EXTRACT: There Should Have Been Five

An extract from the novel by MJ HONIKMAN.

“Panzers!”

He was yanked from his exhaustion just as it felt his eyes had closed.

In the silvery dawn light Sipho saw a Panzer tank silhouetted on the hill, pointing its long gun straight at them and within moments Panzers were streaming down the hills all around them, like hundreds of ants. Great billows of smoke swirled up from the town and the harbour. And there from the east, on the hill behind the tanks, came thousands of German soldiers.

“They’re everywhere,” he murmured.

“What a mess!” Job was saying. “Rommel sneaked back in the night. He’s bombed the concrete barriers on the south east and brought the Panzers straight in. They’ve come past the Indian and Scottish regiments, down to the harbour and now up here. We have no guns, and there are landmines behind us. We can’t retreat. We’re trapped!”

***

Columns of German soldiers moved briskly down the hill with more Panzer tanks crawling behind them. Italian soldiers trailed behind the tanks. The Germans opened fire. As bullets flew past them, Sipho and Job hunched, frozen for a few seconds, and then scrambled for cover. Allied soldiers returned fire but could not stop the mass of German soldiers as the tanks rolled closer.

A lieutenant ran by, shouting to a captain, “Phones have been bombed! General Klopper can’t give instructions. What should we do?”

“Lance Corporal Maseko!” the captain called to Job. “Get a message to the General. Most of the South African 2nd Division are trapped here!” He held out a note and Job darted off.

Just minutes later two British officers drove by holding a small white flag and shouting through a loud hailer, “Every man for himself! Escape if you can! We are surrendering! General Klopper’s instructions: Every man for himself!

A wind blew off the desert. Thick dust eddied around the armoured car.

Few German soldiers saw that little white flag and the shooting did not stop.

Shell fire screeched and thumped, machine guns rattled. Sipho could not see Andrew. Job was gone. Should he try to escape through the landmines? What would Job do? Two doctors and three hospital orderlies ran from the bombed hospital towards the anti-tank ditch.

“There are landmines out there!” Sipho called to them.

As they scrambled across the ditch and started running over the mine field, Sipho heard two explosions. Five men, two explosions: those were the odds.

A shell thumped close by, and he dropped at on the sand. He needed to get somewhere safe, and started running the other way, dodging low between wrecked vehicles and through bombed buildings, towards the army headquarters.

An officer called calmly through the chaos, “Where’s Lance Corporal Maseko? I need someone who can get things done! Or Private Mahudi! Where’s Andrew Mahudi? Or Private Smith! Johnson? Is there no one reliable here?”

Sipho stepped forward. “I’m here, sir! Ndebele.”

The officer looked at Sipho: just a kid, but a lance corporal, he noticed. And the German troops were closing in. “Ndebele! The Germans haven’t seen that idiotic little flag! We need a big white flag.” He pointed to the half-bombed army headquarters. “Tie it to the roof! We’re surrendering!” He jumped into an armoured car and sped off through the gun fire.

Sipho stared after him and then looked at the headquarters’ building. He’d be visible for miles around. A target.

He didn’t move until another rattle of gun fire shocked him into action.

Where would he find a big white flag?

Nearby were the ruins of the hospital. There were sheets in the hospital. Sipho bent low and ran between the ruins. He shoved the hospital’s broken door aside and looked into a ward. There, amongst the remains of beds, he found a dirty white sheet. He tied it to a broomstick.

Bending low, he sprinted to the headquarters, climbing up the rubble and out onto the shattered roof. A strong gust blew off the desert, buffeting him as he straightened up. He staggered and sat down hard astride the roof ridge. Bullets clattered against the roof tiles next to him. He tried to drive the broomstick in between the tiles, but could not get purchase. He would have to stand again.

He planted his feet on the tiles and was half standing, rocking in the wind, when he felt hands on his ribcage, stretching him upright.

“Kahle! Steady!” Andrew’s voice.

Sipho rammed the broomstick between two cracked tiles and it held fast. As he and Andrew slithered and scrambled to the ground, the wind lifted the dirty white sheet and Sipho heard it, flap, flap, flap.

The guns went silent. Flap. Flap.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Read Bill Nasson’s review here.

BOOK CLUB: There Should Have Been Five

Professor BILL NASSON is enchanted by MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five which vividly brings a highly-charged 1940s wartime episode to life.

There Should Have Been Five by MJ HonikmannShould you ever judge a book by its cover? You have my blessing to do so with MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five. A first glance at its quietly dignified and intriguing cover design is enough to excite curiosity and interest. The staged front photograph portrays three dark-complexioned and khaki-clad Allied servicemen from the rear. They are gazing across flat and brown desert terrain towards a distant explosion which is sending a massive red-and-white ice-cream cone topping oozing out against a streaky blue sky. Who were these men, and where were they? What was the eruption that had caught their gaze?

The back cover illustration is a rampantly romantic head-and-shoulders colour portrait of an African soldier, with chin jutting and eyes set in a flat stare. Again, it begs a question. Who is this Othello in camouflage and with shoulder-flaps?

The answer – and an explanation of this book’s enigmatic and poignant title – is provided by the author’s engaging and imaginative historical story-telling. There Should Have Been Five is a compact dialogue between the present and the past which illuminates a largely-forgotten adventure from the Union of South Africa’s participation in World War Two. While Marilyn Honikman’s exceptionally readable novel is aimed at young adult readers or mature teenage readers, it has a wide enough reach to grip adult readers who need not be stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, like your reviewer. In other words, it merits a readership beyond the breathlessness of Teenzone Mag or the earnestness of The Teacher.

