One of my reading goals for 2015 is to read more fiction translated into English. I’ve always been curious about the world, and lately I’ve been thinking about how much we can learn about countries by reading fiction from that place. I’ve never been to South Africa, I don’t know many people from there and in Australia we rarely hear about it in the news. Mine was the generation that just missed apartheid: I can only just remember snapshots from the news of the celebrations at the end of the policy, on Mandela’s release and his subsequent election as President, as the country set about an impossible task to heal itself. Wolf, Wolf, set in contemporary Capetown, explores the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa and the ways in which the country’s recent history continues to haunt it, giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of those who call it home.
Wolf, Wolf centres around three uncompromising and generally unlikable characters. Mattheüs' father, Bennie, who is dying from cancer but still won't come to terms with the fact that his only son is gay. Mattheüs who dreams of building his own business to emulate the success of his father and make him proud, yet who is relying on his fathers money in which to do so. He is also addicted to internet porn, and is facing the complicated grief of his relationship with his father. Finally there’s Jack, Mattheüs' boyfriend, a schoolteacher who seeks to sort out all of his issues through Facebook.
Where Venter most succeeds in Wolf, Wolf is in painting the claustrophobic paternalism of Matt’s relationship with his father, and the broader history of masculinity in Afrikaan culture. The novel begins as Matt is asked to move his father from his bedroom into the dark, crowded study at the heart of the home; a way of regaining control of the house despite his failing health and reliance on others. The formal language and manners between Matt and Bennie is almost militaristic and invokes a fear of elders, a fear of rules that no longer exist, and of the chaos that brings.
Essentially, what Jack hasn’t known for a long time or has never known, in fact, is that the son must respect the father and stand by him to his very last day, though it’s not as if that’s what he always wants to do; it’s more of a given, ingrained in his very nature.
Women are pushed to the side or teeter on the edge. The neighbour is a busy body who is pushed away; the nurse is a servant who is not as important or as caring as son despite all evidence to the contrary; and the daughter, Sissy, is dismissed by distance. In fact even when Matt and Bennie visit Sissy’s property to say goodbye, it is shown as its own patriarchy, dominated by her husband, a hunter in a rural area. The sweeping drought that threatens to break Sissy’s family feels like Mother Nature wielding power, or perhaps losing it, in a paternalistic space:
He parts the curtains in front of the big sitting-room window and looks at the yellow lawn lit up outside, with its encircling bed of agapanthus which Sissy is still trying to keep going, a fine example of how people around here battle against barrenness.
Venter also explores the incredibly complicated landscape of race in contemporary South Africa. He speaks of the informal economy that continues to thrive, of high unemployment rates, of corruption and greed. (This article by NPR gave context to international readers of last year’s election in South Africa and is worth the read.) Never is this more prevalent than in the introduction of a Congolese man who begs Matt for a job in his takeaway: there remains a race battle that doesn’t make sense in a post-apartheid world, yet still lingers, leaving an endemic circle of intrinsic distrust, guilt and lawlessness. In this article by The Atlantic exploring the debate over the United States’ high school history curriculum comes the remark: “The winners may write history, but it’s up to others to teach it.” While Venter gives the reader an Afrikaans experience of South African society, it is riddled with guilt similar to that seen in novels set in contemporary Germany: how do we reconcile the acts of the generations who have come before us? It reminds us that not all sides of the story will be comfortable to hear, but it’s important to listen nonetheless.
Ultimately Wolf, Wolf is a story of family, grief and redemption. We all want to die quickly and painlessly without being a strain on loved ones, but the reality almost never coincides with our wish. So how do we cope with the tragedy of watching a loved one shrink in front of us? How do we reconcile a lifetime of anger and regret when we don’t know how long we have? Wolf, Wolf has been translated into English from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns. I learnt from this review in The Saturday Paper that some South African reviewers have “mourned the English language’s inability to convey the paternalism and duty embedded in the Afrikaans.” Frankly I found the paternalism in both the father son relationship and of the broader Afrikaan culture overwhelming as it was, but it does indicate an authenticity, despite the translation, of Venter’s snapshot of contemporary South Africa. Wolf, Wolf is not an easy novel to read, but it is an enlightening one.
