Thursday, September 12, 2013

Richard de Nooy – a stranger arriving in town

In his novel, The Big Stick, which is set in Amsterdam during the early 1980s, Richard de Nooy shares a tale that’s not so much a murder mystery (which it is to a degree) but also a story about perceptions and preconceptions.

We never see the world from the deceased Staal’s eyes, but we get to know him through the eyes of a cast of unreliable narrators.

De Nooy says: “I am deeply intrigued by the fact that people can see the same situation or person from completely different perspectives. Imagine a schoolboy informing his family that he is gay. His brother, his father, his grandmother, his pastor and the prostitute he had sex with will all have a different story to tell about the schoolboy, and they will each take a different view of his homosexuality. In a sense, their response to the lad, and the way they treat him, will have a far greater impact on his life than the fact that he is gay. By incorporating different viewpoints into the book, I offer the reader multiple opportunities to engage with characters and to see the world through their eyes. Hopefully, this also compels readers to consider their own viewpoint on the circumstances. In a sense, I present evidence and allow readers to arrive at their own verdict.

“Much like an actor, I love inhabiting my characters and pretending I know what makes them tick, what drives them, what makes them unique, what they would and wouldn’t do and say. Even the smallest bit-part character has a personality, a soul. If they respond to a question, they do so in their own way, for their own reasons. Ideally, I should be able to take any character in my books and base a novel on them. In fact, Staal also features in my first novel, even though he doesn’t make an appearance. The main character, Rem, is dazed and bleeding after being hit by a tram. His brother finds him outside a gay club and asks: ‘Where did you get the handkerchief?’ To which Rem replies: ‘Homolulu,’ pointing to the club. It’s almost irrelevant in the first book, but Staal is the person who gives Rem the handkerchief. So there’s a whole life at the other end of that incident.”

De Nooy adds that most novelists need one book to flush their youth or past out of their system. He says: “I needed three. When you move from one country to another, as I did from South Africa to Holland, you often wonder what your life might have been like had you stayed. You become acutely aware of your own identity and of the fact that you can, to a certain extent, reinvent yourself in your new homeland, surrounded by strangers. I was also intrigued by the fact that every decision I took, each path I followed, left so many other paths unfollowed, unchosen. This question of ‘what if’ is what ties my first three books together. My first novel, Six Fang Marks & a Tetanus Shot, is driven by the question: what if one of my younger brother’s accidents had gone horribly wrong? How would that have played out? My second, The Big Stick, is driven by the question: what if I had been a gay lad growing up in conservative 1980s South Africa? How would I have handled exile to libertine Amsterdam? The third, The Unsaid, sees the foreign correspondent I once hoped to become in conversation with the psychologist I might have become. Again, the ‘what if’ question plays a vital role.

“The books have allowed me to follow the paths untravelled and to inhabit each of the characters. Fortunately, I have many gay friends who were willing to answer my impertinent questions about their budding sexuality and life experiences. Some of them read an early draft of The Big Stick and added further insight. In short, you need to do your research to achieve that ring of authenticity.

Richard de Nooy stands with his feet planted in Africa and Europe, which gives him a slightly different perspective than Joe Average. “It is said that there are really only two stories: a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. This is eminently debatable, of course, but I certainly believe that it has helped me a lot as a writer to have been the stranger coming to town. Being the outsider gives you unique insight into the workings of a society and its denizens, just as being an insider gives you a completely different view of its/their anatomy. So in literary terms, I have benefited enormously from being both here and there. In commercial terms, however, things are more complicated, particularly because I write in both English and Dutch. I’m not really part of any literary tradition and I don’t really fit into any literary set, although I do have warm ties with other writers in South Africa and Holland. And so I am the ‘South African’ author in Holland and the ‘Dutch’ author in South Africa. Perhaps I’ll always be the stranger who comes town to town and is inevitably greeted with more suspicion than the local hero setting off on a journey,” he says.

