Book review: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (Finland)

Translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

“It’s dangerous to be different where everyone else is alike. Have you noticed?”

Virve Sammalkorpi is a contemporary Finnish writer who has written several novels, although this is the first to appear in English translation. Children of the Cave was first published in 2016, and was published in translation by Peirene in 2019, subsequently languishing unread on my shelves.

Annabel’s NORDIC finds project/challenge provided me with the motivation needed to finally open the book, although I had initially intended to review Tove Ditlevsen’s weird novel of mental illness, The Faces, which I did read, but found I just couldn’t get my thoughts together to review.

Children of the Cave won both the 2017 Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja Prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel.

I would generally claim not to like fantasy, and would believe myself to be telling the truth, but I suppose I am quite open to novels set in an alternative reality: ‘relatable’ fantasy novels, or those set in the past or on an alternate timeline. I’d include the wonderful Women’s Prize-winning Piranesi, by Susannah Clarke, in this category, as well as Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. In fact, thinking about it, it turns out I have a positive (hitherto unacknowledged) penchant for spec-fic.

Anyway, back to the book, which I very much enjoyed. In the Preface the story is described as a tribute to Iax Agolasky, a young Russian translator, explorer and later photographer who, we are told, accompanied a French anthropologist on an expedition deep into the Russian wilderness between 1819 to 1823. The anthropologist, Professor Moltique, we learn followed a branch of research into “ancient peoples”, based around folklore and legends.

The story unfolds through recovered diary entries, sometimes damaged, missing or unclear. A year into the journey signs of life are seen near a cave, and creatures emerge, which resemble humans but have varying animalistic traits, whether it be a pelt, whiskers or merely a parrot-like tongue. It is unclear whether the creatures are human or a previously undiscovered species of animal.

Tensions emerge over the find, relations begin to deteriorate among the expedition party, and it becomes clear that some members of the trip see the childlike creatures as interesting specimens, or – perhaps worse – as little more than prey, even while Agolasky begins to grow close to an older girl, Anna.

Following the course of an increasingly doomed expedition through a first person account is a device that has been used many times before, for example by Beryl Bainbridge in her 1991 novel Birthday Boys, a fictionalized account of Captain Roberts Scott’s journey to Antarctica in 1910-13.

In Sammalkorpi’s book this device is employed so proficiently that I found myself googling to find if there really was once a man called Iax Agolasky who had kept an incomplete expedition diary. An intriguing read that asks some big questions.

Film review: District 9 (South Africa)

We watched 2009 South African sci-fi film ‘District 9’ at the weekend. In fact we’d watched this dystopian movie before, but I remembered virtually nothing of it. I was discouraged by the fact that I’d not laid down a single memory, but it’s a really entertaining movie, which also has an allegorical point to make, clearly influenced by South Africa’s own history of ghettoization and apartheid.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp and co-produced by Peter ‘Lord of the Rings’ Jackson, the film opens documentary-style, with 20-year old news footage of the arrival over Johannesburg of a massive spaceship. The craft disgorged its malnourished cargo of insectlike, bipedal aliens, dubbed ‘Prawns’ by the locals, into the city, and has lingered in the skies ever since.

Quickly confined by officials to an increasingly overcrowded shanty town, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, the ‘Prawns’ have been living hand-to-mouth on overpriced cat food, repressed, and prevented from interacting with the local population for the past two decades.

Sharlto Copley plays Wikus van de Merwe, an eager bureaucrat at the ‘Multinational United’ (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs, who is tasked by his evil MNU executive father-in-law with serving the ‘Prawns’ with eviction notices so that they can be moved to a new location.

The aliens aren’t too impressed with this plan, and violence breaks out. Hapless, amiable Wikus finds himself infected with an alien fluid, which causes him to come uncomfortably close to the aliens (it all gets a bit Jeff Goldblum as the ‘Brundlefly’ circa 1989).

Circumstances compel Wikus increasingly to empathize with the aliens’ desperate situation, and he develops a connection with an unusually intelligent alien, known as Christopher Johnson, and his son, who are bent on fleeing the planet.

There are moments of humour, decent special effects, an excellent bunch of baddies and gripping action scenes, and I’ve given the film a healthy 4 out of 5 stars on my newly set up Letterboxd account. This movie was definitely worth the £3.50 movie rental fee.

Book review: Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tlali (South Africa)

This book is pretty uninspiring in terms of plot, since it is a first person tale set mainly in the environs of a hire purchase shop in Soweto, specializing in radio rentals. Muriel works as a clerk there, and details here interactions with a range of colourful characters, including her boss, and the other workers, with repossessions a recurring theme.

