26 August 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on Karel Schoeman’s This Life, translated by Else Silke, and out from Archipelago Books.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other unnamed, usually voiceless, person—recollecting their life, stitching together what is remembered with the forgotten, as much as they can, from beginning to end, though not necessarily in order. Archipelago is a fitting publisher for This Life, given that two of their other books, Stone upon Stone and Treatise on Shelling Beans are masterpieces of the genre. This Life doesn’t reach the heights that those works do, but contributes its own perspective to the genre.

Sussie relates not just her life, but the history of her family, from well before the Boer Wars, then through them, and into the uncertain dates of her apparent deathbed. Her family lives out their lives on a farm in the Karoo, a “[b]itter land where I was born, meager shaly soil where they will dig my grave.” For Sussie, the world outside her family’s farm, and the small village that grows around it in her later years, simply does not exist, is not glimpsed or imagined. The family members, a brother and a nephew, who do leave are burdened with the destiny of returning, silent about their time away. More than anything else, this is a novel about insular, isolated people, in an unrelenting way.

On their farm, far from neighbors, the mother resistant to visitors, the family—father, mother, two brothers, and Sussie—is not just secluded from outsiders, but from each other. They are, as she tells it, “inextricably connected in our isolation, and nonetheless irrevocably divided, with no hope that the rift would ever be healed.” No matter what changes, nothing changes. When Sofie, little older than a child, marries Sussie’s oldest brother, Jakob, she briefly brings relief, even pleasure, to Sussie, but before long the “monotony and isolation of her life with us” overwhelms her.

For the rest of the review, go here

26 August 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other unnamed, usually voiceless, person—recollecting their life, stitching together what is remembered with the forgotten, as much as they can, from beginning to end, though not necessarily in order. Archipelago is a fitting publisher for This Life, given that two of their other books, Stone upon Stone and Treatise on Shelling Beans are masterpieces of the genre. This Life doesn’t reach the heights that those works do, but contributes its own perspective to the genre.

Sussie relates not just her life, but the history of her family, from well before the Boer Wars, then through them, and into the uncertain dates of her apparent deathbed. Her family lives out their lives on a farm in the Karoo, a “[b]itter land where I was born, meager shaly soil where they will dig my grave.” For Sussie, the world outside her family’s farm, and the small village that grows around it in her later years, simply does not exist, is not glimpsed or imagined. The family members, a brother and a nephew, who do leave are burdened with the destiny of returning, silent about their time away. More than anything else, this is a novel about insular, isolated people, in an unrelenting way.

On their farm, far from neighbors, the mother resistant to visitors, the family—father, mother, two brothers, and Sussie—is not just secluded from outsiders, but from each other. They are, as she tells it, “inextricably connected in our isolation, and nonetheless irrevocably divided, with no hope that the rift would ever be healed.” No matter what changes, nothing changes. When Sofie, little older than a child, marries Sussie’s oldest brother, Jakob, she briefly brings relief, even pleasure, to Sussie, but before long the “monotony and isolation of her life with us” overwhelms her.

Any moment like that is soon lost in the drudgery. By the time Sussie writes, “What had been my life thus far? Grim, austere, sparse, even, without much tenderness, not to mention love,” the novel is too much like her life: repetitive, meaningless. The greater novelistic sin than repetition that This Life commits is occasionally sliding into blunt explanation of meaning. By page twenty-seven, I was already frustrated with Schoeman’s authorial insertions, having Sussie tell us again that she has “only the fragments of [her] memories from which I now have to try and recover the form and pattern of the past.” The lapses into telling are unnecessary and bog the book down.

These flaws are disappointing, taking away from what Schoeman and translator Silke do well. This Life is a landscape novel, beautifully written in fine sentences that are aesthetic pleasures in the midst of despairing lives. The land of the Karoo may be a harsh one, creating harsh people, but it is Sussie’s homeland, and so a comfort, too, a mental and emotional part of her that she must evoke in order to be understood at all:

I remember the spekbos radiant-white like a snowfall along the rocky ridges, large patches of yellow katstert, blazing like candles, and the fields of kraiitulpe like fire, the gous-blomme and botterblomme and perdeuintjies, and when the scattered clouds swept past the sun, the entire bright veld creased and furrowed like water, and the people moving across it were like swimmers on the surface of a dam, rolling on the waves of shadow and light.

