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.

POEM: Moving into another life

BY MAAKOMELE R. MANAKA

Internet down
Computer crash
Not enough cash
Cellphone screen smashed
No calls
Alone but never lonely,
stationed walls surround me.
Everything out of tune
Still no confirmation
of my lodging
Brain-freeze!
quick airtime fix,
Phone call overdose.
Finally a home finds me
No food,
No beer,
No fridge
Just a breeze
Not yet settled
in settler city
No music, no dreams
Silence knows how to love
Long distances
Crutches on my legs
I’m Johnny the walker.
No funds
No bread
No smile
No all-access card
Shit!
Student life is hard

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.

THE BOOKSELLER: Audrey Rademeyer – Kalk Bay Books

Kalk Bay Books

Audrey Rademeyer is the owner of Kalk Bay Books, Cape Town’s southern peninsula gem that offers a range of interesting literary fiction and non-fiction and has an impressive newsstand.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. The antithesis of depressing, it’s about so many things, among them, death and our sticky relationship with life itself. The sometimes prolonged and senseless suffering of “medicalised” death, and how we could and should die better, with more dignity and with less trauma to ourselves and to our loved ones. I think that this is one of those books which come along every once in a while and fundamentally shift things in our collective mind.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

We are very lucky in that we don’t have a huge problem with this, but when it does happen it’s likely to be Long Walk to Freedom or Shantaram.

The biggest seller of the past year?

Sapiens by Yuval Harari. He tells a gripping history of our species, and has been accused of vandalism, recklessness and caricature. But there is an urgency in what he is trying to get us to comprehend about ourselves, because there isn’t any time left. He’s setting us up, at lightspeed, for Homo Deus, in which we glimpse the successor we are currently nurturing. The one who we probably aren’t going to like very much in the end, precisely because of who we are and what we’ve done.

The most underwhelming book youíve read in the last year?

The Heart goes Last by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. But I don’t think it was Margaret’s fault entirely. Some of it was mine.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?
What will People Say by Rehana Rossouw. An illuminating, important novel set in Hanover Park in the 80’s, and also a great read.

The last thing you read that made you cry?
Eventide by Kent Haruf. He has an exquisitely delicate hand in his dealings with the human heart.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

Yes, in fact there is a startling number of them. But I discussed this with my colleagues and we decided that as an answer to this question it might as well be our favourite mutually hated book, that excremental anti-erotica called Fifty Shades, which is an insult to pleasure and a criminal waste of ink and paper.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?
That we’re still here despite being picky and difficult and occasionally grumpy, and that we’re useless at social media, and that we don’t have SnapScan.

The three writers you admire the most?

I must choose three friends, above all others? This is impossible and unfair. Off the top of my head, randomly then: Kent Haruf, whose quiet affection for his characters extends to his readers. His books are genuine treasure. David Mitchell, who writes the kind of stories I most like to read, adventures into which you can completely disappear and when you come out the other side, wild-eyed and shaken up, you’re still possessed for weeks after. George Monbiot, who is fearless and tireless and was reckless long before Harari was, and who is always lucid, and who should be taught in school.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Corporatocracy in the book-supply chain means that certain leviathans, having chomped up all the little guys, have created a perverse situation in which it’s easy to imagine that the intention is to keep books and readers apart. We have speculated that these entities would really rather that bookshops didn’t exist at all.

Describe your archetypal customer.
The one who comes in looking for a book we don’t have, and leaves with three other books instead, then happily comes back for more.

The best part of being a bookseller?
I get to do what I like best, for work. I get to hang out among books with other people who like to hang out among books. It does seem a bit unfair to be this lucky, and sometimes I wonder whether I’m just imagining it.

And the worst part?
That there are just too many good books, and I will most certainly die before I’ve read them, or stocked them, or even seen them.