EXTRACT: The Wisdom of Adders

An extract from the novella by Dan Wylie.Dan Wylie

It was the Entu. Right enough, but it looked nothing like she had envisaged. In a great broadening swathe across the flat country to the west, a tongue of shimmering silver flecked with rust and peppery black flanked a twinned strip of concrete highway, like the striped down a skunk’s back. Immediately below them this tongue was petering out in tufted grass, the surface broken up and the roadway narrowing to scale she could recognise. To the east, the track curved away towards the hills of home.

And now she could locate what had disturbed her – not so much an emptier sough of wind across that waste areas, but a scent: metallic and caustic.

“Is it the Atomscorch?”

“Not really,” said Mali. “An extension of it, I suppose. The edge of Nummers’ industrial zone, as far as it got before the oil and power died out. Take a look.”

Through Mali’s telescope she could see that the bare areas constituted of bleached gravel shot through with granules of glass and laced with streaks of poisonous black. Here and there were visible ribs of old drainage channels and stubs of rusted stanchions or half-buried elbows of massive machineries.

“No grass,” Shawn noted. “It has to be seriously toxic – radioactive even.”

“I doubt that. A hundred years after the accident, not so much radioactivity left, even in the middle of the Scorch. People even living and breeding on it, with deformities sometimes though. Like MuKechnie.”

“Oh. But it got some close to home!”

Realising as she said so that this, really, was the point of real decision. They had in effect completed three sides of a square, and they were probably just a good day’s walk back along the Entu to get home. Her Spartan flat, her familiar sheets.

Or head west and north and into the total unknown.

She was momentarily distracted by a movement further up the highway, nothing much, no more than a flapping of some discarded rag, perhaps. But as she watched through the telescope, a figure straightened up from behind a sloping slab of concrete. At this distance, half a ki or so, she could discern only a sense of blackened shabbiness under some sort of greatcoat, a beard maybe. The figure appeared to have filled a sack or bag with something and began to drag it across the blue-grey gravel towards the edge of the open swathe. Following him, she now saw that a kind of bunker had been established against a slight slope, so covered with the surrounding materials, its asymmetric entrance so tiny, it was all but invisible. Through the narrow slot another figure now immerged, equally ragged, coated with disguising rags and dust, but Shawn had the impression it was a woman. Together the pair crouched in front of the bunker, and she could just make out a shimmer of heated air between them; some kind of smokeless fire, or heating unit.

“What are they doing?”

“Scavengers,” said Mali. “Getting out heavy metals, maybe, or melting glass down for trinkets.”

There were no other signs of life. They waited. There seemed nothing else to do. Shawn was reluctant to try to cross this strip of bleached disaster in broad daylight. To the west the sky seemed heavy with a kind of fervent bronze energy; she did not want to go any closer to that, but wondered what the territory north of the Entu might hold in store. And she wondered when she ought to tell Mali to go home. It was getting late in the day; maybe in the morning. And there was, she had to admit, a certain apprehension lurking in the pit of her belly about spending this particular night alone.

Mali, for his part, seemed content to sit in silence, self-contained as a carving in oiled teak.

Shawn watched the ragged couple for a while in their mysterious activity, but could make nothing of it. Then she noticed they had straightened up and were staring down the highway. Shawn followed their gaze with the telescope. Out of the wavering haze, the sun dropping a brassy glaze over the wasteland, emerged two figures, then three, no, four – tall, spiky, seeming for a time to float on molten glass. The scavengers began to scurry and bend, hiding or preparing things it was impossible to say. Advancing, the newcomers resolved into four horsemen. In that light, they seemed plated with metal and to bristle with spears or rifles, or both; Shawn couldn’t make out. As she watched they urged their mounts into a gallop; by the time they reached the bunker the scavengers had vanished. The horsemen halted and circled, raising a threatening swirl of dust. One dismounted and bent to peer into the lop-sided slot of the bunker.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon. Read the review here.

REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders

BY ALAN MULLER

Adders by Dan Wylie

Addo, Adder, Addis. To Shawn Xaba, the protagonist of Dan Wylie’s The Wisdom of Adders, these places may just as well be one and the same. In 2170 South Africa, places have been stripped of their historical weight by an ecological cataclysm, rendering most of the country’s landscape barren and largely unpopulated except for a few isolated communities and freeway bandits. Set in (what used to be) Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, the young Shawn, after abandoning her work post and missing curfew, is sentenced to collecting coal from the “Coastal Line” near Port Alfred some 60km away. In a world where motorised travel has become a thing of the past, this is, of course, easier said than done.

To add to the arduous journey, Shawn, accompanied by the mysterious Mali, must navigate the Atomscorch – a landscape ravaged by radioactive fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear reactor some 100 years prior. Additionally, after global capitalism and industry had ravaged the planet, there had been the “Millennial Mission of Twenty-One Hundred”; a failed mission to colonise Mars that resulted only in the eventual death of the cosmic colonisers on the planet. Between the reader’s present and 2017, there has also been a near total loss of historical context and knowledge as places and institutions take on new names that are mere homophones of the places they used to denote. Port Alfred is reduced to Palfred which has since been overcome by rising sea levels while national highways like the N2 and N10 have become the Entu and Enten and home to bandits and are traversed only by brave merchants who scour the Atomscorch for “trinkets and techno-baubles”.

Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novella is at once both an emptying out and filling up in terms of its ecocritical approach to such a disaster. While the landscape is initially all but emptied of its flora and fauna (humans included), nature proves resilient and increasingly intrude into the narrative as it progresses. The novel begins and ends with the elusive adder while a jackal proves omnipresent yet is only as visible as it chooses to be. More striking though, is the discovery that Shawn and Mali make in Adder (an area west of what was Grahamstown); a species long thought eradicated by humans and the Atomscorch. Nature, it seems, has a way of bouncing back from the most aggressive assaults.

Although nature and acological crises come to the fore in The Wisdom of Adders, the novella’s plot and setting are not entirely emptied of their political baggage. A centralised government may be something of the distant past and is not even mentioned but racial politics does rear its all-too-familiar head. While South Africa has become “a country of browns”, there are rare racial exceptions in the form of ‘Throwblacks’ like Mali and even rarer ‘Whitebacks’ like the Tharfields. While the backstory of why Mali’s lineage remained black is unclear, the Tharfields openly boast about their 1820 settler roots and how they remained ‘pure’ by resisting what they saw as shameless miscegenation as the population shrank.

The Wisdom of Adders is a stylistically slick novella that incorporates poetry into its already lyrical prose. Before embarking on her journey, Shawn is befriended by the mystical Stormchaser who gives her a collection of his poetry to take along. She and Mali read some of these to one another along their journey and the reader is able to glimpse a flash of Wylie as a poet also. Having published seven collections to date, his poetry is able to stand on its own but complement the novella well in their ecocritical themes. Wylie’s seventh collection, Slow Fires seems to function as a poetic genesis for this novella with its focus on the lives of animals and inevitability of the cycle of birth and death (read Finuala Dowling’s review of the collection here). The novella also mirrors a scene from a poem titled “Even a darkness which may be felt” as people run to scoop up locusts, making the best of an approaching swarm.

The Wisdom of Adders joins a growing body of outstanding ecocritical speculative fictions to emerge from South Africa in recent years such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novels Nineveh and Green Lion, Cain Prize-winning story “Poison”; and Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon.

BOOK CLUB: Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard

GARETH LANGDON lauds Sean Christie’s excellent account of stowaways living on the margins of a quickly gentrifying Cape Town.

"Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard" by Sean Christie

Taking a ship is not like taking a taxi. If I get the chance, I will go, and after that you never know. I might not come back.

Cape Town is often lauded as a city of contrasts: white sandy beaches and rocky mountain outcrops. The green, leafy, English speaking South and the dry, arid, Afrikaans speaking North. The rich, safe suburbs and the dangerous poor squatter camps.

