchen late one night, discarding all the meat products she can find. When he brusquely asks her what on earth she’s doing, Yeong-hye gives a simple yet startling reply — “I had a dream.”

Kang cleverly sketches the different sides of Yeong-hye’s gradual decline through the eyes of her brute of a husband, her lewd brother-in-law, and her sister, the epitome of the submissive wife and mother.

The reader catches brief glimpses of Yeong-hye’s thoughts and feelings through her disturbing dreams, but this insight dissolves as she locks herself inside her body, away from the world. The first part culminates in a family lunch that takes a violent turn when Yeong-hye’s family try to force-feed her morsels of meat.

The second part of the novel takes place two years after the events of the first and is told from the perspective of the brother-in-law. He becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s birthmark and what follows is his feverish obsession to make her body the canvas for his erotic fantasies.

In the final chapter — through the eyes of perhaps the person closest to Yeong-hye, her sister In-hye — we see the total disintegration of Yeong-hye’s body and mind. As she watches her sister waste away, In-hye remembers a moment when she too attempted to escape. She realised how easy it is to lose yourself: “Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread that had kept her connected with everyday life.”

Deborah Smith’s translation captures the poetic simplicity of this short novel, which was published in 2007 and recently received the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

The Vegetarian is foremost a story of abuse, rebellion and taboo. A simple act of swearing off meat causes Yeong-hye’s family to react violently; each person in turn asserting their right to control her body. No one knows how to handle her “disobedience”; going against the wishes of your husband and father is not something that you do in Korean culture. Yet, it’s her “otherness” that inspires her brother-in-law to pursue his innermost desires.

It’s quite fitting then, that Yeong-hye never speaks for herself in the novel but rather speaks through the metamorphosis of her body, from docile to defiant, a site of struggle and protest. The Vegetarian shook the ground I walked on. It was a necessary awakening.

Follow @Annetjievw

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All the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award shortlistees

2016 Alan Paton Award shortlist
Alan Paton Award

 

The winners of the Sunday Times Literary Awards will be announced on Saturday, 25 June, 2016.

The Alan Paton Award will be bestowed upon a book that presents an “illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

Who do you want to take the award? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below!

The 2016 Alan Paton Award shortlist finalists are:

JM Coetzee and the Life of WritingPapwaTo Quote MyselfRapeShowdown at the Red Lion

 
Click here for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist
 

Read interviews with all the shortlistees:

Brazilian edition of Futhi Ntshingila's Do Not Go Gentle published

Sem GentilezaThis week sees the publication of Futhi Ntshingila’s second novel, Do Not Go Gentle, into Portuguese. Brazilian publishers, Dublinense have translated the novel into Portuguese and now it is out.

Both Gustavo Faraon and I were participants in the 2012 Frankfurt Invitation Programme, which is where we met and when we met to look at each other’s catalogues the following year, the seeds of this translation project were sown. Here is the English translation from google translate of the press release put out by Dublinense on June 22nd, 2016.

“This is not just any book.
Without kindness (Direct Translation of Sem Gentileza – the Portuguese title) was written by Futhi Ntshingila. She’s a South African. She’s Zulu.

Although so rich in features – and here counted with the paints only a culture that is not our own, from an imaginary one so different and in a way so own -, stories very similar to this sprout for all corners of the world. Are stories of women who have not been given a choice not to be resist and try, like her, preserve her own integrity.
Women that need to be strong – only because they are women.

The journey that led to the publication of this book began, in fact, to meet the publisher modjaji books, from Cape Town, and his incredible publisher militant Colleen Higgs. The Publisher, baptized in tribute to the goddess of the rain, there is to give space to the South African women, whose voices vibrant remained relegated to the sidelines and in the shade since forever.

This editorial project was really inspiring to us. And it seemed clear that it was necessary to bring the books that Colleen edited for an even bigger audience, to Brazil, for you. We were reading and analyzing various titles, and it was clear that the stories could be unique, but together they reflected an issue that is not limited to a specific region or culture. And so we come to this novel which we believe to be very representative.

Our Brazilian edition in Portuguese of without kindness is the first in a foreign language. The own author now is dedicated to translate it to isizulu.
That is why, for us, this is not just any book. It points to something that we want to pursue.

That this book find many readers and readers in Brazil, and that this will allow us to continue bringing many other stories that help to give a voice to those who do not have.”

Gustavo Faraon of Dublinense at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015

Gustavo Faraon of Dublinense at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015

We hope that Futhi will be invited to a literary festival and will be able to go to Brazil later this year to meet her new audience.

As the press release says, Modjaji is looking to bring out an isiZulu edition of Do Not Go Gentle in 2017. Futhi is doing the translation herself. Watch this space!

Do Not Go Gentle

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Jacket Notes: Brett Archibald tells the story behind his book Alone - lost at sea and forced to swim for over 28 hours

nullAloneAlone: The Search For Brett Archibald
Brett Archibald (Jacana Media)

On the day of my rescue, where I spent close to seven hours with the Aussie blokes aboard the Barrenjoey, I scribbled down everything I could remember of being lost at sea and forced to swim for over 28 hours in the Indian Ocean. I was then re-united with my friends on the Naga Laut, and over the next 10 days we spent hours sharing the stories and recounting our feelings, emotions and thoughts of my time being lost in the ocean.

I soon realised that there were a number of uncanny comparisons between our trip and those of the lads on the Barrenjoey. We were nine mates on a surf trip to celebrate a 50th birthday; they were too. Our trip had been dogged by a number of mishaps; theirs had too. It seemed to be a tale that was meant to be told. My main objective was always to document the details for my young children, as I knew that the enormity of what had happened to all of us was beyond their comprehension at the time. I wanted the full story to be available for them to read as they grew up.

Fortuitously, I had found a wonderful author with whom I felt an immediate connection, and who agreed to write the story. Over a year I spent almost every morning at her house exploring the nuances and depths of my memories and arranging for her to conduct interviews with the people involved.

The process itself was a form of extended therapy for me. Reliving my experiences in the finest detail was a deeply moving process, though at the time mostly subjective. It was only on reading the full manuscript some 12 months later that the fuller picture unfolded for me and I came to grasp the magnitude of what had transpired during my time in the ocean.

The inexplicable unity of people from around the world who had prayed for me or sent wishes via the “Searching for Brett Archibald” Facebook page blew me away. Over the past three years, I have gone on to learn these amazing stories from people all over the world, many of whom I had never previously met, who played some role in this crazy drama.

They all affect me and contribute to my comprehension of my experience. There is simply no way that a person can spend 28-and-a-half hours thinking he is going to die, and then surviving by the slimmest of margins, without gaining a completely new perspective on life. I get to contemplate this thought every day.

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