Leaving words, nearly all words of place, in Afrikaans is a successful gamble by Silke. It’s simple, unobtrusive, and ensures that the novel feels South African without imposing stiffness onto English sentences.

Though years pass on this South-African landscape, This Life scarcely touches on the history of South Africa. Sussie tells us all that happens to her mother and father, their slow declines, and confesses all she knows of her oldest brother’s mysterious death, the younger brother’s, Pieter’s, relationship with his sister-in-law, her own efforts in raising her nephew and then onto his own marriage. Multiple decades pass, with Sussie rarely pinpointing any recollection in time, moving from year to year as she needs to in order to tell her tale, and time becomes strange, so much so that personalities can shift without much reason and, when a specific age is given for a character, it’s often jarring. During all of this, South Africa undergoes changes, but it hardly touches on her or her family, even as the war comes and the English establish camps on their land. When a herdsman is executed by the English, Sussie says “there was nothing I could do for them, and Maans was equally helpless,” but by now we know that if they could have done anything, they would not have.

This lack of reflection is part of Sussie’s isolation. She is oblivious to outside society, blind to the existence of cultural complexities. Take Dulsie, a woman who is a former slave who helped raise Sussie’s father and stays with him when freed. Dulsie outlives him, nearly outlives them all, an unfailing presence, a keeper of secrets who Sussie never tried to open, even as dementia overtakes Dulsie. Other former slaves do the same: stay in the lonely expanse of the Karoo with the people who previously owned them. Sussie doesn’t even imagine considering if this is attachment out of loyalty, or desperation. By making such things an absence in Sussie’s consciousness, Schoeman not only depicts the character’s solitary existence, but subtly brings them to attention.
Sussie is not the only figure of silence; her family is too, and not only in regard to the world outside, but also their own affairs. This Life is as much about actions taken, what is spoken, and what is remembered, as it is about what does not happen, what is passed over in silence, and what is forgotten. To say this balance is equal would be inaccurate. If anything is at the center of the book, it is two dramatic acts, wholly enveloped in silence, that create the most significant absence in the work: the mysterious death of Jacob, and Pieter’s flight from their land with Sofie . . .

Jakob falls and dies out on the veld while separated from Pieter and one of the men working the farm. After the body is found, it’s determined an accident, but suspicions abound and half-remembered accusations are made. Some time after, in the middle of the night, Pieter and Sofie run away, and disappear for years. When Pieter returns alone, he is a nearly silent man, broken. No one in the family speaks of the years he was gone, where he went, what happened to Sofie. It’s a gaping hole in their familial timeline, papered over, easily torn by a word from a neighbor, a worker, or Dulsie. As Sussie puts it, “I did not understand, or perhaps I simply chose not to understand, just as I always did when a choice was possible for me; but in the end understanding was inevitable as the stories did the rounds.”

This part of her life is not the only thing that Sussie doesn’t understand. Not understanding, not trying to, is her protection. It ensures the deepest insulation in a place safe from knowledge or clarity. She shuts down curiosity, involvement, becomes a non-being, so much so that people accidentally talk about her in her presence, not noticing her. When she does act on the lives around her—raising her nephew, writing letters for those who can’t—people don’t recognize that this work comes from an active person, rather treating it as manifesting from nowhere, with no source to show gratitude to. She is scarcely a being in her own life: “I would just sit there, not moving or having the least desire to speak, silently occupied with thoughts I was unable to express.” Sussie is the ignored, passed over woman, but that invisibility begins with her, rather than as a cultural force. Though the latter seals her state, the origins don’t leave much room for empathizing with her.