Since its release, The Big Stick has garnered quite a response. De Nooy says the Dutch version of the book was among the 25 nominees for the AKO literature prize in Holland. He adds: “However, the issues addressed in the book are less interesting for a Dutch or European audience, mainly because gay and lesbian people here aren’t faced with the dangers and challenges they face in South Africa and other countries. That is probably why the book has had a greater impact in South Africa.

“I’ve started work on my fourth novel in Dutch and I must admit I’m glad that I can now drop the semi-journalistic format of the three previous books. Don’t get me wrong: I needed to write those books and they turned out exactly as I’d hoped. Together they form a loose trilogy; they can be read separately, but if you read all three in quick succession additional dimensions are revealed. In short, I hope it’s a book people will return to, delving deeper and seeking the new dimensions hidden there.”

De Nooy’s third novel, The Unsaid, is due for release this year, and is narrated by the character JR Deo, who has made a career for himself as a newshound, pursuing tragedy to the darkest corners of the globe. “He has not emerged unscathed from this quest,” says De Nooy. “After a savage attack on fellow journalists, Deo is held at an Institute for Forensic Observation to assess to what extent he is accountable for his actions. He has to complete numerous psychological tests and undergo various sessions with a psychologist and a psychiatrist. He is also constantly observed during his interaction with other inmates. Initially, the calm in his cell is ideal for taking stock of horrors past and present. Deo writes day and night, and even agrees to present his writing to the psychologist, on condition that the psychologist gives him his reports. As the story progresses, sinister figures take control of Deo’s pen and begin dictating their confessions. Meanwhile, Deo’s fellow inmates are becoming increasingly suspicious of his writing. The violent, paranoid men wonder what exactly Deo is reporting, and to whom.

“Once again, the story is told from various perspectives: Deo writes about his experiences in the field and his interaction with the other inmates; there are transcripts of conversations between Deo and the psychologist/psychiatrist; and there is a series of confessions by men who have participated in the atrocities Deo has seen in the field. The confessions can best be described as the story of Little Red Riding Hood as told by the wolf. The reader is presented with a body of evidence and must arrive at their own verdict.”


Title: The Big Stick
Author: Richard de Nooy
Publisher: Jacana Media, 2011

It’s not often that a novel lands on my desk that I feel everyone should make an effort to read, but The Big Stick is definitely one of them. Richard de Nooy draws us into Amsterdam of the early 1980s, before the Aids epidemic cast its pall over the various communities. We meet Alma Nel, who’s travelled all the way from Zeerust in the very Afrikaans and conservative Transvaal, to fetch the body of her deceased son Staal. But while Alma’s in Amsterdam, she also seeks to unravel the events leading up to her gay son’s death and, in a way, gain a better understanding of who her child really was.

There is no doubt in my mind that De Nooy is a master storyteller, and paints out the story from multiple points of view and using different voices. Though we never see with Staal’s eyes, his story is told by a narrator who reminisces about his own perception of events, and interspersed with this are third-person accounts from Alma’s point of view and, threaded throughout this, interview-style first-person accounts from people who were close to Staal during various stages in his life.

Sounds disjointed? Definitely not. Somehow these assorted tellings hang together seamlessly and enrich the reader’s experience. Each narrator holds but a fragment of Staal’s life, coloured by their worldview. These are threaded together as one would create a beaded necklace, a bigger picture emerges.

Staal’s innocence is exquisite, though don’t mistake his naïveté for lack of intelligence. He is a sensitive, giving soul and, through the eyes of others, one begins to realise he might even be too good for this world. One can’t help but be affected by him, so it’s with a sense of wistfulness that I turned the pages knowing as I did right from the start that this wonderful young man had met with a violent end. The Big Stick is also about not taking people at face value, and realising the complexities of the masks that we wear. If we took just that little bit of time to look beneath the surface, we might find ourselves surprised by what we discover.

The Big Stick is more than just a murder mystery, it’s a tale that captures the spirit of place that needs to be remembered, be it casual cruelties or times of boundless possibilities. While we discover who Staal was, we also have the opportunity to examine our own preconceptions and what they say about us as people. Poignant doesn’t even begin to cover it.

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