It soon becomes clear, though, that the repossessions are mainly from the black customers, while white customers, however creditworthy in practice, receive favourable treatment, and amid significant discrepancies in interest charges for white and black customers.

The power of the book then is in its clear-eyed, matter-of-fact detailing of the racist system that prevailed under the apartheid regime during the 1960s, at the most mundane and everyday level.

Remarkable too is the fact that the book was published at all. It was the first work of fiction (more accurately perhaps ‘fiction’) to be published by a black South African woman, initially in a substantially redacted form; it was banned in South Africa until the late 1980s.

Music review: South African late 20th century classics

Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba (1960)

I couldn’t spend a month ‘in’ South Africa without listening to some South African music, and this album by Miriam Makeba (who to this point I only knew for ‘Pata Pata’) features in the 1001 albums list, which describes it thus: “traditional Xhosa wedding songs swing into airy African jazz moods, melilifluous Indonesian lullabies and infectious Calypso romps”. A link to Makeba’s amazing “Click Song” is provided at the end of of this post.

The album was recorded in exile in New York in 1960, when she was 28; in the same year she was prevented by the South African country from returning to that country for her mother’s funeral.

Nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’, Makeba was one of the first African musicians to receive global acclaim. She returned to South Africa after the end of apartheid, and died during a performance in 2008.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Shaka Zulu (1987)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to prominence as the gospel choir featured on Paul Simon’s bestselling 1986 album Graceland. Not a big fan of listening to Paul Simon or gospel choir, but these people have got staying power and appeal well beyond my Spotify speaker. Shaka Zulu won a Grammy following its release, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo won a fifth Grammy in 2018 for Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration.

Various Artists: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1985)

Finally, this South African pop compilation comes in at no 497 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, which describes it as full of “‘badass joy [that] needed no translation”. It apparently influenced Graceland (that album again), and features the late Mahlathini, the deep-voiced “Lion of Soweto”.

Book review: Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008, South Africa)

Down Second Avenue is a work of non-fiction, sometimes sub-titled “Growing Up in a South African Ghetto”, that documents the formative years of Es’kia (Ezekiel) Mphahlele, dubbed the “father of black South African writing”.

The book was first published in the UK in 1959, and in the USA in 1971, and I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is introduced by renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It is one of Peter Boxall’s ‘1001 Books to Read before you Die’, so by reading it for my immersion into South African writing and culture I’ve ticked it off that list.

Mphahlele tells of his early childhood in Marabastad, outside Pretoria, where he was sent by his parents to be raised in poverty by his steely paternal grandmother. As a teenager he returned to the care of his parents, who had become increasingly estranged from each other. Poverty, both inside and outside the system was everywhere, and mortality was high among the impoverished black population.

In childhood Mphahlele didn’t really question the apartheid system, but as he become more educated he became increasingly angry at the injustices perpetuated by the whites against the black population.

He succeeded academically and professionally against all the odds, becoming a teacher, but tells of winning a prize in early adulthood where “the whites … segregated themselves. They drank out of complete tea sets while we had an assortment of oddly-matched cups and saucers.”

Eventually, at the age of 37, in 1957 Mphahlele departed South Africa for Nigeria, with his wife and three children, after managing to obtain a passport, despite hurdles presented by the authorities, which bridled at his vigorous political campaigning over the years. In Nigeria, where he lived until 1961, he felt able to breathe at last “the new air of freedom”, while his children could learn “something worthwhile … not for slaves”.

He expresses his bitterness at life under apartheid, and the difficulty of having his writing accepted on its own terms, without prejudice:

“No South African journals circulating mainly among whites would touch any of my stories, nor any others written by a non-white, unless he tried to write like a European and adopted a European name. … Every time something has been published that I wrote, I have felt patronized.”

The book ends:

“I think now the white man has no right to tell me how to order my life as a social being, or order it for me. He may teach me how to make a shirt or to read or to write, but my forebears and I could teach him a thing or two if only he would listen and allow himself time to feel.” In 1977 Mphahlele returned to South Africa.

As in the Julia Blackburn book I reviewed earlier this month (which is otherwise entirely different from this book), here again was a plea for a demonstration of basic human feeling from members of the white colonial system propagating an inhumane regime.

Book review – Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam by Julia Blackburn

I ordered this book, published in hardback in the UK in 2022, from my local library, intrigued by reviews. Julia Blackburn has written widely, combining her non-fiction writing on topics like anthropology, nature and history with memoir, as well as fiction.

Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam is loosely structured as a journal, beginning in March 2020 and ending a year later. The book draws together two separate threads of narrative, one following Blackburn’s enforced months of widowed solitude locked down in the UK during 2020 and 2021, away from her three children and their families, and one following the historical story of German linguist Wilhem Bleek’s investigations into the language and culture of the /Xam people of the South African Karoo, together with his English sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd.

As Blackburn works on her book on the /Xam in the UK, after her research in South Africa is cut short by COVID-19 in March 2022 (she gets virtually the last seat on virtually the last flight out of Cape Town), Blackburn longs desperately for her family, while thinking of the /Xam people in the 19th century “doing their best to hold tight in a world that has become utterly unfamiliar and more dangerous”. She tends to her chickens, and reflects in a way that is both sad and matter of fact on life and death, and history, and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

Her reflections and digressions spring off the page, as she pores over old notebooks and adds little wandering references to a trip to the Venice Biennale, making marmalade, getting the COVID vaccine and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, Lucy Lloyd worked with indigenous people like /Aikunta and /Dia!kwain (the ‘!’ is apparently a sort of guttural click) to slowly compile a dictionary of /Xam words, with a /Xam-English dictionary preserved in the Cape Town University Library. No one alive today speaks the /Xam language.

Lloyd sounds to have been altogether more empathetic, and significantly less well-recognised, than Bleek. Four decades after Bleek’s death she continued to be described as his assistant, although she had dramatically expanded upon and developed the work that had begun with him. 

The whites devastated the countryside of Karoo from the 1600s “with our guns, our presumptions and our cruelty, as we moved like a plague through unexplored regions, claiming everything as our own and leaving a trail of destruction in our wake”.

In 1836-37 Captain W. C. Harris wrote, dispassionately, of leaving the bodies of baby elephants abandoned around their mothers’ corpses in the whites’ greed for ivory:

There could have been no fewer than 300 elephants within the scope of our vision … they all proved to be ladies and most of them mothers, followed by their old-fashioned calves … eventually both wagons were so crammed with spolia that … we were reluctantly compelled to leave the ground strewed with that valuable commodity“.

Whole species, like the quagga, a sort of brown and white striped zebra, were wiped out: quagga have been identified in cave paintings, so had had a long and hardy heritage. By the 1850s /A!kunta, another man interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd, thought that elephants were mythological rain-bringing creatures. The land was taken over by the whites’ sheep, never mind that they are unsuited to the environment and rubbish at camouflage.

The whites’ cruelty did not stop at animals, with /Dia!kwain recorded thus by Bleek and Lloyd:

We shall see whether we make those people cry as we do, for they do not seem to know that we are people“.

Heart-rending as such words are, the book succeeds in a small miracle in bringing the reality of these lost people, who were so much more connected with the natural world, to life. A bonus is the photos Blackburn has reproduced of some of the /Xam people who spoke to Bleek and Lloyd, and of contemporaneous drawings. An excellent and unique book.

Book review: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (South Africa)

I read my first novel by Damon Galgut last year, his Booker-winning The Promise (which I loved, and reviewed here). I just finished reading an earlier book, The Good Doctor, published in 2003. This was another excellent, psychologically astute novel, although it is missing the black humour that made The Promise a standout of 2021 for me.

The book is written from the first-person perspective of Frank, a doctor from a privileged background, in early middle age. Pragmatic, or simply disillusioned, he works under Dr Ngema in a small, dilapidated hospital in the South African homelands, which an author’s note states “were impoverished and underdeveloped areas of land set aside by the apartheid government for the ‘self-determination’ of its various black ‘nations'”. Dr Ngema is well-meaning and has her own ambitions, but her insecurities about her position, as a black woman hospital director in a country that has only recently emerged from repression, mean that she is often afraid to rock the boat.

The book is set in the immediate post-apartheid period, but the (unidentified) area of the bush in which it is located is poverty-stricken, with some villages still without electricity, and very few locals even aware that the underfunded and looted hospital exists. When a patient does find themselves there, if they need more than the most perfunctory care they are immediately transferred to the big hospital in the nearest city.

Life is ticking along apathetically for Frank when Laurence arrives, an idealistic, recently qualified doctor on a year’s community service, with whom he has to share a room. Laurence is full of ideas for outreach schemes and other improvements.

Laurence sees the apartheid era as very much behind South Africa, and is full of optimism for the future. In contrast, the older Frank, although supportive of the democratic changes in society and the progress towards equality, is more guarded about the prospects for positive change, as for him the apartheid regime continues to weigh heavily on the present.

The two doctors represent two sides of the same coin, a bit ying and yang, while there are undercurrents of homoeroticism. Laurence and Frank attract and repel each other in equal measure, while their living arrangements create a forced intimacy.

