Saturday, May 27, 2017

Modern South African Stories by Stephen Gray

Modern South African Stories by Stephen Gray was on the list of recommended reading as part of one of my English modules when I was still studying through Unisa, and though it's been a while since I've read it, I'd still like to share my thoughts (and thank goodness I left myself copious notes over on Goodreads while I progressed).

Okay, deep breath. In *general* I don't often pick up an SA fiction anthology because I expect a bunch of the stories to go heavy handed with socio-political commentary on the state of the country, and to be honest, I get enough of that on my social media feeds every day. Yes, it's a terrible thing to admit, but that's just me. Slap me with a pap snoek and be done with it.

On the flip side, if you're looking for little bites and commentaries on our past and present, then hey, sometimes fiction is a great place to unpack ideas, turn them over and see how they resonate with you. For that very reason, this is why I *will* dip into contemporary SA fiction because it's good for me to encounter writing that makes me uncomfortable. (Yes, Nerine, eat your vegetables.)

Anyhoo, I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story in this anthology, but I'll highlight a few that jumped out at me.

"If you swallow, you're dead" by Yvonne Burgess was by far the story that gave me the biggest gut punch. I even wrote a paper about it. It's about a narrow-minded Afrikaans woman whose entire life is subsumed in her caring for others, how she's always taken second best, and how her reliance on tradition eventually kills her. And her life is meaningless. A perfect, existentialist dread through and through. This was a horrible story and ugly, and I rolled around in its awfulness. Yes, I'm twisted that way. Life is brutal and short, and then you die, and no one cares.

Bessie Head's story, "The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses" in which an old prisoner manipulates a prison warden, is, of course, cleverly told. Then again, I don't need to remind you that Bessie Head is the bomb, and there's a reason her writing is taught at secondary and tertiary levels.

I'm not quite sure what to make of "The Tongue" by Rustum Kozain. I suspect this may be a nod towards Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose", but in this case we're dealing with a giant disembodied tongue that's been wounded and is now being loaded into a waggon to be removed by medics. Setting feels like surreal Anglo-Boer War. It's surreal, for sure.

Oh dear dog, "Tell Him It's Never Too Late" by Rachelle Greeff is such a downer. Mario and Maria are a childless couple married for more than 50 years. They move into a retirement home, Mario dies, and Maria moves into progressively smaller rooms until she's sharing. She gets ill with cancer and the doctor discovers she's had a lithopedion inside her all this time. Basically this is a story about death/rebirth, and unrequited love from priest. If you don't know with a lithopedion is, please, for the love of dog, DO NOT google the images. If you do, don't blame me 'cos I told you so.

"Heavy Cerebral Metal" by Deena Padayachee was ... odd. The story is narrated by newly married doctor taken aback by the account of abuse told by patient who has a tip of an umbrella stuck in his head. I can't decide if the doctor is flabbergasted or simply feeling solidarity with man. I pray it's the former.

"A Handbag in the Boot" by Farida Karodia is possibly the weakest story in the entire anthology. It features the unnecessarily twee contrasting lives of a streetkid and a rich white madam. I'm sorry, maybe this story had a place somewhere during the 1990s to highlight differences in economic situations, but now it's just overly sentimental and pandering to Great White Guilt. Bludgeon much?

The collection wasn't all bad, however. "Clubfoot" by Ken Barris was possibly one of my favourite stories. We see the world through the eyes of a clubfooted boy who lives a sheltered life somewhere on the West Coast with his mom. His drunkard, gypsy of a grandfather comes to visit and we learn something unfortunate about the boy's origin. There is plenty of ocean/sea imagery, and overall the story has a dreamlike quality.

To be horribly honest, and I'm probably showing what an unsophisticated fart I really am, I didn't really *get* the majority of these stories, and many of them really didn't get to a point (and this is me pulling my nasty editor face for writing that could have indulged in less waffle). There is heavy emphasis on socio-political issues, which automatically gets a knee-jerk reaction out of me, because honestly, there is more to South African fiction than just bashing readers over the head with history books. You are welcome to tell me I am a boorish Philistine for holding this opinion. (But honestly, that will say more about you than me, and I really couldn't give a rat's arse.)

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