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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Shady nuclear deals with Russians, sinister ISIS operatives, the CIA and SA’s devious spies – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Mike Nicol’s plausible and fast-moving Sleeper

Published in the Witness: 5 November 2018

Sleeper, Mike Nicol
Umuzi

Mike Nicol’s fictional world can be brutal, disturbing and, at times, downright scary because it is all too plausible with the wild mix of corruption, mayhem and good and bad people that make up South Africa, both in reality and in fiction.

But because many of his characters are familiar from other outings, there is, paradoxically, something comforting about it.

Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn might have their flaws, but the reader will root for them – they are an appealing duo, and we like them.

The plot here is complicated, but Nicol is a skilled operator, and manages to twist and re-weave all the strands into a credible whole.

When Sleeper opens, the Minister of Energy has been murdered, and Fish is hired by the murdered man’s lover, Caitlyn Suarez, an international businesswoman, to find out who is the culprit because the cops are determined to pin it on to her. She has also got a minder, Krista Bishop – whose roots run deep in Nicol’s fiction. Then the policeman investigating the minister’s murder, and who is also Fish’s neighbour, commits suicide. More trouble for Fish.

Meanwhile, Vicki, who is having a problem with her gambling addiction, is called in by her former boss at the South African spy agency to track down a pair of Iranians who are trying to steal highly enriched uranium, still held by South Africa at a remote location in the Northern Cape.

And just how are the director of the Department of Energy – now without a minister – and a top nuclear scientist involved in all this?

Nicol creates a world of shady nuclear deals with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and threats of dirty bombs. In it sinister ISIS operatives, the CIA, South Africa’s own devious spies, crooked politicians and a sleeper deeply embedded in local society all ply their increasingly dirty trades.

It makes for a plausible, fast-moving novel – and leaves you wondering how much of this sort of thing is actually going on under our noses. Just one example: has South Africa really got rid of all the nuclear material that was stockpiled in the bad old days?

And if not, where is it and who has their hands on it?

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Launch: Theo & Flora by Mark Winkler (1 November)

When stalled novelist Charlie Wasserman’s investment-banker wife divorces him, he finds among her belongings a box of letters. Written between 1940 and 1944, the letters reveal a love affair between her grandfather, Theo, a forty-something lawyer at the time, and Flora, a much younger journalist.

Even though Wasserman’s ex-wife has her lawyers instruct him to destroy the letters, an idea for a new book – a novel that could rekindle his career – is sparked.

As Wasserman’s preoccupation with the story of Theo and Flora grows, their lives unfurl in a symphony of brilliant detail against the backdrop of 1940s Cape Town and the war in Europe. In finely crafted prose full of wit and poignancy,

Theo & Flora showcases the skill of one of South Africa’s great contemporary novelists.

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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.

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Trappings of science-fiction aside, Imraan Coovadia’s A Spy in Time remains a compelling and relevant book, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Witness: 24/09/2018

IMRAAN Coovadia is a writer who can never be pigeonholed – each new book whizzes off in a different direction. We’ve had everything from laugh-out-loud funny to poignant, with all stops in-between. Here we’re in the realms of time-travelling.

But one thing doesn’t change: Coovadia never wants his reader to get too comfortable or to be able to second guess the writer. Here we have to manoeuvre mentally on the slippery footing of a different world, where the hero can shift from the past – 1955 in Marrakech or 1967 in Rio – to the distant future on Jupiter or the year 2271 in Johannesburg or, finally, to the Day of the Dead in 2472.

That was (or is going to be) when a supernova strikes earth. Enver Eleven, the central figure of A Spy in Time, is member of the Historical Agency whose task is to ensure that catastrophe never happens again. When the supernova struck, a small part of the population made it into the mines deep under Johannesburg where they created their own, not entirely brave, new world of spies, robots and fear. But in the past, present and future, there may be those plotting against the Agency, and Enver’s job is to find them, if they exist.

Enver’s world is one where a white skin is reviled and distrusted, where freedom of expression is curtailed and where questions of whether it should be possible, or permissible, to alter the past and thus change the future are important.

