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'Plenty of humour, yet politics darken the idyll, and beautifully written' - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Queen of the Free State

Published in The Witness

MEMOIRS by relatively unknown writers inevitably make you ask – why would anyone want to read about someone they have never heard of? Apologies to Jennifer Friedman here: she is a published poet, but sadly poetry confers little celebrity these days within the reading public.

Friedman, now living in Australia, grew up in a small Free State town in the 1950s and 60s, the daughter of the local pharmacist, and a member of the only Jewish family in an overwhelmingly Afrikaans and conservative environment.

She was an imaginative and rebellious child and that immediately put her at loggerheads with parents who were determined to conform and not stand out too much, and who seemingly made no allowances for their eldest child.

The style is episodic: short chapters telling of events in what was in some respects an idyllic childhood. Jennifer loved and was loved by the family’s servants who gave her the affection her parents seemed unable to express.

There is plenty of humour, including one hilarious scene when she bites a teacher because she wanted to know what she tasted like. And another, which many female readers will relate to – the horror of being taken off by an embarrassing mother to buy the dreaded first bra.

But there is a darker side to Friedman’s story. Politics begin to intrude, darkening the idyll as unknowable and incomprehensible adults react to the Sharpeville massacre and the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd. There are undercurrents of racism and anti-Semitism, and above all, Friedman’s ongoing battles, sometimes physical, with her parents, who do not come out of this memoir with much credit.

The writing is beautiful, as you might expect from a poet. It lifts the story, giving it weight beyond its telling of a small life. Though, of course, no life is really small, and to be able to glimpse the experiences of another is a way to make sense of some of your own. Also, stories from South Africans of all backgrounds add to the rich and often disturbing history of the country, an important archive for the future. – Margaret von Klemperer

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Book Bites: 14 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman (HarperCollins)
Book buff
****
Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel is an uncomfortable read. Her exploration and critique of modern-day society’s obsession with consumerism is unerring. Within the first few pages Kleeman, via the narrator, comments on the warped contemporary ideals of female beauty; the dangerous allure of advertising; and our innate need and insatiable desire to consume. It’s told in the first person narrative, simply by someone known as “A” who lives with “B”. They are 20-something women living in small-town America who are basically your girls next door. But “A” becomes part of a cult and their lives begin to unravel. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is unsettling as it hits so close to home. The characters in the novel are people you know, people you’ve met, you. Kleeman has written an existential, accessible novel reminiscent of Requiem For a Dream and Fight Club which will make you think twice before buying into any trend of any sort. – Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016
PJ O’Rourke (Penguin Random House)
Book real
***
Veteran journalist/humorist PJ O’Rourke’s latest work, on the US election, asks the question in its title. Unfortunately, much of the first part of the book is unfunny, college-style humour that will fail to find traction among readers outside the US. But he later gets into his stride, commenting on the two candidates: “Yet to call Hillary robotic is an insult to androids. She’s more like someone trapped inside a Hillary costume, one of those dressed-up characters pestering tourists in Times Square.” As for Trump: “Trump was the guy from the mailroom who somehow wound up with a job interview for the position of national sales manager. If you promote him it will be a disaster. But if you leave him in the mailroom he’ll take his pants down, sit on the Xerox machine, and fax the result to all your customers.” The closing chapters of the book offer an insight into the populist wave sweeping world politics, not least here in South Africa where “radical economic transformation” has become a catch-all slogan and supposed popular remedy for our economic problems. Being a libertarian and believer in small government, O’Rourke cogently expresses his disappointment with the revolt against ruling elites in the US and around the world. Instead of pursuing a new, libertarian option, however, voters find populism more appealing. He writes: “We should be learning the value of individual dignity, individual freedom, and individual responsibility from the failure of the elites and the fiasco of their vast political power. Good things are made by free individuals in free association with other individuals. Notice that’s how we make babies.” He continues: “But we aren’t learning lessons in individual freedom, because we’re too scared. We’re daunted at the pace of material change, unnerved over social configurations, fretful about economic instability, and terrified by terrorism.” Yes, the elites have messed up around the world, O’Rourke says, but the answer is not populism and a narrowing of individual liberty and responsibility. And certainly not Trump. – Patrick Bulger