Even as narrator, Sussie is absent, a tool to be put to work. If This Life is meant to give voice to the unacknowledged woman of the veld, then Schoeman fails her by overpowering her agency, dominating with his authorial ambitions. This Life recovers lost memories, and encloses the absences that cannot be recovered, but the drive for this does not come from her. Sussie claims that she “must get up and journey back into the past, through the dark, alone across the years,” but the unavoidable necessity is never explained, and again and again she wishes she didn’t have to remember these things. This, that she has no choice but to revisit the memories, and that she does not want to, is repeatedly stated, and it reveals the entire book as authorial device. The recollection is forced by Schoeman himself and Sussie is rendered a vessel: non-existent as a person in her life, and as a narrator nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s a disappointing result when a book that rides on the strength of its prose much of the time, and that crafts a landscape, falls short because, more than dwelling on absence, it becomes one itself.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Christopher Iacono on Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, forthcoming in April from Archipelago Books.

Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and has a new coffee mug that aptly describes my state of mind earlier this morning (Rochester was greeted to 6’ of snow this morning—the light, fluffy kind that makes you want to sleep in, skip the office, and slink out to the closest bunny hill for some maximally not-death-defying boarding. And by “you” I mean “Kaija,” particularly re that last part).

Since many of you are also probably back in the office this week and looking for inconspicuous ways to waste some time until you’ve fully recovered from whatever it is you do during the holiday stretch, why not read Chris’s review on a book about an ex-slave who lives in a tree and talks to herself? WELCOME TO 2014, EVERYONE! First review of the year! FIRST. DIBS. Here’s the beginning of his review:

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

For the rest of the review, and to have a great 2014, click here.

2 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:

If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?

This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.

The narrator (none of the characters are named) starts out by describing her life in the veld. She tries to keep track of the days by using green and black beads that she finds, although she later uses them in a more haphazard manner. She also “competes with animals” for scarce food that only makes her sick. Finally, she admits that to get through her days in the veld, sleep is “the dense solution,” and only when she wakes does she feel a sense of empowerment. “Imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me. Every time I step out from the protecting interior of the tree I am once again a human being and powerful . . .”

This sense is quite a sharp contrast from her time as a slave. Despite her claims at the beginning that she is “ignorant” and “stupid,” she actually shows some intelligence, but her status as a slave prevents her from ever thriving beyond the confines that others have forced upon her. For example, her first owner was only interested in deflowering her and sold her as soon as she gave birth to a child, which was later taken away. Her second owner, a spice merchant, made her “toil with a pick and hoe in the garden in the murderous heat” during the day while living under the threat of having her tongue cut out. Her third owner, whom she called her “benefactor,” showed her signs of tenderness that were undermined by a bad reputation.

After the benefactor’s death, she tried to run away but was captured along with other slaves who were eventually massacred. As she relives the moment she spoke to these slaves, she discusses the fear that has remained with her all this time.

I told them all I knew about my origins. Humbly I offered them the scanty history. My facts I patched together as they occurred to me, my memory of a journey with fear the starting point and fear the end point. I was well grounded in the knowledge of fear. I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes I had seen forests and plains shift by poisonous and distorted; with his ears I had listened, and there was a growling, and even the stillness rumbled, and there was bitterness in my cheeks. Oh, fear is by no means whatsoever a connoisseur of events. He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes from him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.

Later, she goes with the benefactor’s eldest son on an expedition to try to expand his late father’s business, an expedition she calls “fantastical” and “stupidly romantic.” On the journey, she keeps close to her final owner, a man known as “the stranger.” However, things start to go awry during the expedition: leaders fight among themselves, cattle disappear. Eventually, the narrator finds herself without the protection of the stranger.

Instead, the tree becomes her only protection; it not only provides her shelter from the elements, but also becomes her confidant. As she recounts the story of that fateful expedition, she wishes she could write, so she could “scratch [the tree’s] enormous belly from top to bottom.” “Thus I decorate you line after line with our hallucinations so that you can digest, outgrown, make smooth this ridiculousness, preserve the useless information in your thick skin till the day of your spontaneous combustion . . . You are full of my scars, baobab. I did not know I had so many.”

Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned. While the novel is not exactly a fable, Stockenström does incorporate elements from that genre in her story, not only by using animals for important aspects of the story, but also by eschewing names to show that, in the end, we are all part of the same human race. Finally, like the fables of the past, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree provides a moral: Regardless of our social status, the impact we cause on other humans lingers for a long time.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns

Language: Afrikaans
Country: South Africa
Publisher: Tin House
Pages: 579

Why This Book Should Win: It explores a complex web of human relationships at a familial and national level without ever leaving a single room; and because, as Liesl Schillinger says in her review of the novel published in the NYT Book Review, “Books like Agaat . . . are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them.”

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

At the beginning of this epic novel, seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is confined to her bed. Once the strong and competent owner of a successful farm inherited from her mother, Milla suffers from A.L.S. and now is left with only the ability to blink her eyes and, after a while, not even that. Milla is entirely dependent on the ministrations of Agaat, her devoted house servant, who wordlessly promises Milla “the best-managed death in history.” It is 1996 in South Africa, just two years after the demise of apartheid.

From this confined vantage point, Milla narrates her adult life story, beginning with her troubled marriage to the dashing, if agriculturally-challenged, Jak de Wet in 1947. Soon after she and Jak settle on her farm, Milla decides to take in and raise the abused young daughter of a farm laborer, renaming the girl Agaat. Long unable to have a child of her own, Milla eventually gives birth to a son named Jakkie, marginalizing Agaat’s position in the family. Over time, Milla and Agaat develop a complex co-dependency, as do Jakkie and Agaat, while Jak becomes jealous of Agaat’s hold over both his wife and his son. Agaat forms the center of a decades-long, multi-dimensional game of tug-o-war: “a pivot she was, a kingpin, you’d felt for a while now how the parts gyrated around her, faster and faster, even though she was the least.”

Agaat is about many things, including marriage, parenting, friendship, sickness, and death. Politically-minded readers will find plenty of support for interpreting the novel as an allegory for apartheid, while those with more domestic interests will appreciate the details on embroidery, ecologically-sensitive farming practices, and home-based nursing procedures. Perhaps _Agaat_’s most important lesson concerns the importance of communication to achieving lasting change. The best education and carefully constructed systems cannot bridge the gap between master and servant, between white and black. Rather, true understanding is possible only after years of empathetic communication. As Milla nears death, she and Agaat have finally approached this kind of understanding:

[The doctor’s] face looms above mine. He looks at my eyes as if they were the eyes of an octopus, as if he’s not quite sure where an octopus’s eyes are located, as if he doesn’t know what an octopus sees. He shines a little light into my face, he swings it from side to side. I look at him hard, but seeing, he cannot see.

Agaat catches my eye. Wait, let me see, she says.

[The doctor] stands aside. He shakes his head.

Agaat’s face is above me, her cap shines white, she looks into my eyes. I blink them for her so that she can see what I think. The effrontery! They think that if you don’t stride around on your two legs and make small talk about the weather, then you’re a muscle mass with reflexes and they come and flash lights in your face. Tell the man he must clear out.

A small flicker ripples across Agtaat’s face. Ho now hopalong! it means. Her apron creaks as she straightens up. Her translation is impeccable.

She says thank you doctor. She says doctor is welcome to leave now, she’s feeling better. She says thank you for the help, thank you for the oxygen, we can carry on here by ourselves again now.

I close my eyes. He must think she’s crazy.

Again the fingers snapping in front of my face.

She’s conscious, really, doctor, you can leave her alone now, she’s just tired, when she shuts her eyes like that then I know. Everything’s in order, she says, she just wants to sleep now. I know, I know her ways.

Milla’s disease has the potential to reduce this nearly 600-page novel into an exercise in claustrophobia, but, instead, Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency. Milla’s second-person narration is liberally broken up by her diary entries, which Agaat has decided to read to Milla during her last days, and by italicized paragraphs of Milla’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist, and her considerable poetic abilities are on display throughout the novel. Likewise, Michiel Heyns’s masterful work yields an English translation with all the elegant power of the original language. These various elements come together in Agaat to create an unforgettable reading experience that transcends the lives of its four primary characters to implicate the broader world.

....
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