Coovadia is on record as having said that the seed for this novel was sown by the Fallist movement at the University of Cape Town, and his post-apocalyptic vision here, with its lack of trust and bubbling undercurrents of anger and lack of pity is a disturbing one. Of course, Coovadia’s writing always contains elements of humour and they are here too, though perhaps less prominent than in some of his earlier novels.

There are moments when the reader will wonder what on earth, or out of it, is going on in this tale. But the telling of it is compelling and the issues it raises, although cloaked in the trappings of science fiction, are pertinent.

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Beautifully written and thoroughly enjoyable – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Maya Fowler’s Patagonia

Published in the Witness: 10/09/2018

On the title page of Patagonia the novel is subtitled “A Fugue”, a piece of music introduced by one voice or instrument and taken up by others, and that is exactly how Maya Fowler’s excellent tale is structured.

Tertius de Klerk is an incompetent university lecturer whose career has stalled, and whose marriage to the feisty Alta seems to be zooming towards the rocks. Whatever he tries to do is doomed as, hapless and inarticulate, he totters from one minor disaster to another – until the day he gets drunk and falls into bed with a student.

The ensuing catastrophe is bigger than anything he could have imagined.

Tertius is not the quickest thinker you will ever meet in fiction, but in a panic he decides to head for Patagonia, the remote South American region where various Boers headed after the Anglo-Boer war, hankering for wide open spaces and no British bullies. He has some remote, unknown relatives there, and maybe they will help him – or at least shelter him.

The next character we meet, back in the early 19th Century, is Basjan, Tertius’s great-grandfather, also escaping to Patagonia, though not for quite the same reasons as the other travellers he is with: he has plenty to hide.

And then we encounter the other two voices in this fugue -– Tertius’s wife Alta who has no intention of letting her errant husband off lightly and is in hot pursuit of him and Salome, tough, desperate and pregnant who is hunting down Basjan. The men are running away while the women are on a quest. Perhaps Patagonia stands as a metaphor, for an escape on the one hand, a hunt on the other.

But that makes the novel sound altogether too serious.

Fowler writes beautifully – her descriptions of the four journeys and the empty aridity of the southern tip of South America are riveting, while Tertius’s encounter with his cousin Alejo who lives on a remote dilapidated farm and speaks a deliciously fractured language is hilarious.

There are serious themes in Patagonia that will stay with the reader, leaving things to ponder after the book is closed, but the rake’s progress of the four main characters on their disparate journeys is hugely entertaining. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

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Humour, history and tragedy intertwine in Karin Brynard’s complex and captivating Homeland, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Witness: 27/08/2018

Homeland
Karin Brynard (translated by Linde Dietrich)
Penguin Books

ORIGINALLY published in Afrikaans as Tuisland, Homeland comes with a weight of expectation. Karin Brynard’s previous crime novels (Weeping Waters and Our Fathers) were superb and her main character, Captain Albertus Beeslaar, is an endearing if grumpy hero.

At the opening of Homeland, Beeslaar has made the momentous decision to quit the police, move back to Johannesburg to be with Gerda and his infant daughter and take a better paid job with a security company. But his boss General Mogale, who is even grumpier than Beeslaar, has one final job for him in the Kalahari: allegations of police brutality are being made after an elder in the San community was found dead shortly after his release from custody, and there is about to be a big political rally in the area. Things are sensitive and need speedy handling, not least to silence the whispers of witchcraft that are spreading.

As always with Brynard, there are other strands to the story. In a smart lodge, one of the staff sees a German tourist interfering with a small, silent local child, and does the only thing she can think of to stop him – she hits him, hard. Afraid he is dead, she takes the child and goes on the run. And then the German’s body goes missing. Mogale dispatches Colonel Koeskoes Mentoor to deal with that case.

Next, the policeman Beeslaar is investigating for brutality gets himself killed. Mentoor, who had what she hoped was a secret affair with the dead man, is convinced she knows the identity of the killer, but Beeslaar is less sure. Theirs is not going to be a relationship made in heaven and Mentoor has no inhibitions about pulling rank and doesn’t take well to criticism.