A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles (Penguin Viking)
Book thrill
****
This is a splendid tale of a man making the most of the cards life has dealt him. The story begins in the 1920s, when a Bolshevik tribunal finds Count Alexander Rostov guilty of being an aristocrat. His punishment: permanent house arrest in the attic of the luxurious Hotel Metropol. Here the count embarks on the biggest adventure of his life. It’s as much a tale of unlikely friendships and magnificent encounters as it is a fictionalised, wry account of Russian history. Towles is guilty of a well-wrought plot and vivid three-dimensional characters: the precocious nine-year-old, the volatile chef, the omniscient concierge, the nimble maître d’ and the conniving bishop make A Gentleman in Moscow a stylish, charming novel that informs and delights. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The Golden Son
Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins)
Book fling
***
Anil and Leena grow up together in the same Indian village. But the lives of the two friends diverge: Anil finds himself in the US training to become a doctor, while Leena is married to a man she doesn’t know and is brought to an unfamiliar village. The reality of their lives is at odds with their dreams: encountering racism, sexism, domestic violence, the culture of privilege and inequality. The Golden Son is a coming-to-America tale, illustrating the cost of travelling to new places: “He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie
 
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Jonathan Jansen and his sister Naomi Jansen pay tribute to their mother in Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother. Read the extract.

Published in the Sunday Times

In this extract, Jonathan Jansen pays tribute to the mother whose sacrifices helped him and their siblings achieve success despite the odds

Song for SarahSong for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother by Jonathan Jansen with Naomi Jansen (Bookstorm). Also available in Afrikaans as Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van my Ma

“When you thought about it, everything seemed to work against the Cape Flats mother, from family dislocation to financial hardship, to absentee fathers, to the relentless pressure of gangs and drugs. As an energetic teenager involved in church youth leadership in the southern areas, this single question would haunt me during the obligatory huisbesoek (house visits): how on earth do these mothers do it?

Consider Mrs Volmink from Belgravia Estate in Athlone who put four boys and two girls through tertiary qualifications. One son leads a university, another is a medical school dean, and the other a prominent public sector lawyer; in their number you would also find a distinguished teacher and one who made his career in the training and development of civil servants. The eldest daughter died after a car crash because the whites-only ambulance would take only her pale friend. For long periods of time Johanna Volmink raised the children alone. Hardship was ever present in her home and yet not a single child fits the stereotype represented in comedy routines or violent novels or the evening news. When it came to human decency, academic achievement and community service, Mrs Volmink achieved much more in her home than any of the white families I knew in the well-to-do suburbs of Upper Claremont and Wynberg Proper.

As I pondered that haunting “how” question about these mothers over the years I realised that the answer was in front of me, all around me, even gave birth to me. That Cape Flats mother was Sarah Susan Johnson, married Jansen. Suddenly it all made sense. How they dealt with their pasts. How they organised their homes. How they raised their children. How they made sense of politics. How they managed affection. How they drew on their faith. How they communicated core values. How they thought about education. How they led with their lives.

The products of their labour were no accident, as the poet Shirmoney Rhode would tell Litnet of the grandmother who raised her at Nomme 20 Delphi Straat (the 2016 book title) in Elsies River:

Ek is ’n produk van haar 3am prayers

En harde werk of course

(I am a product of her 3am prayers

And hard work of course)

The Cape Flats mother was not faultless. Who is? To the children growing up, the mother was seen as being too harsh at times but was always deeply respected. This praise song is not, however, about the failings of our mothers but about the fact that they succeeded at all. None of the children was perfect. Whose are? To the mother the child was never one to be abandoned in the wrong but to be picked up again and again, and nudged towards what was right. And they did this work of correction day after day, for weeks followed by months, and year after year, sometimes even into adulthood and marriage.

The matriarchal figure hovered over that child for life. Many stories have been told on the Flats of a small-bodied mother reaching out to deliver retribution to the tall, well-built son who stands there quietly as he takes the timid smack to the face or the ineffectual punch to the body. She had earned the right to reprimand her grown child. This story of the Cape Flats mother, and of many mothers across the length and breadth of South Africa, will be told in this book.

Being the eldest in the family, my siblings suspected that I was favoured by my parents. Of course I felt differently because of the constant pressure from my mother to “set the example” as the eldest. “Firstborn”, my sister would nevertheless tease me, and that will be my third-person voice in the main text. For a reality check, I asked this sister of mine to add in her own reflections on our mother as the only girl smack bang in the middle of two older and two younger boys.