Poverty, as many have sadly noted, is as much a part of Cape Town’s landscape as Table Mountain or Camps Bay beach. So much so that many of the city’s most destitute and lost go unnoticed and forgotten, living out lives that are foreign to the privileged such as myself, camouflaged into the city’s intersections and park benches, pavements and grass embankments near highways. Few venture into the areas that the poor call home, unless it is to “clean up” and ask them to leave. Sean Christie is an exception to this rule.

In the excellent Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways, Christie ventures deep into the underground world of African stowaways who call Cape Town’s and other coastal city’s bridges, highways, and forests their home. The foreshores and harbours of these places offer the perfect viewing point for those whose lives are dictated by the tides of ships coming in and out, offering escape routes and temporary shelter. Befriending one stowaway in particular, Adam, Christie infiltrates the exclusive culture of the stowaways who call themselves the Beachboys, and examines in personal detail some of the most destitute of Cape Town like few others have before. Christie drives Adam around in his Conquest, loans him money, his cellphone and laptop, food and even takes a lengthy trip with him to Dar es Salaam and back, a promise he had made a long time before and had never expected to keep. Through Adam, Christie is introduced to and allowed to talk openly and frankly various members of the Beachboys, and learns in great depth about their lives up to this point, and their hopes for the future.

The majority of the stowaways hail from Tanzania, but few actually still call it home. A big part of Beachboy culture is the belief that the ocean is your true home, the source of life, and unless you are out at sea you are not truly home. Naturally, this lifestyle often clashes with the realities of these men’s situations, many of whom have left families, daughters and sons behind in the various countries they have lived and worked illegally over their time as stowaways. Many of them have serious drug addictions, illnesses and injuries which go untreated. Their lives are hard and strenuous and the sea is their balm. Adam himself has a daughter, Aniya, who lives a healthy life with her mother Rochelle in Birmingham, England. The book captures a beautiful moment in Adam’s young life where, for the first time with Christie’s help, he is able to reach his daughter through Skype, having not seen her for several years. Christie writes the encounter adeptly, with Adam’s excitement about his daughter and the technology as totally foreign both brought to full view. As I read, I was reminded of my own complacency with the resources I have access to.

The danger of investigative journalism like Christie’s is that it can slip easily into the realm of limited self-awareness. Few explorations of this kind are conscious of their own bias, or privilege, when engaging with their subject. However, Christie cleverly avoids falling into this trap by interweaving memoir and investigation – a technique that Billy Kahora on the over-leaf calls “genre-busting”.

Christie speaks frankly about the personal experiences that led him to investigate the Beachboys, his own struggles with a lack of purpose and with alcohol. After completing his education and flitting between various writing gigs, other odd jobs and still not finding fulfillment, Christie embarks on his journey with Adam after an introduction through photographer David Southwood, whose pictures feature in the book. From his own platform of waywardness Christie is not simply describing the lives of the Beachboys, but constantly searching for possible parallels between their lives and his, and strives to assimilate the parts of their philosophy which he believes are able to guide him along his own winding path. He allows himself to experience the true nature of poverty on the trip down from Dar es Salaam, draining his bank account, sleeping rough and hopping the border. For the reader, there is a feeling both of admiration for Christie’s bravery and of excitement for the story – you really just want to know what will happen to them all in the end.

Sadly however, the book leaves little room for hope for the Beachboys. It concludes with the realisation that, for all the claims towards progress, Cape Town and South Africa at large remains a place of extreme contrast and poverty, and what was once a haven for the destitute Beachboy stowaways has, thanks to development and gentrification which purports to bring prosperity, has now become, ironically, unliveable. The Beachboys are pushed out of their makeshift homes by the sea in favour of glass and steel buildings along Cape Town’s foreshore, and new business and apartments for the privileged throughout Woodstock and Salt River. Without their views of the ocean, one is left to wonder what happens to a Beachboy culture so heavily steeped in salt water. Forced away from the water, what becomes of a Beachboy? Christie laments and accepts the conditions of his home city, and rather than offering some kind of solution or resolve, seems resigned to the fact that – like most Capetonians – there is not much to be done in the face of such enormous systemic and structural inadequacy when addressing poverty of this scale. One is left to wonder after reading, “How can I help?”, but also with a distinct feeling that this urge to help is misplaced and even condescending to a group of tough men who have found their own way of living, albeit one which contradicts our own limit understanding of how things should be. Although poor, many of these men are not unhappy. Half forced into and half choosing their stowaway lives, they have insights which, perhaps, many of the comfortable like you and I lack.

