Book Reviews: Magritte On A Metric Bus, Or Twisted Goddess

June 26, 2019

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Magritte: Life Line edited by Xavier Canonne, Julie Waseige and Guido Comis

Tales Of The Metric System by Imraan Coovadia

Nyambura Waits For The Bus by Cath Alexander and Catherine Groenewald

The Goddess of Mtwara And Other Stories by Esther Karin Mngodo

Twisted Prey by John Sandford


Hugely influential, for his philosophical perspectives as well as his art, Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte has left behind a number of pieces unknown to only the least attentive casual art fan, including Ceci n’est une pipe (in which the caption underlines the fact that the image is not a pipe; it is a mere representation of a pipe) and Le Chateau des Pyrenees (The Castle In The Pyrenees) in which said castle sits atop an enormous boulder hovering above a seascape. Unusually for such a volume, in which various experts expound on the artist concerned from their own points of view, this book includes the text from a 50-minute speech given by Magritte in 1938 in which he explains many aspects of his way of working and his inspirations. One short passage includes the sentences, “The art of painting then seemed to me to be vaguely magical, and the painter gifted with superior powers,” followed immediately by, “Alas, I learnt later that painting had very little to do with real life, and that every attempt at freedom has always been ridiculed by the public…” Taken together, these utterance give a good deal of insight into what would become Magritte’s signature style, where elements would often be bizarrely aligned with each other in terms of the accepted, expected contexts, and the artist would often give his works titles that did little or nothing to explain the picture, but rather served as starting points for parallel conversations to those about the images. A curated number of the artist’s works show his extraordinary range – both within styles (Surrealism overlapping with Futurism, say) and when using the same medium (Magritte’s oils can be almost photographically precise or as gaudy as Guaguin’s louder efforts). And there is a section – 1946-1967, A New Challenge: Compromising Art And Business – that deals with that tricky aspect of any artist’s career; that is, the reaching of a point where income is secure but the meeting of obligations rather than being more randomly creative is perhaps less satisfying. This well thought-out range of angles on Magritte’s output, importance and life in general helps to give readers an satisfyingly rounded view of the artist, rather than the far less valuable celebrity introduction option sometimes preferred by publishers.


Inscribed just below the huge font of the title on the sleeve of this book are the words “A Novel”. Which is useful, because the structure of Imraan Coovadia’s Tales Of The Metric System, which sees a set of disconnected characters living out their lives over four decades with the narrative split into ten chapters, feels, for a while, like a collection of short stories. While you remain under the impression that that’s what it is, the scope of Coovadia’s storytelling, and the way he makes each scenario he develops intimate and detailed, is impressive and revealing. Different characters endure a number of situations that, generically speaking, a large number of South Africans are or have been familiar with – activists looking over their shoulders; crowd dynamics during a major sporting event; Aids denialism and iniquitous apartheid regulations, among much else. When you’re assuming that each of the major protagonists is operating in isolation, none of them seem particularly sympathetic, bar perhaps aspiring playwright Victor Moloi and activist’s wife Ann Rabie. They’re more mechanisms to advance an idea and, it occasionally seems, an agenda than it is a story of people and their feelings, dreams and relationships. Later, though, when it becomes clear that all of Coovadia’s characters are part of a single chronicle – of the psyche of a country rather than a particular period or group of people – the book becomes more intriguing, and also heavier. This is not reading for entertainment, but rather for edification, though to what exact end you’re being enlightened is not exactly clear. Unconventional but absorbing in its own way, this is a very different piece of literary fiction that asks many questions but doesn’t try to answer all of them. – BD


Nyambura Waits For The Bus has an incredibly simple concept: a young girl waiting at a bus stop gets bored and, to pass the time, recalls happy memories involving her grandmother. These sustain her until she sees her gogo again and, give or take a couple of other moments, that’s the entire story. It’s not so much memorable as just a brief evocation of those simple moments in childhood when feeling loved was enough, and when learning by making mistakes was a rewarding experience. At a reading level, Nyambura Waits For The Bus will satisfy only very young readers, but its profundity, however slight, is worth taking on board. – BD


The Goddess of Mtwara And Other Stories is an anthology of African short stories that were shortlisted and prize winners in the Caine Prize writer contest. The Caine Prize is a yearly competition in which African writers published in the English language take part. For the past 18 years, this has been a literary event that has attracted prominent writers from across the African continent.  The competition is supported by publishers of which Jacana is one, covering the South African market. In this collection, Africa speaks. The book is a collection of the major entries that were published in 2017 and selected by the Caine panel as outstanding literary writing. Rating is hardly possible as each story is different, but together they serve to enlighten the unique writing talent that is present in a variety of style and content. Read this book to understand the African mind and soul. – DB


As the saying goes, politics is a dirty business and it can’t get dirtier than in Twisted Prey. This is red-blooded stuff, seeing Lucas Davenport leading a kind of three-man A-Team up against a bunch of professional killers hired by a high ranking politician in the White House, who aims at getting the top job. Lucas, a US Marshall, is hired by a senator who narrowly escaped death in an assassination attempt orchestrated by a fellow senator and who sees that man as a threat in her own campaign for presidential nomination. We get a good insight in American politics, the justice system and ways and means of police detection. In the genre of fiction writing, factual background – the more the better – always makes reading worthwhile time spending, in addition to being entertaining.  Sandford achieves this combination well;  this book id a page turner. – DB[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]