Brynard is skilled at putting her finger on issues of importance. Here she plunges the reader into matters of race, land, history, crooked policemen and the curious anomaly that is the town of Orania. She highlights the divisions within the San community over land – which groups want it for what reasons – and their culture and its appropriation by both locals and foreigners for profit which seems unlikely to filter back to the community.

There is humour, tragedy and action in this complex and lengthy novel. Characters are properly fleshed out, and engage the readers’ sympathies, even when we can see their flaws. Brynard once again proves that her contribution to South African writing is the thinking person’s crime novel. Long may she continue to provide it.

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Listen: Pippa Hudson in conversation with Arundhati Roy

Acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy was a recent guest on Pippa Hudson’s CapeTalk lunchtime show during her current tour of South Africa.

Listen to them discuss the use of the term ‘activist’, structures of novels, challenging the sacred and the profane, the patriarchy and much, much more:

The God of Small Things

Book details
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
EAN: 9780679457312
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundathi Roy
EAN: 9780241303986
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Launch: A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia (18 July)

Making sure the end of the world never happens again – that is Enver Eleven’s task. A spy for the Historical Agency, Enver is based in Johannesburg, the only city to survive – thanks to its mining tunnels – when a supernova hit.

In Enver’s Joburg time-travelling agents jump between the past and future, searching for an elusive enemy plotting against the Agency. Enver’s mission starts off on shaky ground: when his mentor Shanumi Six disappears, Enver must prove that he is no double agent, an allegation as frightening as a white skin in a world where it has become vanishingly rare.

But if you could go back and change the past, would the future turn out the way you want it to? Imraan Coovadia’s dazzlingly original A Spy in Time is an extraordinary tale for extraordinary times.

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Launch: A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia (11 July)

Making sure the end of the world never happens again – that is Enver Eleven’s task. A spy for the Historical Agency, Enver is based in Johannesburg, the only city to survive – thanks to its mining tunnels – when a supernova hit.

In Enver’s Joburg time-travelling agents jump between the past and future, searching for an elusive enemy plotting against the Agency. Enver’s mission starts off on shaky ground: when his mentor Shanumi Six disappears, Enver must prove that he is no double agent, an allegation as frightening as a white skin in a world where it has become vanishingly rare.

But if you could go back and change the past, would the future turn out the way you want it to? Imraan Coovadia’s dazzlingly original A Spy in Time is an extraordinary tale for extraordinary times.

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There is a sadness in the story, but also humour – Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

Published in the Witness (25/06/2018)

Set in the then all-white suburb of Hillbrow in 1967, John Hunt’s novel is a moving evocation of a difficult and different childhood. While the setting might seem strange to those who know Hillbrow in its current manifestation, Hunt’s fine descriptive writing makes it an important and evocative backdrop to the story. But centre stage is occupied by 11 year old Phen.

His real name is Stephen, but he is a stutterer who has more trouble with the letter “S” than any other, so Phen at least offers him a chance to articulate his name. Teased at school by peers and teachers alike, his life is tough. And to compound his problems, his father is dying, slowly and painfully.

His one solace is to get Phen to read to him after school, taking the child into the worlds of Hemingway, Truman Capote and John le Carré, adding colour to the Cold War fantasy games Phen plays in the park while walking his dog. But eventually even his father deserts him in favour of a new-fangled reel to reel tape-deck and non-stuttering audio books.

Feeling sad and supplanted, he befriends a hobo in the park, who tells Phen his name is Heb Thirteen Two, something Phen will eventually decode with surprising consequences which at one point take the reader into what feels like fantasy. But that’s not what it is.

Writing from the standpoint of a child is extraordinarily difficult to do successfully. Hunt makes Phen completely believable, neither too cute nor improbably knowing, as he deals with the tragedy of his father’s impending death and observes with the clear eye of pre-adolescence the behaviour of the adults who surround him. There is sadness in the story, but also humour – Phen’s turn as a tree in the class production of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream is hilarious.

But despite his problems with speech, Phen’s reading has taught him the power of words and given him a love of books. And once he has worked out what Heb Thirteen Two’s name might mean, a new dimension of comfort is added to his life, though Hunt avoids the obvious and the cliched. The ending of the book is deeply moving but the reader can be filled with hope for Phen’s future.

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