I am healing. Since last week my body has come a long way, but there’s still a way to go. On Friday I chaired a panel for the Digital Writers’ Festival called Herself, Ourselves: Blogging as a Feminist Act (you can watch the archived video here), in which I mentioned that the reason I started to read online was because of my health. In early 2011 I was incredibly unwell. I had been bouncing around between different forms of medication with different doctors and specialists since I was fifteen. Nearly fifteen years later, I felt like I was going crazy. But suddenly, I found a specialist who changed my life, I was put on a course of medication and a treatment regime that made me feel the best I had felt in ten years. But a lot of taking ownership of my health, as well as taking control of it, happened through diet. It was through this post on Sarah Wilson’s blog that I discovered ayurvedic medicine, a traditional Indian approach to healing that’s been around for about five thousand years (I also just truly love - and understand - the accompanying photo). The central premise, and the way I think of it, is that our body tells us what it needs: we just need to listen. I know this makes me sound like a hippy and not everyone will care or be into it - I’m just saying it worked for me at a time where I felt incredibly vulnerable about my health and was feeling completely helpless about the whole situation. During the Digital Writers’ Festival panel, we talked about how blogs can build a sense of community, and following Sarah’s ongoing series of posts about her experience with auto-immune disease, I discovered other readers who were feeling helpless about their health, who swapped tips and, most importantly, were able to feel like it wasn’t all in their head.
Recently I’ve been talking about my health a lot. I hope that within a week or two my body will stop taking over my life and will let my brain resume normal programming. But in talking about this stuff we share the load, we let other people know they’re not alone, and hopefully offer some help to those in the same position. One of the things I have learnt most about keeping my vata (and therefore my pain) in check is the importance of limiting inflammatory foods. In my case, my endometriosis and resulting conditions mean that my body is naturally inclined to inflame. It’s my body’s way of trying to heal the internal chaos, but can result in a lot of pain. (When I’m in pain, my lower back hurts, right at the base of my spine - like friends who have been pregnant feel like in the latter months - and the muscles on either side of my pelvic bone play a game to see which will twitch and spasm when.) This article explains the pain/inflammation cause and reaction and offers some good tips on how to naturally reduce pain from inflammation. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce the pain of arthritis symptoms and other inflammatory conditions (read more here). So as I try to reduce the amount of anti-inflammatory pain relief I’m taking while my body settles post-surgery, I thought I’d give this Green Kitchen Stories’ Turmeric Lassi a try. I didn’t use the rose hip powder in the recipe and didn’t add any ice - milk and yoghurt from the fridge is as cold as I can handle - but on hot days the ice might be a nice way to thin out the thickness of the dairy. I think this recipe would also work well using those frozen bananas we all have at the back of our freezer, or a packet of frozen mango pieces too, and could definitely be made using coconut yoghurt if you’re vegan or can’t tolerate dairy in the gargantuan quantities in which I consume it. The fire from the ginger and turmeric hit you first, but then the smooth yoghurt and banana soothe to follow. It’s not overly sweet (make sure you use unsweetened yoghurt) but you could always add a bit more honey if you wish. I had some as an afternoon treat and the rest for breakfast this morning - it’s filling, smooth and nourishing and feels like a treat despite being healthy and soothing. The perfect thing while healing and recovering.
In a piece of housekeeping, I have recently updated my about page to include more transparency around receiving review copies from publishers (of which Wolf, Wolf was one). From time to time I am in a fortunate position to be given review copies of new releases. For someone who lives and breathes books, having people send you wonderful titles in the mail feels incredibly luxurious and I am very grateful for the recognition of book-plate amongst the literary community that this trust demonstrates. But when I receive a book directly from a publisher, I do so as a reviewer, not as an inherent form of promotion for the book. I do not write, edit or vet the posts in any way differently from if I had purchased the book from a bookstore. If you have any questions or concerns about this, please let me know via Twitter and I will be happy to have a conversation about this.