APRIL 2, 2015
GROWING UP in a newly democratic South Africa, I was raised on dystopian narratives highly conscious of their politics. Whether it was Gordimer and Coetzee, or Wally Serote and Athol Fugard, all began to carry the cardboard aftertaste of the classroom or community center. Like many members of my generation, I cast about for something more alert to the humor and absurdity of the present moment.
This freshness is present in Lauren Beukes’s science fiction and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. It’s in the creative journalism of the Chimurenga Chronic, a Cape Town–based literary gazette. But in my experience it is rarely found in the South African literary novel, which too often is heavy and cloying, or crushingly dark.
As an alternative, S.J. Naudé’s choice of the short story form holds some promise: compressed and economical, it lends itself to moments rather than histories, to nuance and detail rather than “skimming over the surface of this country,” to borrow a phrase from one of his characters. The stories themselves seem palpably to search for a new mode of expression, at least intermittently: music, dance, noise, and mathematics are just some of the avenues his characters explore in a place where language seems increasingly limited. Still, Naudé at times falls victim to clichéd tropes: the opportunistic politician fattened by corruption, the old family farmstead abandoned to forces of change.
Raised in South Africa, Naudé worked as a lawyer in New York and London before returning to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Stellenbosch, in a campus town not far from Cape Town. His stories explore the scrambled sense of identity of the cross-border white South African: those who leave, those who stay, and those who return. His characters, often highly educated, are unsure how they fit into the new national narrative; suspicious of their nostalgia and incapable of confronting their guilt, they flit around the globe in a state of moral paralysis. They are ethnomusicologists at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies; they hold management positions in Manhattan, party in Berlin, and tour Japan. They are the “diaspora of fearful, grim, white South African children,” as one character puts it; “lapsed South Africans,” another.
Those who return find that, in certain ways, they have outgrown provincial South African society. The nameless main character of “Loose” comes home to deal with a family emergency and feels trapped by the dreariness of the nation’s capital. “There is hardly any diversion here. No cultural activity to speak of, little to lift him from his torpor.” He resorts to a dance performance by students of the University of Pretoria. “The performances are incoherent, sometimes embarrassing. Musicals, improvised dramas with adolescent themes […] the work of kids, loose-limbed kids still finding their form […] what could they know of life beyond the boundaries of this dull city?” Yet he finds that in some aspects of living in the country, he is as unschooled and clumsy as those loose-limbed kids; his frame of reference is outdated. “He still carries with him the ossified sensitivities of the South Africa of his youth. He does not trust himself to get the tone right.” Finding an unlikely sexual partner in a young dancer, he explores movement of the body as a new and different way of crossing borders.
For the ethnomusicologist Ondien in “VNLS,” returning to the country as a musician is a way of reconciling herself with a place whose evolving sounds she has been monitoring from a distance. She has decided to make music rather than study it, and this choice coincides with her return home. But it is not only the country that has changed: Ondien has lost both her parents, and her siblings have moved abroad, which deepens her sense of rootlessness. She returns with the band she formed in Paris with two Zulu girls, Beauty and Nungi. Ironically named the “Victorian Native Ladies’ Society,” the band experiments with new hybrid identities and styles. As Ondien describes their album cover:
She is standing in the middle, plucky in drag: an early British-colonial uniform. Beauty and Nungi, in Zulu skirts, are kneeling at her sides, their breasts exposed, complete with beads and little patches of leopard skin. VNLS in an arc of large lettering at the top. Like a vaudeville handbill, an advertisement for a Victorian spectacle.
Over time, the band’s music responds to the acoustic influences of Cape Town, and an exchange takes place: “Nigerian soul layered over London electro-pop, influences of raga. A little funk and hip-hop. Lyrics in Cape Afrikaans … There was a brief Cape gang-rap phase.”
But like the other characters, Ondien inevitably feels the walls of the small city close in on her. Even within the vibrant live music scene, the habits of her band’s performances and the reactions of its audiences become too reliable. “She had suddenly become averse to Cape Town cool, to the city itself.” Her restlessness leads them inland.
Music becomes a subversive mode with which to resist the expected, creating something new out of the debris of the old. With strange juxtapositions, the same thing happens to Naudé’s prose. “Her two companions drank so much wine that they fell asleep on the couches,” Ondien observes after a Christmas dinner on the road with her band. “From where Ondien was sitting on the rug, they looked like cadavers.” While South African readers are used to the black body as hungry and persecuted, dependent on the white, Naudé’s “cadavers” are warm and sated to the point of sleep, and in a twist on the usual power dynamic, we’re reminded of Ondien’s dependence on them as her only remaining family. “‘My sisters,’ she said out loud, and her voice was strange. The red wine had made her melancholic. She was alone in this morgue, and outside the Karoo sky was clear and merciless.”