Impeccably researched, with a valuable short bibliography listing books, articles, oral interviews, private correspondence and even a recent documentary film, this book recreates a highly-charged episode from the wartime experiences of the 1940s in a fascinating and novel manner.

The peg upon which this drama hangs is the real figure of Lance-Corporal Job Maseko, a non-combatant African support soldier of the country’s Native Military Corps. Involved in Allied campaigning in East Africa and in North Africa, Job Maseko ended up in Western Desert fighting at Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. Hemmed in by circling Italian forces and punched by the German General Erwin Rommel’s crack Afrika Korps, the South African command threw in the towel in June 1942. With Tobruk having fallen, tens of thousands of South African troops, white and black, were rounded up and taken prisoner. Among them was a no-nonsense Lance-Corporal Maseko.

While the Union’s front-line white soldiers were shipped off to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Europe, most black servicemen did not cross the Mediterranean. Instead, they were consigned to local desert camps and pressed into labour service by their captors. Having laboured for Pretoria, they now found themselves labouring for Berlin and Rome.

As depicted here, Maseko was prominent among those who toiled for the enemy most grudgingly. During his work time unloading Axis supply ships at the port of Tobruk, a scheming Maseko was on the lookout for an opportunity to make things hot for the enemy. Single-handedly, he secretively pieced together oddments that had been collected – matches, fuse-wire, an empty tin, a pile of cordite extracted from old discarded bullets. This was sufficient to rig up an explosive contraption. When an opportune moment arrived in July 1942, Maseko got three of his most trusted fellow-POWs to distract their easily-diverted Italian guards, wormed his way deep into the hold of a supply-ship, and laid a slow burning device in an incendiary spot. By the time the delayed explosion set the ship on fire, a stealthy Job Maseko and his associates were back in their POW camp, their captors left none the wiser.

After the end of World War Two, four white South Africans were awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of valour. Maseko was also nominated, but this was vetoed by the Union Defence Force high command on the grounds that it would not do to award so high an honour to a lowly and subordinate Native Military Corps serviceman. But some recognition there had to be, and it came with the giving of the Military Medal.

We learn from Marilyn Honikman that this heroic character survived the war in which he had been “Lance Corporal Job Maseko MM”, only to return to a postwar South Africa to find that it was business as usual in a place where his place was to be called “boy”. True to this personal drama, Maseko’s end is tinged with tragedy, sadness and mystery. No one knew for certain what had happened, but “they found his body on the railway line… Not a good way for such a splendid man to die,” one of the story’s aged characters concludes.

This book uses the device of a lost or forgotten past being discovered by a curious present in a consistently lively and informative story which weaves back and forth between 1942 and the early 21st Century. We discover – or rediscover – Job Maseko through the widening eyes of two teenagers, John and Zanele Matshoba, who come across his noble painting while visiting the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Consumed by curiosity over “a Black South African who won a medal in the Second World War”, they launch a barrage of questions. The most animated answers come not from tattered 1950s copies of Drum Magazine, but through spending a night with their grandmother or gogo, in Diepkloof, Soweto.

As a writer who wants to get across a point or two about this relatively neglected aspect of South African history, Honikman’s approach is to grab the reader by the lapels and not to let go. In a deft contrivance which works entertainingly in this kind of historical fiction, the grandmother’s old next-door neighbour, “Old Mr Ndebele”, turns out to be a WW2 veteran who had actually served alongside Job Maseko.

Drawing on a sprightly set of wartime memories, he captivates his teenage visitors with an array of jaw-dropping tales, from driving army lorries in Kenya and Abyssinia, eluding Italians, and dodging ravenous hyenas, to encountering Rommel himself in a POW camp. These snapshots are an effective mechanism to bring a vivid historical story alive for contemporary readers, especially for those who are younger. Of course, this also entails doing something which historians should never do – making up words to stick into the mouths of dead people. But Honikman gets away with it. As with Elizabeth Bowen, the classic Anglo-Irish novelist of childhood, here the sharpest observers and most probing questioners are not adults, but buzzing children. A scrupulous and self-aware author, in her interesting author’s notes at the end she reflects upon what had to be done –adaptation, minor invention and borrowing – as devices to deal with matters that could not be known. Maybe more history should be left to accomplished writers who can write well and with verisimilitude rather than to historians who have forgotten that history is a literary craft.

Lance Corporal Job Maseko is the spine of a plot in which time flits back and forth, between the army recruiting pamphlet waved at African mineworkers in the early 1940s and a teenager’s iPad in 2014. Around it, the author fills a rib cage with an account of some of the experiences and fortunes of the almost 80,000 black South Africans who volunteered for the Union’s war effort, touching on their motivations, their feelings about serving a racially discriminatory country, and their return home to a deflating life. For Jan Smuts’s opportunistic claim that “the world cause of freedom is also our cause”, was, predictably, specious. Dedicated to “the great-grandchildren of the 354,000 South Africans of all races who volunteered to serve… in the fight against Hitler, the Nazis and the Italian fascists in World War II”, this little book is a moving and worthy tribute to all those who had hoped that victory might have been brought them a better society at home.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.

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.