By ROB HOFMEYR
The Road To En-Dor by EH Jones 6
The Texture Of Shadows by Mandla Langa 8
What About Meera by ZP Dala 6
What Will People Say? by Rehana Rossouw 7
The original edition of The Road To En-Dor dates back to the early part of the 20th Century. A ten-year old schoolboy picked it up in his school library and found it fascinating. And in 2014, nearly a century after the events chronicled in he book, as an adult, he has published a new edition. It is a true story of a cunning wartime escape from a Turkish prison.
13 000 British and Indian troops were captured by the Ottomans in April 1916. They were marched across the parched terrain of the Middle East, over the Taurus mountains deep into central Turkey, suffering enormous losses. Harry (EH) Jones survived and was imprisoned at Yozgad. An ingenious system of codes, embedded in messages home, enabled him to send messages to the British Government regarding the battle, the capture and the status of the POWs. In 1917 together with Cedric Hill, an Australian airman, he devised an extraordinary plan for escaping.
Using a makeshift Ouija board to entertain themselves and their fellow prisoners, they began to realise that they could possibly use this form of deception to effect their release. Hill was an accomplished conjurer, which proved an enormous asset.
This is a detailed account of the early “spooking”, the manipulation of intelligent minds and the building up of a real belief in the unbelievable. Gradually the Turkish officers and finally the Commandant are drawn into the net of subterfuge and deception. Jones and Hill have unfortunately to hoodwink their own colleagues and senior officers in order to achieve their goal. And they are successful. Persuading even a psychiatrist, they are finally put aboard a Red Cross ship bound for Britain.
It is an interesting read, especially for anyone interested in the psychology of belief and the related psychology of groups. Ultimately the detailed account becomes just a little too detailed and while I was filled with admiration for both Jones and Hill, I wished the story would end. It is a substantial volume at 450 pages. Veneration for the original undoubtedly made editing difficult, but the tale could be told more succinctly without losing the value of the work.
Mandla Langa has written a book of extraordinary quality. In The Texture Of Shadows he probes deep into the soul of “The Struggle”, bringing to bear his own skill as a writer, his personal experiences and his own growth in understanding of political processes.
The story is set in 1989, the year in which the world hoped, believed, feared that Nelson Mandela was about to be released and that a new dispensation was imminent. The armed guerrilla forces in the neighbouring states are under enormous pressure from within their own ranks. Trust and loyalty and conviction are eroded by Security Force infiltrators and by leaders who have betrayed their own cause by their brutality and personal ambition – “leadership disease”. Two small groups of fighters are each entrusted with a sealed trunk, contents unknown, which they are to deliver to an as yet unknown destination. One group is wiped out in an attack by unknown assailants. The second group moves uncertainly across the border and down towards Kwa-Machu.
Langa creates wonderful characters who debate political issues, question command structures, experience the horrors of armed conflict, hide in fear, show great loyalty and commitment and live fearfully in a South Africa still dominated by the enemy. Each has a personal story, reconstructing the past, delving into families and friendships and liaisons. There is deep grief and pain, for example in the deadly conflict between the elderly Japhet Makhunga and his son Nozihada; and in the story of Laura torn between husband and lover;
We meet an extraordinary comrade in Chaplain Nerissa Rodrigues, who is tasked with investigating the mission and the people involved. She is selfless, dedicated, perceptive and wise. She is the foil to the vividly and horrendously portrayed Strella, brave, resourceful and murderous.
The story moves to a crescendo with the confrontation between Colonel Jan Stander, along with General Palweni, a renegade officer in the guerrilla army, and the remnants of the guerrilla group in the depths of KwaMashu. This is a story of despair, horror, love and courage. It is not an easy ride but it is well worth gripping tight and keeping going.
ZP Dala is an able writer who has produced a less than satisfying book in What About Meera. Each chapter in the life of Meera is interesting, challenging and often horrifying, in different ways. The sum of those chapters left me feeling that I had missed some significant development, some point at which Meera stands up “for what she believes is right”, as the dust-cover promises.
Meera grows up a lively, intelligent and vivacious child in the Indian community on the outskirts of Tongaat. An itinerant and highly dubious swami takes up residence amongst the Hindu families and exerts a sinister influence over the gullible, believing people: Meera is to be married off: her bridegroom is a medical doctor, from the affluent community on the other side of the highway. The wedding ceremony and her reception in her new home are vividly described. This is all great writing.
After several years in an horrendous relationship, Meera escapes and after months of indecision flees to Dublin. Here she is a caregiver in a school for autistic children. This is not the emerald Ireland of romantic fiction: it is the gritty, harsh industrial outskirts of a city. Here in a soul-destroying job, she meets and becomes lover to the father of a child with severe disorders. In jealousy and despair she commits an horrendous crime, which brings to an end this period of her life and she must return to Tongaat.
There is no welcome unless she agrees to return to her husband. This she cannot do and unable to live with her family she struggles to survive, ultimately finding work in a hospital on the outskirts of Durban.
The book does not run in smooth sequence such as I have constructed: we move between Tongaat and Dublin, Dublin and Durban, from countryside to city, from one year back into another. It is a skilfully told tale. The rich and verdant countryside, the ugly city, the smelling hospital, the garish décor of the marriage home, the personalities from an Australian in Dublin to the bus-driver lover to the deeply conservative father and the mother-in-law from hell, live and move in the reader’s mind.
It is still a profoundly sad book.
What Will People Say? is set in the Cape Flats in 1986. Neville and Magda Fourie live in the pretentiously named Magnolia Court in Hanover Park. Neville is a messenger for a firm of attorneys in Cape Town; Magda is a supervisor in a garment factory. They ar determined to bring up their three children to make something of their lives. They are deeply divided over Magda’s involvement with the Church of Eternal Redemption.
The children are Suzette, a girl in her Matric year, extraordinarily beautiful and determined to escape from poverty; Nicky, who is highly intelligent and determined to study law; and Anthony, a physically strong 13year-old who is attracted by money and physical prowess. This is an account of life in the concrete apartments in the dying years of apartheid. Gangs and drugs are part of the fabric of society. Poor schooling and lack of amenities for recreation, the grind of poverty and the ravages of the political system all shape the lives of the personalities of this book.
Neville wants to help in correcting some of the problems of his immediate environment and joins the neighbourhood watch. Magda believes he is putting himself in jeopardy to no good end. Suzette drops out of school without her parents knowledge and becomes a model at a factory manufacturing lingerie. Anthony begins to spend his afternoons in a shebeen, where he excels at snooker and is accepted by gangsters. He is drawn into drug-running. Nicky keeps her head down and works. But she is deeply in love with a school friend who is detained for his political activities.
The book moves into high drama and tragedy beyond the worst imaginings of the parents. It is a story movingly, compellingly told. Each member of the family lives her or his own nightmare. When we believe there is a possibility of some salvation, the worst happens. The denouement is kind and hopeful. Despite the breakdown of relationships and the horrendous memories, there is a degree of redemption.
The only character without any semblance of some goodness is the pastor, somewhat over-written. For the rest even Ougat, the gang leader, is credible in his care for his mother.
This is a book which I will remember when many others are forgotten.