Some of Naudé’s strongest moments occur when the characters approach their familiarly unfamiliar surroundings with curiosity and a sense of delight, so different from the minor key of so much serious South African literary output, especially in the cross-border category: Damon Galgut and Eben Venter come to mind. Instead, in Naudé, openness and sincerity create surprising moments of great emotional authenticity: “Initially, Ondien experiences the familiar discomfort: she is the only white face. It is only when she decides that she is entitled to her white fears, that they are not unfounded, that she starts relaxing.” Mrs. Nyathi, the proprietor of Bella Gardens, “an establishment for the accommodation of women travellers” on the Lesotho border, is another one of the few black characters. A widow and retired nurse, Mrs. Nyathi spends most of her time on her porch with a cigarette or cigar, fussing over her two dachshunds, Trixie and Mixie. She plays host to Ondien’s band, and is sad to see them move on.
She looks as if she wants to go along, Mrs. Nyathi; as if she has not felt music in her limbs for some time. ‘It’s Pata Pata time!’ Mrs. Nyathi shouts with [Miriam] Makeba, her eyes screwed shut in entrancement. Trixie lifts her wrinkly neck and slurps little mouthfuls of whiskey from Mrs. Nyathi’s glass.
I was disappointed, however, in how these revealing moments of levity were squarely matched by familiar pessimistic tropes. Death and decay are recurring themes, as is the crumbling and abandoned farmhouse, the quintessential symbol of home. Like Coetzee’s Michael K and his packet of doomed pumpkin seeds, Ondien carries a bag of nasturtium seeds to plant in her late mother’s garden, which she will probably never see blossom. Around Mrs. Nyathi’s guesthouse a village heaves with poverty and HIV/AIDS. In “Van” (which appeared in Granta 129), the character Sandrien sacrifices her cancer treatment, her savings, and her relationship with family to care for the dying, perhaps to atone for her white guilt. The ailing villagers, however, are a nameless, faceless mass, and the government officials she chases in a Kafkaesque roundabout for state-sponsored antiretroviral drugs are heartless and flat, rotten with greed and corruption. “Let me tell you how things work,” one tells her. “Nobody likes death. And you […] shove it into people’s faces. Shortly we’ll have important guests. You have no idea who you’re irritating.”
Another familiar refrain is the ever-present fear of crime, so often translated into a fear of the black body in the dark. Rather bravely, in “Mother’s Quartet” — a story in which Ondien resurfaces living in a garden flat of an abandoned suburban household — the anonymous terror of nighttime noises is concretized by an individual (black) face looking at her through the window. Missing the opportunity to explore an interesting human interaction, Naudé abruptly and predictably ends the encounter in implied violence. In a dubiously symbolic gesture, the intruder grabs her wrist. “‘You’ve talked enough,’ he says, ‘talking is over.’”
It’s not that poverty, HIV/AIDS, crime, and corruption are not hard realities in South Africa, but they can feel like a literary crutch, injecting the narrative with melodrama and flat caricatures borrowed from the all-too-familiar dystopian billboards of South Africa that do not reflect the day-to-day experience of individuals. This hardboiled vision of the country has recently lent itself comfortably to popular crime fiction. About the work of one of this genre’s writers, the critic Leon de Kock writes, “[Roger] Smith’s fiction, taken as political allegory […] sees the country as an apocalyptic hell, surely an exaggeration for the sake of genre.”
Naudé may veer toward the generic in other ways as well. In “Mother’s Quartet,” Ondien travels from continent to continent to visit her scattered siblings. Her younger sister living in America is not only a single mother but a single mother to a “demonic” child, not only divorced but divorced from a psychopath with a court order against him. Ondien’s brother in London is not only a wealthy attorney addicted to his job, but one who takes her to lunch in Mayfair, to a grandiose 18th-century townhouse with art installations and a DJ spinning lounge music, where he introduces himself at the door in a “traceless London accent” and they are served an eight-course tasting menu. Ondien’s other sister, a suburban housewife escaped with her family to Dubai, has reacted to allegations of tax evasion against her husband by initiating an affair with a Saudi man, one who threatens to have her publicly stoned for adultery if she leaves him.
Naudé can do better than these soap-opera storylines. Here is Mrs. Nyathi again, watching Ondien and Nungi dance on the veranda: “[Ondien] sees how Mrs. Nyathi’s fingers and fat little toes start moving, sees how the older woman wishes it were she that Nungi was sweeping across the veranda like a lover.” She wants to dance.