Right from the beginning, Laurence was like two separate people to me. On the one hand, he was my shadow, waiting for me when I opened my eyes, following me to meals and work, an unwanted usurper crowding me in my own room. And on the other hand he was a companion and confidant, who leavened the flat days with feeling and talk.”

Frank’s other closest contact is ‘Maria’, a woman living in a nearby shack with whom he has a transactional sexual relationship. Frank is wilfully blind to inconvenient truths, but his evasive, often amoral behaviour increasingly tests his sense of self-worth, already undermined by a defining situation during his national service in the apartheid era when he was forced to provide a medical opinion on how much further ‘interrogation’ a black detainee could handle.

I found the book almost unputdownable as the tensions mounted, especially after a military border service takes up residence in rooms above a local bar, and Frank’s past comes back to haunt him. Not everyone is going to get out of there alive.

Reading plans for the beginning of 2023

The picture at the top of this post isn’t of my home, sadly, but it’s something to aspire to! As I mentioned in my first post of the year yesterday I’m going back to deep-diving into books and other areas of culture from individual countries, month by month.

I didn’t keep this up very well last year, mainly as I found work and family took over and I ended up pushing my leisure activities and ‘me’ time further and further into the long grass.

So, a resolution has to be to not let overwork and presenteeism take over my life! (Something that my husband has been saying to me for over 20 years now.)

My job in publishing is elastic, in that it can take any amount of time you throw at it. It is never ‘finished’; it’s like painting the Forth Bridge. Quite apart from the book publishing side of my work (in international politics and economics) and the inevitable endless meetings and author emails, we have an online presence that we update continually in response to world events, and there is no one else to take over my part of the world if I’m ill, on holiday or hit by a bus. Combine that with family commitments and an upcoming home extension and it’s hard not to feel overwhelm!

My refuge is reading, and I find that by writing up what I read I reflect on and understand it more deeply, and better remember what I have read. So, one resolution has to be to spend a minimum of half an hour a day totally on my own, and – importantly – not at work, so I can focus on my own reading a little, a lot.

My first country of the year is South Africa, and I opened with J. M. Coetzee’s brilliant, funny and erudite 2009 novel Summertime. South Africa feels like a ‘gateway’ country when looking at Africa, as there are so many readily available books by well-published authors, although white writers are over-represented here (eg Damon Glagut, Nadine Gordimer), and I will be making sure to read black writers too, such as Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, which I am reading right now.

I’ve often found myself focusing on the African diaspora when reviewing African literature and culture, so I’m trying to focus more on people who have spent a significant portion of their adult life in the country in question.

I’m also intending to read and review a book from my TBR, Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces, for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS in January (which I excitedly bought in January 2021 and left languishing), and I will be tackling W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz for the Classics club by the end of the month – though I’ve not clicked with it yet!

Book review: Summertime by J. M. Coetzee (South Africa)

A new year, and with revived good intentions I’m returning to my earlier attempts to focus on writers and culture from one particular country at a time, plus work my way through the 1,001 books list, tackling 2 or 3 a month. I’m not eschewing new releases all together though, but I read far fewer of those than I used to.

First country up, for January 2023, is South Africa, which has turned out a prodigious number of great writers. White South African authors have tended to be over-represented among those, and I will be making sure to read a number of black South African authors.

Summertime (2009) is my first Coetzee, but it won’t be my last. This book wasn’t what I expected: it’s a sort of literary joke or experiment. The third in a series of fictionalized ‘memoirs’, it has a fascinating premise, and I hope that I can do it justice here.

An English biographer is carrying out research, by compiling interviews with women in the younger life of a deceased writer, John Coetzee, who seems to have been a great, indeed Nobel Prize-winning writer, just like Summertime‘s real-life author. Given that many of the Coetzee character’s contemporaries are dead, the resulting “obscure book” will be partial at best.

The women include a cousin, Margot; Julia, a married woman with whom John Coetzee had an affair; and a Brazilian woman, a dancer with a tragic backstory, whose daughter was one of his former English pupils.

“I shiver with cold when I think of, you know, intimacy with a man like that. I don’t know if he ever married, but if he did I shiver for the woman who married him.”

From these self-deprecating, fictional interviews we learn that John was an awkward, ‘autistic’ lover; a bad dancer, who was also vaguely inappropriate, and kinda creepy; an uptight man who lived with his father in a smelly house and insisted on carrying out vast amounts of laborious, bad DIY.

