Friday, August 22, 2008

I Protest!!!!

COSAS “asked our teachers and organised a train for us to come here. But we were not well informed about the reason why we are protesting,"

Nomsa Mabona, pro-Zuma “protester” to a Times Reporter.

This is yet another example of the fall of standards in the Rainbow Nation. In the old days, people were always told simply and clearly what they were protesting about. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they often knew what they were protesting about even without being told. In some cases, the need for protest was so clear that people just got up and protested straight off without being told anything.

I think we should go back to that old system. I think that if someone experiences something terrible, like apartheid or Thabo Mbeki, they should just protest all by themselves without COSAS being involved at all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tobias Wolff - A Damn Fine Writer

A fellow writer in the BookShed, William Spencer, made the following comment the other day:

“Never have I encountered so much good writing in the service of an absence of dramatic tension. I’m fed up. I want a main character who is in crisis, who cares so damn deeply that he/she can’t see straight.”

Got me thinking.

Recently, for the first time in a year or so, I read a book that kept me up at night instead of putting me to sleep. And the next morning I finished it when I was meant to be typing for money. I’m still thinking about it. Why?

It was Tobias Wolff’s Old School. The hero is a schoolboy in a private school who wants to win a literary prize. The prize is half an hour in a garden with Hemingway. The hero finds himself unable to write and steals an old story from a student at the girl’s school next door. He steals it because it is more true to his life than anything he has ever been able to write himself. His time at school has been spent in trying to create the impression that he comes from the same background as his peers. He is, in fact, a scholarship student with troubled and relatively poor parents. He is a liar who wants be a writer. He is starting to realize that to achieve this end, he will have to be truthful. Stealing the story is the most honest thing he’s ever done.

Why is it a page turner? The hero is trying to find something nebulous. Himself. Mysteries, granted, are set up. Why did the Dean, reported to know Hemingway personally, resign on the day of the hero’s expulsion? Will the hero ever manage to live in the world as himself?

The mysteries are unravelled. (Spoilers ahead) The Dean didn’t know Hemingway. He just allowed the boys to perpetrate the impression that he did. This grew. In the end he couldn’t live with the lie he had allowed. (A subplot that thematically mirrors the main plot) And the hero? Well, he wrote the book. A fiction. Which fills in the gaps between two pieces of great non-fiction: This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s army. Taken together, they are an extraordinary portrait of a man called Tobias Wolff. They make the point that life is richer and more complicated than the average well constructed best seller would have us believe. Old School, by the fact that it was written, demonstrates that the hero of Old School now lives at ease with his roots. Its existence is the answer to its own dramatic question.

I suppose my position is this. As a television hack, I buy everything Bill says. As a reader, I’m not so sure. Because often that moment where someone thought: I have to up the jeopardy, make the worst thing happen, is also the moment I go: I don’t believe you.

On the other hand, the stakes in Old School are high. Tobias Wolff could have become a conman like his father. What’s at stake in Old School is the quality of a man’s life.

But why is it a great book?


My mother would have said: “Because he writes so well.”

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nervous in Mozambique

Mozambique. It has a ring to it, that name. You enter from Mpumalanga, the Eastern Transvaal. Which is game farms and sugar cane and orchards, rich country, with touristy roadside stalls and game lodges, nestling between the escarpment and the Lebombo Mountains.

At the border a man introduced himself. He looked at the third party insurance document as my wife was filling out forms.
“Allied Insurance,” he said. “My company.”
He appointed himself to see us through border formalities. He instructed us and said he would meet us on the other side.
“My name is Nervous,” he said.

We handed in our passports and were waved through. My wife disappeared into Mozambican bureaucracy. I pondered names. Nervous. A reassuring moniker. More so than Grifter, say. Or Con Man. A man from a rival insurance company warned us that the fee for the vehicle was ten rand only.

My wife reappeared, Nervous in tow. Nervous said we owed him a hundred rand. For the vehicle. We’d already paid for the vehicle, but we gave him twenty for effort. The Mozambicans waved us through. We entered a flat desolate plain. Thorn scrub and dust. Occasional piles of firewood on the side of the road signalled human industry. We paid our toll fees in Meticals. A reed hovel clung to the dust.

Then we were in Maputo. For a long time. Mini bus taxis, markets, VodaCom TuboBom, Señor Jesús Cristo. More markets. Goats. Stalls, shops and sand encroaching on the road. We turned north onto the Xai Xai road. We travelled through many villages. Some buildings were still derelict from the war. We bought Cashew nuts on the side of the road. VodaCom TuboBom. Flat hills, tropical. Many trees. Trucks barrelled through, straddling the middle line. We got the fuck out of the way by the grace of Señor Jesús Cristo.

We crossed the great, grey, greasy Limpopo on an old steel bridge in the late afternoon. We’d been travelling for eleven hours. Mist clung to wide, still waters. Palm trees rose spookily from the banks. Apocalypse Now. Señor Jesús Cristo. VodaCom, TuboBom.

Xai Xai is big. We dawdled through the throng. A man smacked another man across the face. Friday evening. Payday. VodaCom, TuboBom. Señor Jesús Cristo. We stopped at the last garage and let the tire pressure right down for the sand.

Thirty K’s on we spotted the sign for Zona Braza and turned right onto a track. It wound through dense bush. The sun was a red ball on the horizon. Big cows, long horned, stared at us out of the gloom. There were forks in the road. I chose randomly, not wanting to stop and get bogged. But the tracks always joined up again. They’re part of the design. It’s how you allow other vehicles to pass. We wound down to a lake, then up steep dunes, relying on momentum and soft tires. A sign said: Casas - Reception. We piled out and lost each other in the dark. We found the bar. We drank Laurentina beer and ate Barracuda. It was good. We left early because the barman still had to walk home. Ten K’s to the tar road. He was scared of snakes. He wanted to work in South Africa and earn money for a bicycle.

The Casa perched in the dune forest at the top of a dune. It was thatch roofed, and mosquito nets hung exotically over the beds. It looked east along the beach. Monkeys came to visit. Whales cavorted off the reef. We slept in cool breezes and the sound of the sea. My dreams were vivid and lingered long after I opened my eyes.

We walked and slept and read. In the evening we lit a fire and grilled our supper on red coals. Five days. No TV, no papers. Just the beach and us. I asked the children if they wanted to come back. They said yes. I asked if we should invite anyone. They said, no. Just us. They said Zona Braza was the best place we’d been in Mozambique.

The drive back only took eleven hours. VodaCom. TuboBom. We travelled safely beneath the gaze of Señor Jesús Cristo. There was no sign of Nervous.