Saturday, September 24, 2011

Spring Awakening

No, this post is not about the musical (though the soundtrack is quite good). Rather, spring just snuck up on Loopeng and sprung. Everything's green, if not exactly lush, the sun is warm and my tin roof is burning hot. There are clouds in the sky and the Kalahari sunsets are accordingly spectacular. It's a good time of year to be here, and I'm glad I am.

Not so good is that I'm writing this while sitting atop my empty water bucket in line at the neighborhood tap. The water is running painfully slowly. I swear I've seen my hair grow. With so much time on my hands, I'd like to update you on my current reading list.

Wilbur Smith is a white African novelist whose books are terrible, positively dreadful, but oh so readable. They're like Indiana Jones meets James Bond. Smith has been quite prolific over the last few decades, his many books number more than thirty. They're highly formulaic, but quite enjoyable if you're just looking for a fun, wild, and eye-rollingly ridiculous adventure story set in an African context. Most of the books feature a historical bent, so you may actually learn something between all the torrid affairs and big game hunting. Wilbur Smith is the perfect author for when you're in the mood for the literary equivalent of a Nicolas Cage film.

JM Coetzee is exactly the opposite. His books are very serious and intellectual, so deep it's easy to start drowing in all the layers and metaphors. While not particularly thick, Coetzee's books take me a lot of time to get through because I keep pausing to re-read, reflect and repeat. It's dense material, but absolutely worth the effort. His essay On Raiding in the novel Diary of a Bad Year is a stunningly sharp, but simultaneously poignant analysis of apartheid. It's on page 104. Go to a library, find this book, and read it. Right now. Your time will not be wasted.

Hugh Lewin's Stones Against the Mirror is also worth a read. While I don't usually enjoy books about apartheid, Lewin handles the subject well. He restricts his writing to his personal experiences, which as a member of an underground anti-apartheid movement responsible for multiple bombings are quite intense. He describes his time in jail and his journey to forgiving the man who put him there, his best friend. While these parts of the book are certainly interesting and well-written, I was really struck by the chapters describing his involvment with the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. The book actually quotes testimony from the TRC and Lewin describes the context exactly as it was, because he was there, he was in those rooms. He listened to that testimony, participated in the inquiries, he was there. Apartheid's been gone for nearly two decades, and yet it's not quite history. Nelson Mandela's election didn't erase the memory of the people. For most of the adult population of South Africa, apartheid is not an abstract footnote in history, it is the backdrop against which much of their lives played out. Lewin's book carefully knits the past into the present and gives the reader a personal glimpse into South Africa's troubled past. As most readers of this blog will never get a lift from a retired member of Umkonto wa Sizwe, I think Lewin's book is the next best way to get a strong dose of perspective on the apartheid state. Stones Against the Mirror injects life and color into a historical period too often painted in lifeless shades of gray. The people and places of the apartheid state are, for the most part, still present in South Africa today. They've always been here. Lewin just points them out.

I've also been reading some Tom Robbins, which is always a delight, but with school back in session my long days in bed with a book are mostly things of the past. I'm about to curl up with hundreds of papers to mark and several seasons of Grey's Anatomy. Saturday night in the village: it's just like every other night!

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