Naomi Jansen has the knack of saying and seeing things as they really are. One day that sting in her commentary really got to me as a boy so I chased her along the very short route from the kitchen to her bedroom. By dint of practice she managed to dash into the room, close the door and secure the latch bolt lock in one and the same swift action but it was too late. I ran right through the flimsy green planks of that wooden door. The personal shock probably saved my sister from further repercussions although I never could raise a hand against any of the siblings.

Her sharper eye and tongue therefore qualify Naomi to give another view of our mother. My sister’s voice appears in italics as “Naomi remembers”. In appropriate places she shares her own experiences and insights into our remarkable mother. Sometimes Naomi’s recollection or interpretation of events is different from mine, and that is fine. It is what gives this work of memory an added and special value.

“While you are under this roof,” my mother would often chide, “you will do as I say.” Under this roof is both a telling metaphor about us and the interwoven tiles above us. Sarah knew that she had little direct control over what happened in the harsh outside world. We would all grow up one day and make our own decisions as working adults and parents of children. There was little our mother could change about that. But while under her roof, the rules applied. That was where she had authority over the five children and, as will be explained, also over her husband. There was not much overhead roof to speak of in the small council house, but anyone who stayed in that confined space, including a string of relatives, would abide by Sarah’s rules.

It was under Sarah’s roof that I learnt how to live and where she would teach us how to die. Under that roof I learnt the value of selfless giving and the importance of personal discipline. Sarah did not only tell, she showed. And nothing impressed more heavily on the children’s consciousness than what my mother taught us about the ethics of work. She laboured day and night, literally, as a shift nurse. “Nobody ever died of hard work,” she would say all the time and you knew that offering a medical science rebuttal might lead to a premature meeting with your Maker.

Mrs Sedras, Mrs Volmink and Mrs Jansen are not alone. There are thousands of mothers spread across the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa who deserve recognition for their heroic efforts in raising families under difficult conditions. On one hand, this book could be read as an attempt at recovery of “the other mothers” whose stories have been buried by unrelenting stereotypes of women from the flatland areas of the Cape. On the other hand, such heroic mothers are found in every community where ordinary people struggle to make impossible ends meet. This work of recovery is offered, therefore, as a song of gratitude for all mothers.

Or to borrow from Diana Ferrus in A poem for Sarah Baartman:

I have come to take you home

Where I will sing for you

For you have brought me peace

The floppy brown purse
Nothing would test Sarah’s resilience more sorely than when the children went to university. Apartheid created universities for people they labelled by both race and ethnicity. Since Firstborn was deemed coloured, his destination was the University of the Western Cape in Bellville; the University of Cape Town was so much closer but they could not have him. The young student was also proud enough not to plead for a government concession (the permit, they called it) to attend a white university and specify a course not offered at UWC to justify studies in nearby Rondebosch.

The long journey from Retreat in the southern suburbs to Bellville in the northern areas took forever. And it was costly. One Monday morning Firstborn desperately needed money to take the taxi, train and bus to get to university. Hiking, as he normally did when there was no money, might get him to campus too late for a scheduled chemistry test. So he slunk into the bedroom where Sarah was in a deep sleep after working the hospital night shift. “Does Mummy have any money?” he whispered and instantly woke her up.

Sarah knew that she did not have a cent but nevertheless reached for her flat brown purse, opened it up and pretended to search for coins among the scribbled papers inside. There was nothing and the tears started welling up in her eyes. That day Firstborn decided to drop out of university and look for a job; the pain on Sarah’s face was simply unbearable.

Of course that was the last thing Sarah wanted and so one day she arranged with an uncle to collect Firstborn and drive him to Bellville while persuading him all along the way not to give up. If Sarah had not made that arrangement Firstborn would still be drifting between Anchor Yeast where he started in a laboratory with far too few skills and helping a brother from the church sell his fish on Prince George Drive, the M5 which linked the white suburbs to the north with the whites-only Muizenberg beach on the False Bay coastline. Where Sarah found the money none of the children ever knew, but from that day there were always a few coins in her purse “just in case” Firstborn needed them. But he never asked again.

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Balancing the book shelves: Anneke Rautenbach interviews women who are creating more diverse stories for children

Anneke Rautenbach writes for the Sunday Times

Good Night Stories for RebelsGood Night Stories for Rebels
Various (Penguin Random House)

“Daughters can also be heroic.” If there is a maxim that Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo – co-founders of the children’s media company, Timbuktu Labs – live by, it’s this line by the 18th-century Chinese poet and astronomer, Wang Zhenyi. They would stake their career on it.