“…I could see at once he was no god. He was in his early thirties, I estimated, badly dressed, with badly cut hair and a beard when he shouldn’t have worn a beard, his beard was too thin. Also he struck me at once, I can’t say why, as célibataire, I mean, not just unmarried but also not suited to marriage, like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women. Also his comportment was not good (I am telling you my first impressions). He seemed ill at ease, itching to get away. He had not learned to hide his feelings, which is the first step towards civilized manners.”

In its focus on a biographer researching a life, it faintly recalls Alan Hollinghurst’s 2011 novel The Stranger’s Child, another brilliant novel. This is the more complex book though: there is a meditation here on what constitutes an author (all very meta and a bit Barthesian), and on why and whether ‘the author’ as a concept should be particularly worthy of interest.

Of course, significant authors are intrinsically interesting to many readers, and given our innate nosiness, to my mind the metaphorical ‘death of the author’ is simply an intriguing mind game.

Since we are bound within and shaped by the historical and cultural milieu in which we find ourselves, removing ‘the author’ from a text is surely impossible – they will always haunt their creation. But this book does read as a plea to focus on the work not the man.

There is humour in Summertime, but also an exploration of the essential unknowability of another person, whose inner world is essentially unreachable, and can only ever really be a projection filtered and refracted through the consciousness of the one observing them.

Together with all this, in Summertime there seems also to be an interrogation of the writer’s own conscience and perceived betrayals, in the frequently pompous, sometimes ridiculous fragments of life events recounted in these imagined interviews.

The book overall is a clear-eyed, neatly erudite and deft reflection on issues of authorship, identity and memory, which also happens to be highly entertaining, and frequently raised a smile.

Art review: London’s Fourth Plinth – Antelope by Samson Kambalu (Malawi)

A few weeks ago my husband and I found ourselves with an unexpected free morning after a cancelled meeting. As a result we got to hang out in central London, completely childfree, for the first time in years.

Before window shopping and nice lunch in Liberty, we did a bit of culture, visiting the National Gallery for the Winslow Homer exhibition, and peering up at the current art work gracing the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – described at the website of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority, as “probably the most famous public art commission in the world”.

Since 1999 that sometime vacant plinth has hosted 14 different art works by contemporary artists, including a large blue cockerel, an over-sized gold rocking horse and a replica of Nelson’s ship – encased in a giant bottle.

Since September it has been occupied by Antelope, a pair of bronze sculptures (not antelopes but human figures) by Malawi-born artist Samson Kambulu, now professor of fine art at the University of Oxford. At a glance they blend in with the symbols of tradition that surround them (not least Nelson’s Column). However, like Kara Walker’s 2019 installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Fons Americanus, this is a work that repays a proper second look and a bit of research.

The largest figure here represents John Chilembwe, a 5.5 metre-high black preacher from what is now Malawi, holding a Bible and sporting a wide-brimmed hat. Chilembwe towers over the other (3.6 metre) figure, representing missionary John Chorley, glasses in his hand, in a revisionist interpretation of a photo taken in 1914, at the opening of Chilembwe’s church. The realism of the figures reportedly owes much to the fact that they were based on 3D scans of live models. My photos (below) also show the crazy way perspective is distorted too in the way the figures seem to both approach and repel each other, depending on where I was standing.

In donning that headwear at the long-awaited opening of his new church Chilembwe breached a colonial rule that forbade an African from wearing a hat in front of a white man. A year later Chilembwe was killed leading an unsuccessful anti-colonial uprising, which also protested the conscription of Malawians to fight for the Allies in WW1. His church was razed to the ground.

Nowadays Chilembwe is regarded in Malawi as a key figure in the fight for Malawian independence. The country celebrates John Chilembwe Day on
15 January each year, and his image appears on the national currency.

Kambalu is quoted as saying that the work’s title derives from the two peaks of Chilembwe’s quietly subversive hat, which are somewhat resonant of the
horns of an antelope: “the most generous animal in the bush, recklessly, stupidly generous” (as quoted in The Guardian). Kambalu, it is worth noting, is a flamboyant character, who himself is quite prone to wearing an excellent hat (check out his Insta).

My only criticism really – if you can even call it that – is that the sculpture needs all that background info to really appreciate it. Most people I imagine
will glance up and move on without ever knowing or caring much about its inspiration, due to the very subtlety that makes it so remarkable when you do
know that back story.

Kambalu has written a memoir, The Jive-Talker: Or, How to Get a British Passport, which I’m keen to read. The blurb says the books tells how “a little boy obsessed with fashion, football, Nietzsche and Michael Jackson won a free education at the Kamuzu Academy (‘The Eton of Africa’) and began his journey
to art school and artistic success.” Sounds right up my street.

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