For Adam, home lies at sea and not, as you would expect, in Cape Town or Birmingham or Dar es Salaam. Pushed out and away from the land by years of rejection – from his father, from his mother, from the governments and citizens around him – Adam has found his peace and comfort in the water, his own kind of final frontier.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is a revealing, personal and touching read in its entirety and – especially for those familiar with the streets of Cape Town – a deep insight into the hidden worlds around and within us, poor or not.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books (type AERO in the box that says “Discount” at checkout). You can collect your purchase in-store or get it delivered via courier (delivery fees still apply).

BOOK CLUB: Wings of Smoke

CHRISTINE COATES is enthralled by Jim Pascual Agustin’s disturbingly beautiful new collection of poems.

Wings of Smoke

There is something delicate and disturbing about the image of wings of smoke; something light and lovely, almost an apparition, but then the horror of wings actually burning. Jim Pascual Agustin invites ways of seeing like the birds flying in and out of this beautiful collection. The small sparrows (their breath, their wings), the fighting cocks kept under the floorboards of a childhood home, a yellow-billed kite, a seagull, crows, a headless chicken. The feathers of the many birds are both delicate and smouldering, but there are also stones, pebbles to follow, scattered throughout the text; skin, mud, light are all visceral, concrete images. It’s the footless wagtail at the end that breaks one’s heart.

In “Stretching the Fabric”, Agustin gathers what he loves under the canopy of this first section. In “Open Air Cinema in the Rain” he walks with his beloved in Sagada, the Philippines Northern Mountain Province. He telescopes from an intimate moment to the bigger picture; the couple are outdoors and yet the reader is right there with them:

We stretch the fabric
between us, plucking
and dropping seed after seed,
remembering the ridiculous
fear we felt when the sound
of hooves on damp ground
invaded our meandering.

Then he reverses it – inside, the outside becomes part of the intimacy:

Now in your room we laugh
at what forced us to hold
hands together. Outside,
a movie plays to a silent crowd
in the plaza. Lightning
competing with the show,
then a downpour.

The delicacy of the images are like painted watercolours, a haiku within the poem:

then a downpour. Umbrellas
like black mushrooms
sprout on the benches.

In “A View of Crows”, inside and outside are again interchanged, but with heightened anxiety, of not being in control, of someone else determining his fate. The minibus-taxi, a satellite hurtling through space, inside is loaded with shadows – then the moment when the poem takes one’s breath:

Then
you notice them, clear from the fog, framed
by the back window: crows.

The space metaphor occurs again where the speaker’s unborn children are cosmic travellers in the womb; contained and safe. In “Sound of the Sun”, the unborn twins are

nothing but quivering
dots of light that came together
then broke apart over and over
in the watery world of ultrasound.
Floating, no, swimming
in your separate oceans,
each as big as a bowl of rice.

The seeing that comes before words, the poet learns new words to explain the world, finds words through experience to make poetry;

Swaddled, a word I never knew
until I held you.

In “Breath of Sparrows” the poet dreams of Mandela as a tree. He wants to ask the name of the tree, but realises there is no need to know, no need to name anything; the wings of the sparrows and their breath say it all:

The breath of sparrows
like his own. There was no need to name
the tree, no need to name anything
at all at that moment. I bid him thanks
before leaving, my footsteps drowning
in sparrow wings.

The wind moves around branches as words come and go along the lines of poetry. This is the poet as master, showing the reader, not spelling it out.

In “Born and Died, Lived”, a portrait of his grandmother, Agustin explores what he knows and what he needs to know, ways he can never imagine her, ways he does; catching a butterfly in a net, a white flag on a wash line, her wings lace, her back studded with diamonds. The pebbles lead the reader to make sense of the images – mud is associated with love; like the grandmother’s skirt or her skin. In “Unbearable” he draws another intimate portrait, again noting what is said and what is left unsaid, with gentle sensitivity.

