REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders


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.

Dangerous sounds


The Greek myth of Orpheus, the ur-musician and poet, has been retold and rewritten numerous times in various forms and guises, indicating the rich literary and musical tradition on which this novel builds. Orpheus is only explicitly mentioned twice in the novel: in reference to Shostakovich and then to a computer compositional programme “that turns an average tunesmith into Orpheus”. Orfeo takes in the gamut of classical music in between, as well as in the centuries of innovation before.

Orfeo is Powers’s eleventh novel in a career which has earned him countless plaudits including the title of genius that comes with being awarded a MacArthur grant. In the novel’s “Overture”, Peter Els is an unlikely Orphic hero: a lonely, retired professor of composition who has been dabbling in cell-mutation, modifying the DNA of bacteria. In the climate of fear that is post-9/11 America, his home lab raises the suspicions of Homeland Security. Soon this quiet composer, who “had staked his life on finding that larger thing. Something magnificent and enduring hidden under music’s exhausted surface” is on the run, wanted as a bio-terrorist.

Interspersed by seemingly cryptic statements are two alternating narrative strands: one in the present tense and one that traces Els’s history, beginning with his first experience of musical enchantment. These all converge towards the novel’s conclusion. The careful structuring of the novel shows Powers’s compositional genius: themes repeat and ideas mutate extending the comparison of chemistry and music made throughout by Els.

The tone is elegiac, yet oddly hopeful, as Els believes in the “adamant, brute-beautiful songs of the young still to come.’’ It is not only Eurydice (in this case estranged rather than dead) whom this musician wants to rescue from the Underworld, but everything that is past, that has been lost. Powers himself exhumes archaic or dusty words and breathes life into them, while his protagonist, Els, “returned to the exhausted vocabularies of the old masters, looking for lost clues, trying to work out how they’d managed, once, to twist the viscera and swell whatever it was in humans that imagined it was a soul. Some part of him could not help believing that the key to re-enchantment still lay in walking backwards into the future.” This, as Maurice Blanchot proposes in “The Gaze of Orpheus”, is the challenge facing all artists: to bring something back – from that “other night” of the Underworld – into the light of the present.

Orfeo is a dense and demanding book; it’s slow going at times, but this is not necessarily a criticism. Ruminations on musical posterity and dissident music are accompanied by long sections filled with complex musical jargon in which Els describes whatever he is listening to. There are brilliant set pieces, for example, a stirring 13-page lecture on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a virtuoso 10 pages describing the epiphanic experience of listening to Steve Reich’s Proverb which is playing on the speakers in a campus coffee shop to an oblivious audience. It’s heady stuff. No doubt some readers might find this frustratingly abstruse, and as with the avant-garde music Els composes, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the reading experience can be revelatory; the final third of the novel is simply breathtaking.

My copy of the book is filled with post-it notes where I’ve marked lines that seemed to sing, awed by Powers’s mastery at the level of the sentence. There are also moments of deadpan comedy and pithy observations on the changing cultural milieu: “A TV tilted from the wall like an altarpiece. … The headline news channel featured a pet care business that was booming in the advent of the Rapture, only weeks away.”

Music is not a prop or gimmick in Orfeo. It is the story. Throughout the changing trends in musical history that Els studies and lives through, there is a leitmotif, exemplified in a childhood call-and-response game he played with his daughter: the desire to “make something good.” Powers has clearly made something good in Orfeo.

Orfeo is published by Atlantic.