Wang is one of 100 women – including Ada Lovelace, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller and Miriam Makeba – whose sumptuously illustrated biographies make up Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children’s book created by Favilli and Cavallo and published by Penguin Random House in April. It chimes with a moment when parents and children across the world are demanding more diverse and positive representation – of gender, race, and sexual orientation – in children’s literature. Nothing speaks to this more than the project’s success on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo: having raised more than $1-million, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls has become the most highly funded original book in crowd-funding history.

The 30-something Italian duo say Donald Trump’s election in November gave their project a greater sense of urgency. About a month before, The Washington Post revealed the video in which the future president brags that his celebrity status allows him to do “whatever he wants” to women – even “grab them by the p**sy”.

“So many people have thanked us,” says Favilli. “The book represents not only a collection of bedtime stories, but a set of values that are now in danger.”

In a recent article for The Guardian, Favilli and Cavallo quoted the kinds of statistics that have galvanised them since starting Timbuktu Labs: by the time girls are six, they already perceive themselves as intellectually inferior to boys, according to the journal Science; and a survey by the University of Florida of children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 revealed that 25% of them had no female characters at all and 37% had none who spoke.

“Children’s media lacks diversity not only in terms of gender,” says Cavallo. “We looked for women from countries that are not usually represented, and we wanted to feature as many fields as possible.”

One of the first stories in the book belongs to Amna Al Haddad, a weightlifter from the United Arab Emirates. The book also features the story of Coy Mathis, a transgender girl who, in 2013 at age six, won a landmark case when a Colorado judge ruled in favour of her choice to use the bathroom she prefers.

A little closer to home, Buhle Ngaba, 26, a stage actress from North West, wrote The Girl Without A Sound specifically for black girls – “the ones with moonlight in her skin”. Originally intending to create a gift for her aunt who read her stories and nursery rhymes as a child, she found that she had written the fairy tale that was missing from her childhood – “about a little girl who looks like me.” Ngaba’s character isn’t waiting for a prince to save her.

“She simply goes out in search of a sound of her own.”

Ngaba, who is also the founder of KaMatla, a non-profit arts organisation that develops storytelling among underprivileged youth, describes her publishing model as the reverse of crowd-funding. “I didn’t have a lot of money, but just got the book out there.”

A team of talented friends helped to edit, promote and illustrate the story using a combination of drawing and photography. In February last year, a free PDF was made available online in English and Tswana. Within the first week, 3000 copies had been downloaded.

“I liked that you could print it yourself,” says Ngaba. “Because that means any little girl can do it.”

They have since received support from the Centre for Early Childhood Development. A month after the online launch, printed copies were made available, and more South African language translations are in the pipeline.

The response has been extraordinary, adds Ngaba, especially from black women. “We didn’t even know we were missing ourselves.”

Ngaba sees her book as part of movement towards fairer representation in local fiction, always tagging her social media posts #booksforblackgirls. But by no means does this mean that children of other races can’t enjoy it too, she says. “It’s a self-love thing. It’s simply about balancing the bookshelves.”

Similarly, Rebel Girls is not about excluding boys. “Girls are used to being the guests in other books,” says Cavallo. “We identify with Sherlock Holmes, with Inspector Gadget, Pinocchio, Superman. People often ask us when we are going to make a book for rebel boys – this is the book for rebel boys.”

Crowdfunded books that are making waves

•The Princess Who Saved Herself by Greg Pak, about a rock ‘n’ roll princess and her pet snake. It “reinvents the princess myth for a new generation of proactive girls”. With a $15000 goal, it has raised $111759.

•Wollstonecraft by Airship Ambassador. A “Snicketesque” fictional adventure for 8- to 12-year-olds, featuring Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science-fiction author. With a $4000 goal, it has raised $91751.

•Flamingo Rampant by S Bear Bergman. A racially and body-diverse series about LGBT2Q families and their children, in which girls and women are “problem-solvers and action-takers”. The latest in the series has raised $70305 with a $63000 goal.

Q&A with Ambre Nicolson, author of the crowdfunded An A to Z of AmaZing South African Women – forthcoming from Modjaji Books

Was this book inspired by Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls?
It was actually inspired by the American book Rad American Women A-Z. I saw the book two years ago and immediately wished there was a local version. When I realised there wasn’t, and on a dare from a friend, I decided to make one – with permission from the American publisher, City Lights, and support from the local female-centred publisher, Modjaji Books. Our book does share one thing with Rebel Girls, and that is that the makers of both books wanted to create the book we wished we had when we were young.