“Midnight Bugs” surprises the reader; one thing turns to another as the bugs, crawling up on the outside of a window, become the shells inside on a glass table top. “Bladed Spurs”, a childhood memory, where what is heard and what is not heard, what needs to see, what is being seen is remembered. The boy sees the fighting cocks kept below the wooden floorboards of the house, but they don’t see him. He imagines them hearing the family screams and fights, and yet, when the roosters need to see, when they fight, their line of vision is “improved” by the father:

its comb. “It covers an eye
when it flops down too long,”
he explained, “a handicap
in a fight.” The rooster’s heart
against my hands,
the burning heat of skin
beneath feathers
with a metallic shine.

“The Consequences of Seeing” the loon with a mirror tries to capture light in a jar. Is the poet a fool? No, this poet is a master of capturing light in a jar. Agustin, the artist who sees, looks, “grips everyone’s hearts”; his way of seeing acts as the function of poetry, to make us immune to the sudden darkness:

It made her laugh and fall
in love, immune
to the sudden darkness.

In “shadows the shape of knives”, the poet explores loss; what cuts us, cuts into. In “Ghost Train” he again searches for what is seen and what is not:

the strip where the elastic
of my underwear leaves a fine
texture like ghost train
tracks. Neither of us has seen
a coach derail except in movies.

In “Do Millipedes Bleed?” the harsh glare of the light bulb does not blind the poet. When he looks closely he sees. Seeing saves lives:

Then up close I see
it is hunched over
a drop of water,
drinking. Tiny feelers
waving back and forth
in a gentle rhythm

There is anxiety about travel in Cape Town; danger, blackness, teethmarks on leather, knife-cuts on his journey; even the mountain cuts the sky. Here the centipedes are poisonous. The birds that brought joy earlier are now lost, killed against a mesh fence. He has to bury the francolin; what he sees may bring nightmares.

I cover the hole. Sandy soil seeps
between fine patterns of white and gray
feathers, red claws to scratch
the door in my sleep.

The poet is plagued with insecurities, unseen problems as in “With Hazards On” and “Batibat/Bangungot”, an Ilocano myth of a night demon, or the anxiety of who will take care of his family if he dies without insurance. In “Strands of Moss”, written for a poet friend, he worries about unseen things on which one may slip. Yet the silent moss is also moss that breaks free and the reader marvels at the beauty of the imagery as at the brilliant green.

The section “wings of smoke” is a string of prayer flags; each haiku is beautiful, burning. The first is for Tatay, and the image of mud again conveys a memory of love:

feet heavy with mud
shiny bald moon draped with cloud
my teacher’s laughter

The poet explores getting to know oneself in the dark, having one’s wings clipped. Each haiku a shining white pebble tracing the way through the dark.

The last section, “a blanket over each cage”, is a fabric of another kind; things that are covered up, not spoken, what we won’t see, can’t see. The poet explores the fear and horror of war, the contradictions and disparities of society, his own complicity in killing one of the birds he loves. He expresses his deeply-felt frustration as a poet who, like a headless chicken, is voiceless against super powers. And yet he speaks truth to power. The most poignant moment for this reader is “Sticks for Legs”:

A wagtail flicks its narrow
tail feathers up and down
as it shuffles in jerks
on the bricks, like in early
animated movies in black
and white.

And then one realises the wagtail has no feet/claws:

On sand, it would leave
no more than dots,
navigating an invisible maze
on the ground.

And yet, like a maimed soldier, it survives in midst of danger. Poetry helps this poet survive in dangerous times.

Included under this blanket is “Grandfather Exhales”, a poem of loss. The images of butterfly, skin, petals link back to his grandmother. The white stones lead to hope; the stones and the soft breath, like the breath of sparrows earlier, when Mandela died.

Agustin’s ways of seeing; the delicate balance of life and death, the fine line between light and dark, finding beauty in tragedy, light in a bottle all demonstrate that sometimes the most tragic things provide the artist with beautiful subject matter. Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is a thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

For this reader Agustin is one of the finest poets writing in South Africa today.

Wings of Smoke is published by The Onslaught Press.