POEM: The colour of their eyes

BY STEPHEN SYMONS

Under a running moon my children are

given to the angles of sleep, as if
their dreaming bodies were
about to be broken by a
great fall but are
suspended
a fraction
from

the moment of impact.

Soon the house will open its arms to absorb
the dull thud of their weight against its
flesh and bone. And when they
awake I will marvel at the
slow retreat of their
dreamselves and a
stirring of green,
blue, and even
silver of life

returned.

BOOK CLUB: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

GARETH LANGDON is impressed by John Higgs’ riveting account of the 20th century.Stranger Than We Can Imagine - John Higgs

I first encountered the literature of the 20th century when I was in my third year of university, floundering through an English BA at the University of Cape Town. I remember cracking open The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that other book by James Joyce that isn’t the impenetrable Ulysses. I was immediately taken by the richness of the work but also by the strange disjointedness of the narrative – how the stream of consciousness technique he used at once made perfect sense and no sense at all. During a particularly messy time in my life, I found this kind of narrative almost soothing – a semantic echo of what was going on in my own jumbled head. I remained fascinated with work from this time throughout my undergraduate and graduate careers, and to this day anything 20th century gets my juices well and truly flowing. I find art and literature from this time comforting. It makes me feel less alone.

The 20th century is considered by many to be the most turbulent time in human history. It started with a world war, saw the rise of communism and fascism and then another world war, disillusionment with religion and some of the most significant advances in science, medicine and industry that changed the shape of our psyches forever – a veritable explosion of confusion, enlightenment, death and fear that ripples through our lives today.

In his clear-headed and thorough inquiry, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs carefully unpacks the major events of the 20th century that shaped the art, literature and science we take as foundational to this day, and examines some of the psychological effects of things like Einstein’s relativity and Nietzsche’s dead God on our lives.

Central to Higgs’ unpacking is the idea of the omphalos, in his words a “universal symbol common to almost all cultures but with different locations.” In Higgs’ figuring, the chaos of the 20th century can be best understood in the context of the disruption of various omphali. Western culture was now faced with a loss – the loss of a single benevolent God, the loss of the sovereignty of kings and queens and the loss of a single art for explaining everything around them. Various attempts at explaining existence gave rise to new but fleeting omphali, perhaps most notably fascism, embodied in that haunting spectre of the 20th century: Nazism.

The question of “Why?” lived on everyone’s tongue throughout the 20th century. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Why is there so much killing?

While he speaks fondly of the various artistic movements and scientific advances that arose across the century, from chemistry to cubism, Higgs brings it back always to what birthed these new ideas. Humans no longer had a central location from which to tether their existence and give it meaning. There was no answer to the “Why?” anymore. We were now quite small, floating on a rock in the middle of an ever expanding universe. Time itself was not even beyond reproach and left us flailing, albeit with our paintbrushes sometimes striking the canvas in new ways, or our pens giving birth to the likes of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse and indeed, the Beatles and rock ‘n roll.

For experienced readers of the period, John Higgs’ work is 20th Century Lite – a brief romp through the major events that shaped us, and continue to shape us. It is academic yet accessible, and also strikingly clear, leading critics to describe it as “like being shot with a diamond.” While it is ambitious to try and capture everything that mattered during the last 100 years, Higgs drops in at key moments and elucidates them brilliantly enough that the reader closes the book feeling rather well educated.

If you want to understand how we got to where we are today as a species – philosophically, scientifically and artistically – then Stranger Than We Can Imagine is, without question, required reading. Drastically undersold by the Financial Times as “A brilliantly stimulating tale”, Higgs’ work is much more than that. It is a telescope into the past that, ironically, helps situate us exactly where we are in the present.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

POEM: Writing you small

BY MANTHIPE MOILA

My legs go numb at the news that you’re going to be a father
After ten months of learning how to breathe without you,
one and a half conversations are all it takes to clog my throat,
to send my whole system spiralling
My hands need somewhere to be

And so here I am – writing you small
writing you manageable
editing you tolerable
You are a poem now
I can manipulate out of you the sharp edges that scratch at me
I have the license to make you whatever shape I want
I can turn your cruelty against you, dip you in irony so complete
that you won’t be able to recognise yourself
I can tell myself that we were sentences long,
That, at best, a few pages ought to do us justice
I can turn us, all we were into a metaphor
that ends with this:

You have locked me into myself
I don’t open the mail anymore
I’ve sealed the windows shut with glue and paint
Locked all the doors
Made sure the keys are hard to reach
The curtains are drawn
Outside is only for near-starvation
Until then, I’ll make music to keep me company
I can make my own heat
I can make my own love

10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally

BY GARETH LANGDON

Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.