Why now?
At a time when the idea that women’s rights are human rights seems so imperiled, it feels like any project that recognises women as multi-faceted, powerful protagonists is urgently needed. Particularly in South Africa, with its troubled history and terrible record of gender inequality and gender-based violence, I think too often women are presented as one of several stereotypes: the tragic heroine, the angry humourless banshee, the sexpot. I think it’s important to provide stories that show South African women in all their complexity – this is what we hope to do with our book.

How did you choose the women for each letter?
Choosing only one woman for each letter of the alphabet was an almost impossible task. For every one woman featured, we debated dozens of others. Trying to showcase a breadth of human endeavour as well as ensure that the demographics of the women featured reflect the reality of South Africa made the selection process all the more complex. But what a wonderful problem to have! Beyond trying to showcase the diversity of amazing South African women, we also wanted to make sure we didn’t just choose the usual suspects. The question we asked ourselves was always, “Is she a badass?” As a result I like to think we featured a healthy amount of rebels, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. These are women refuse to sit down and keep quiet. Not one of them “knows their place” I’m very happy to say.

What else unites these women?
I have been humbled by so many stories of resourcefulness and resilience and compassion. Looking at these stories as a whole certain themes also emerged: The women in our book are all united by experiencing adversity, in fact often this was essential to their development, as well as having a certain bloody-minded persistence.

What do you think of the potential of crowd-funding as a publishing model?
When it comes to books, I think crowd-funding is an exciting way to create interest around a project, while at the same time allowing people to pre-order copies. Arthur Attwell, [co-founder of Book Dash, a grassroots children’s publishing initiative] recently put it well: “Crowd-funded publishing is no longer an unusual way to fund important books. This is the way it’s going to happen, and it turns every one of us into talent-spotting publishing investors.”

Is this book by women for women? Or is it for everyone?
This book is about our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends. So I do think it is for everyone. I think it should be a book that you buy for the amazing woman or women in your life. But if I could choose just one person to give this book to it would be that 13 or 14-year-old girl who is just starting to figure out who she is in the world. I would like her to know that the South African women who went before her are truly amazing.

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Book Bites: 7 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Traveling with GhostsTraveling With Ghosts
Shannon Leone Fowler (Orion)
Book real
***
In 2002, Shannon and Sean are backpacking through Thailand when Sean is stung by a box jellyfish. In a matter of minutes, Shannon’s fiancé is dead. Days later, Shannon miscarries their child. Finding herself unable to cope with the normal day to day, Shannon uses her savings to travel through Eastern Europe. Traveling with Ghosts is a journey of grief, that is interwoven with memories of her life with Sean. She lays out the rocky journey of loss: from the well-meaning but hurtful platitudes, to what actually helps a person as they grapple with tragedy. A powerful read, especially for people who struggle to live with death. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

CaravalCaraval
Stephanie Garber (Hodder & Stoughton)
Book fling
***
Think of the Carnival of Venice – the equivalent of the Mardi Gras of the hot southern climes but more mysterious, dignified and exclusive. Caraval shares the magic and mystery, not to mention the canals, of this pre-Lenten festival. Scarlett and her younger sister Tella, live under the cruel and tyrannical thumb of their father: Scarlett is eager to marry an unknown suitor who will take her and Tella away from their sadistic father, but when she receives an invitation to attend the magic circus run by Master Legend Santos, she cannot resist. Scarlett, Tella and a “golden brown” sailor, Julian, reach the magical island and take part in the game of caraval. Rich, luscious, intriguing, Caraval is an exciting read. – Aubrey Paton

SlippingSlipping: Stories, Essays and Other Writing
Lauren Beukes (Tachyon Publications)
Book fiend
****
Lauren Beukes can be so cool and cutting it leaves you cold. Her uber-trendy style is signature, but Slipping shines when she eschews the snark for intimacy and heart. This collection showcases the range of her talent across 11 years of speculative and experimental fiction, intense relationship dramas and journalistic essays (in which you can see much of the inspiration for her stories). Beukes excels at writing body horror and unhappy endings. She shows readers the brutality in the way bodies are modified for the pleasure and profit of others (contrasted with power in revelling in your own body) and articulates what social media and reality TV are doing to us. Occasionally alien life appears, terrifying and incomprehensible, yet humans are always far worse in comparison. It’s funny and entertaining too, but perhaps best read when you want something to creep under your skin and connect. – Lauren Smith @violin_ina_void

