Book Reviews: African Keyboards, Or An Alibi For Jocasta

December 13, 2017

[vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]


A Slip Of The Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction by Terry Pratchett                              8.5

South Africa In Africa: Super Power Or Neocolonialist? by Liesl Louw-Vaudran         7

The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk                                                                            7.5

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes                                                                    7.5


Perhaps the best parts of the late Terry Pratchett’s many and well-loved fantasy novels were the sublime, perfect sentences that showed off his literary genius, littered among the humour and daft descriptions of the Discworld universe so beloved of his fans. That same skill is displayed throughout A Slip Of The Keyboard, a collection of columns, essays and bits of commentary. Pratchett manages to discuss a range of topics and state his perspectives persuasively without ever having his supreme intellect become intimidating for readers. This is due to a combination of his trademark wit, genuine humility and an ability to complete his arguments in accessible English and within a few pages. There are fantastic, hilarious mini-treatises on the pressures experienced by a busy writer that, in their way, motivate readers to focus on their own writing and practice the discipline needed to become successful. There are other autobiographical touches, as well as detours into Pratchett’s interest in conservation and beyond. But a particular focus is placed on the author’s thoughts on the Alzheimer’s that ultimately took his life and more especially on the lacklustre attitude of the Englishe health services that he expected to help him. Pratchett was a keen advocate of assisted dying in his latter years, and his case for the practice here is eloquent, compassionate and compelling – and, when read after his untimely death, heart-breaking. There is much to learn in the pages of these book – about writing, about when to laugh and when to get angry, about treating others with humanity and about picking the right fights and throwing your all into the fray. – BD


Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an experienced freelance journalist who is a former Africa Editor at Media24 and a consultant at the Institute for Security Studies. Well-informed on Africa, she has written South Africa In Africa: Super Power Or Neocolonialist?, a topical political history that results, as the subtitle suggests, in some interesting questions. It is easy to forget how much South Africa’s role in Africa has changed since the ending of apartheid. Once the pariah, our presence is now keenly felt and readily apparent throughout the continent in mining, banking telecommunications, the hotel industry, the retail trade and many other commercial ventures. Additionally, we have a large influence in the fields of diplomacy, academic endeavour, development aid and even military engagement. Ironically, many of the key role-players in much of this involvement have been white South Africans. Another irony is that although South Africa was given a heroes’ welcome throughout the world, but especially in Africa, after the end of apartheid, our engagement with the continent has not been an unqualified success. As Louw-Vaudran skillfully repeats several times, this is a point that the authors of our National Development Plan have also noted. We have come across as arrogant and sometimes even racist, not only in the manner with which we were familiar in the past but also in the condescension often displayed by black South African towards the rest of the continent. At a time when the political developments in Zimbabwe have been so much in the news, it is instructive to read Louw-Vaudran’s detailed analysis of the diplomatic positions we have adopted with regard to other states in our continent.  Her conclusion is that a combination of several diplomatic mistakes, disappointing  economic performance and our own domestic politics have, over a much longer period than many may have imagined, contributed to a decline both in our status and our ability to influence events. She argues that this applies not only in Africa but in the world as a whole. She considers that we are no longer a super-power on the continent. Nevertheless, she is not without hope that South Africa can become a leader in African politics, hugely influential in making the world a better place. She identifies not only Nigeria and Egypt as our competitors but also Ethiopia and Algeria. Louw-Vaudran’s style of writing is easy to read, even though the issues with which she deals are complex. She compels some South African introspection – which may prove to be valuable. – NW (Nigel Willis is a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. He writes in his personal capacity)


You don’t have to have been to New York for Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel The Alibi Club to come across as deeply authentic, but if you have travelled to the city, or have made acquaintance with any of its residents, his look at a small community within that society – the patrons of a bar called The Alibi and their immediate hangers-on – will ring particularly true. Much of the effect has to do with the intimacy Van Schalkwayk creates in his storytelling. His protagonist is a young South African looking to expand his horizons but having no real direction in that regard, or the resources to follow any specific path. He gets a job as a barman and, despite the predictable challenges of settling into that scenario, he also gets a support system – a group of oddballs and ne’er-do-wells who, despite their multiple shortcomings, become a reliable foundation on which the youngster can build his new life. Van Schalkwyk exquisitely captures the strange sort of fractured intimacy that comes with being an outsider who earns the trust of a community he has no history with – a feeling many travellers will know well. And by positioning 9/11 as a major talking point for the characters halfway through the book, he gives them a profound, emotive centrepiece around which to connect (not, as is sometimes the case, a cheap connivance to try and spice up an otherwise dull narrative), also mixing in plenty of the mildly off-colour humour you’d reasonably expect in a barroom setting. There are some sublimely written passages in the middle of the greater drama, and it’s a mark of Van Schalkwyk’s success talent as a writer (he’s an established fine artist as well) that you’ll be regularly moved by his prose, not just entertained. – BD


The Children of Jocasta is a vivid and compelling reconstruction of the great Oedipus tale. Natalie Haynes writes the story of Jocasta in parallel with the story of her younger daughter, Ismene. The characters of the Greek tragedies are given new life and richer and fuller personalities than we find in the tragedies. Ancient Thebes itself becomes a place of colour, crowds, markets, shopkeepers, housewives, disease, fear, physicians, wavering loyalties, in fact a city rich with human drama. Both Jocasta and her daughter enter the book at age 15: the former as daughter of a scheming commoner, a merchant, and a girl both terrified by sudden marriage to the elderly king, and thrilled to be out from under her mother’s control. The daughter grows up as a princess, tutored by a distinguished physician, alert and conscious of the intrigues that swirl around the palace. Jocasta has been married to a king whose interests are hunting and beautiful youths. She must find a sire for the “royal” children. The old housekeeper, Teresa, plays a major role in her early years in the palace and then again in the great denouement. Infuriating and truth-telling, she is the ancient Teiresias fleshed out. Creon is Jocasta’s loyal brother, who becomes fatefully ambitious. Oedipus, the courageous and brilliant youth who comes to court at the time of the death of the king and falls in love with Jocasta, is of course the central figure of the tragedy, which follows the lines of the ancient playwrights. In him the tales of mother and daughter merge. The most interesting of the lesser characters in this reconstruction is Antigone, who succeeds her brothers, as queen. The only truly admirable and constant person in this tragedy is Sophon, the confidant of both mother and daughter, physician, scholar and adviser. He is the observer of the darkness of the family, the healer of wounds, physical and spiritual, but ultimately unable to avert disaster. This is a fascinating book, thoroughly entertaining and bringing to a new generation an extraordinary cycle of literature. – RH[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]