Book Reviews: The Big America Lie, Or Family For The Duration

July 25, 2021

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By BRUCE DENNILL & ROB HOFMEYR

 

Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

For The Duration – Poems by Jana van Niekerk, Rosemund Handler and Natalie Railoun

The Big Lie: Travels With Ben by Dries Brunt

Like Family by Ena Jansen

Dr Jack’s Third Illustrated South African Byrd Book by Dr Jack

 

Villa America is based on the exploits of a real couple – Sara and Gerald Murphy – who befriended a cluster of artistic luminaries including Pablo Picasso, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and later hosted that trio and scores of other fascinating characters at their home in the south of France, after which this rollicking historical fiction epic is named. The depth of Klausmann’s research is fantastic, creating a bright, brassy world almost filmic in its detail, energy and colour. All of her characters are unpacked in intricate detail, including those who many readers feel they already know well from the famous books or works of art the real-life artists created. The story is also a period drama, touching on not only major historical themes of the 1920s but also on attitudes that prevailed at the time – in all the cultures represented by the Murphy’s extended family and their motley crew of companions – and how those emotions and resultant actions were processed by a group of people more in touch with their feelings than most. This is a consistently entertaining read that works well read simply as a story and vividly so when taking in the achievements of its illustrious protagonists and the romance of the era in which they were at the peak of their powers. And Klaussmann does well to never let their fame get in the way of their humanity, with disappointment, angst and anger being realistic and relevant facets of the personalities of those whose work gave millions joy or food for thought. – BD

 

The three poets featured in For The Duration co-edited the volume at the invitation of the publisher, Botsotso. They’ve grouped their poems under broadly themed headings – including “Naked”, “Sins” and, er, “Elephant”. The reasons for those classifications are sometimes clear, but often not – it may be that the poets, knowing the subtexts of their own writing, saw clearer links than might be evident to many readers. The poems are in a range of formats – long, short and in between, with varying rhyme patterns and metre – and are sometimes sensitive and thought-provoking and sometimes blunt and brusque. Generally speaking, Jana van Niekerk’s work is the most accessible and memorable, with many of Natalie Railoun’s offerings being haikus – true to the form if not always terribly arresting. The independent mindset behind the publication means there are a number of inclusions here that would likely not have made it into a more mainstream effort. On that score, For The Duration is a hit and miss affair, interesting for the access it gives to the poems and their writers, but not a top-notch collection. – BD

 

An account of the author’s journey from traditional religion – the Christianity he was raised in – to a more self-determined spirituality, The Big Lie will resonate with many readers who find themselves struggling to believe in established scriptures and traditions and preferring to refine their faith according to their lifestyles and current perspectives. This is a common enough phenomenon nowadays, and so not terribly easy to spin in a way that injects freshness. Brunt has made an effort by introducing a friend, Ben Nkomo, an intellectual and an immigrant to South Africa who has only been able to find work as a petrol attendant to make ends meet. His social status belies his philosophical influence, however, and Ben leads meetings at which he presents his take on humanism and spirituality in a way that proves valuable to a group of acolytes that includes the author. Brunt mixes recollections of his interactions with Ben with his own fictional but historically informed imaginings of communities in the past – going back thousands of years – and their own discoveries and experiences of developing religion. There is some interest if you as a reader are on a similar journey, but Ben, though obviously a clear-thinking individual, does not offer much more insight than you might encounter in a level-headed Facebook thread, and without the personal relationship that Brunt has with him, the impact of his perspectives is not what the author perhaps imagines it will be. As such, the theme of the book begins to feel like it’s stuck on a loop rather than being explored in increasing depth. – BD

 

Like Family is fundamentally an academic treatise, but accessible to the diligent reader. There are chapters which are immediately engaging; others are not as easily read unless as study and research material. I obviously enjoyed large parts of the book but others required patient reading. The subtitle, Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature, gives an idea of the subject, but the breadth of the coverage is comprehensive. It begins with representations in various art forms. The portrait on the cover is especially striking. It includes an account of enslaved women at the Cape under the VOIC, a period which saw the establishing of certain norms in domestic employment still current today. The third section is an in-depth discussion of personal experiences, ranging from the autobiographical through published research to archival material from the colonial time. The pattern of migration from rural to towns and cities and the retaining of links and bases in the countryside is especially important. The discussion on legislation is necessarily detailed and careful, but requires concentrated reading. One realises how far back are the roots of the present dispensations. The personal accounts of domestic workers are moving and disturbing. Likewise the oral testimonies, the interviews and the examination of the novel by Lauretta Ncgobo, And They Didn’t Die, form a powerful statement. I confess that I had no knowledge of Ngcobo’s work. An important chapter deals with domestic workers and sexuality: from the brutal exploitation by “baas” figures, to more subtle relationships, particularly “sister-relations” between abused wives and domestic workers. Novels by both white, sometimes “liberal”, authors and by black authors, both during the height of apartheid and subsequently, are a rich source of material: the analyses of familiar works, highlighting their regard and disregard of the familiar figures of domestic workers, startle the reader. I cannot read any South African novel again without these chapters in mind. I need also to extend my own reading. Domestic workers bridge the gap between white society, and between middle class, of whatever race, and the world of the black, the poor and the rural communities. This is true in the experience of all of us. Here what we each know in our limited spheres is expanded into a comprehensive understanding of the ‘interpreter” or “mediator” role of this extraordinarily important group. This is, in the words of the writer herself, “a blend of sociology, history and literary analysis of an array of fictional and non-fictional stories.” It is a penetrating study, not only in terms of the country-wide importance of this group, but indeed in terms of my own multi-layered personal memories and current experiences. This is a book not only about the past, but about the present realities. – RH

 

A thin volume that can be breezed through in 10 minutes or less, Dr Jack’s Third Illustrated South African Byrd Book is a feel-good collection of expertly crafted visual puns involving well known bird species. Some entries are obvious – the Blacksmith Lapwing is at work hammering some metal on an anvil, for instance – while some make the most of the bird’s name to minimise the effort cartoonist Dr Jack is reasonably expected to put into the entry (the Scarce Swift is, well, absent). Perhaps the best entries are those where the descriptive part of the species name can be completely re-interpreted, such as the Tinkling Cisticola (use your imagination). The book both celebrates birding and affectionately mocks the seriousness with which many twitchers regard their hobby. A lovely novelty gift option. – BD

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