The Fire ChildThe Fire Child
SK Tremayne (HarperCollins)
Book thrill
***
Chilling. Terrifying. It plays out like a movie in your head, one you can’t stop watching. Rachel is married to the charming, successful, and rich David. She moves into his old family house in an isolated part of Cornwall. But when her stepson Jamie starts to claim that he is haunted by his dead mother, Rachel begins digging. David refuses to talk about what is happening to Jamie or about his ex-wife, and Rachel becomes very suspicious. An eerie thriller with a satisfying end. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Story with a shaggy dog: Anton Ferreira talks to Michiel Heyns about his latest book I am Pandarus

Michiel Heyns retells ‘Troilus & Criseyde’, writes Anton Ferreira for the Sunday Times
 
I am PandarusI Am Pandarus
Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
***

Ever since devouring Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, I have come to regard a list of characters at the start of a book to be an auspicious omen of what is to come. In the character list for I Am Pandarus, Michiel Heyns had me right after Achilles, at A is for Adrastos.

Adrastos is the Anatolian shepherd dog of Pandarus, one of two narrators in Heyns’s reworking of the Troilus and Criseyde/Cressida story that has been told previously by Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others. (Full disclosure: I have an 80kg Anatolian shepherd dog at home in real life, and he is the sweetest, handsomest, and most devoted companion imaginable.)

“I have a dog in every book,” Heyns tells me. “Anatolians are a very old breed and would have been around in Troy. I like having dogs in my books.”

That he loves his dog adds to Pandarus’s likeability. A skilled archer for the Trojans, he spends much of his time during the siege as Cupid, trying to get his friend Troilus into bed with his niece Criseyde. You have to like a person who sees the importance of love in a time of war.

“Chaucer’s story is a love story,” says Heyns. “The love aspects became more important as I was writing, and it’s actually very sad in that it’s a reflection on the impermanence of love. Troilus at the end, in the Chaucerian version, he goes up to the seventh sphere of heaven or somewhere, and he looks down and he sort of laughs at the people grieving next to his dead body. Because he says, ‘Well there is a greater love up here; that is so trivial, earthly love,’ which is one perspective. In one way it’s a consolation and in another way it makes it sadder.”

Heyns, who taught Chaucer’s 14th-century Troilus and Criseyde for many years during his tenure as an English professor at Stellenbosch University, says he has wanted to write his own version for a long time. “I started with Troilus and Criseyde and then through that I went back to the Iliad which is the ultimate source of all these stories. These things overlap and combine in this novel which is a bit of a hodge-podge of Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Iliad.”

“As I was working it became more contemporary; originally I tried to keep to the story as handed down by Chaucer and Shakespeare, and then as I was working at it I thought well there’s no reason I can’t change this, because every generation rewrites the Iliad. There is no actual history, these are all versions… so I thought I might as well create a new one.”

The Heyns version is somewhat more accessible than some of the previous ones, and is laced with reasons to chortle; in I Am Pandarus, Helen of Troy, for example, “may have been the world’s first trophy wife – and if she wasn’t much of a wife, she was indubitably a trophy, albeit of the floating variety”.

Heyns faced a difficulty in having Pandarus talk about modern concepts like trophy wives. “I had a terrible problem with anachronisms – where do I situate this story? In Troy, in 14th-century England, in 16th-century England? And what kind of frame of reference do I give these characters? So I thought let’s have an overarching frame of reference, which would be the modern one… So it was a cheat in a way but it permits me to introduce what would otherwise be a very anachronistic frame of reference.”

His solution was to have Pandarus materialise in a contemporary London gay bar, Halfway to Heaven, and give his memoir to a publisher. The London publisher develops little depth as a character, and the sections set in Halfway to Heaven have a whiff of bolted-on contrivance, but the story that unfolds in ancient Troy is riveting.

One of the excerpts with which Heyns prefaces the book is from Milan Kundera: “Today, the history of the planet has finally become one indivisible whole, but it is war… that embodies and guarantees this long-desired unity of mankind.”

The extract is “rather gloomy”, Heyns acknowledges. “But it’s not the last word on the story, it was just a way into the story: ‘here’s a story about war’. We are now at a time when we seem to staring war in the face again.”

A good time to keep our eyes on the antidote. As Heyns notes, “It was Philip Larkin who said, ‘What will survive of us is love.’”

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