EXTRACT: Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura

TOM WAS NOT a good liar, but Tom’s mother had been good enough to make a career of it. She lied to her husband for the full course of her affair with a neighboring farmer. She used Tom as an excuse. She said he was uncomfortable with himself and other children. He needed to be socialized—that was the fashionable term she applied to her son’s unfashionable condition. Every other day she walked him three miles to the neighboring estate. She left him in the yard with the other children and disappeared inside.

The children played in the dirt and listened to the shrieks that rang out across the farmstead. Which sometimes sounded like an animal dying, painfully. She came out of the farmhouse with her skin a hectic red and one hand pressed against her head. Tom watched as she smoothed her hair into place. Calmed the surface of her dress. Then they walked the three miles home, his hand sticky in hers. He knew but did not mind the fact that she was lying. He thought the secret would bring them closer.

There were other flaws in his character, beyond dishonesty and misapprehension, which together conspired to make the son incomprehensible to the father. For example, Tom was a coward. He was easily frightened and physically uncertain. He was not very old when the physical fear became a moral one. It was therefore natural that his father held him in contempt: the old man does not recognize fear as a valid emotion.

It did not help that Tom was especially afraid of the dorado. To him they were a terrifying fish. The dorado grew four feet long in the river, larger than a child and much larger than the child Tom had been. The male fish bore square blocked foreheads and male and female alike their bodies turned gray as they died out of water. But while alive the fish were fearless and had tremendous appetite.

Tom’s father loved the dorado. He is this fish: his father is the dorado. Once, when Tom was a boy, he took him out on the river. He might have been experimenting with the idea of being a father because he was unusually patient. He taught Tom to cast out to the water. He showed him how to reel in. He said very little but he told him that the dorado were a vicious fish that ate into a man’s strength.

Tom remembered how his father caught the dorado on the line. How he began to reel it in. The fish rose out of the water and dropped back in. It appeared to Tom as large as a grown man, as large as his father. It jerked through the water, under the boat, into the air, back into the water. The rod almost bending in two. Tom was not certain that his father would bring it in. He thought surely the rod would snap.

But his father brought the fish in. It was a giant. Male, with the alien crested forehead, the yellow body thrashing against the line. His father lifted it high in the air. He admired the heft and weight, the golden turn of the scales, the tremendous girth of the fish. Then he placed it in Tom’s arms. Tom almost fell with the weight of the dorado, the coldness of the scales, the inner muscle of the animal shuddering hard against its death.

When he came to, his father was standing above him, holding the fish by its tail. Tom watched as he seized a knife and dug into the belly of the fish. He drew a long vertical slit and the crimson guts of the animal tumbled out onto the deck. He ignored his son as he scooped the intestines into one hand and threw them back into the river. The dorado swarmed the boat, jaws snapping.

The fish became their livelihood. Running a farm was an expensive business. The river supported the farm and allowed them to maintain the large holding of land. More and more tourists came to the province in search of the mighty dorado. His father took them out on the boats at dawn. He taught them to cast out and reel in. He brought in the fish and gutted them before their eyes, he treated them the same way he had treated Tom, years ago.

When his father arrived in the country he was a young man. Now he is old. Now he sits—he squats, he straddles— the land. But his presence has been heavy from the start. He picked out the land by riding in the night with a torch held high above his head. A native dug a trench in the soil behind him. The next day they went back with wood and wire and it was done. The old man makes his choice. He grips it out of the air with his hands. He is essentially a violent man.

Tom is different. He does not force himself upon the land. He does not force himself upon anything. There is very little that Tom can call his own. Tom is not like his father, Tom has chosen nothing. He did not choose the country or the piece of land. He did not choose the business of the farm. He did not choose the house, with its dark rooms and corridors. All this was chosen for him, and Tom barely aware of it. It is simply his world.

Extracted from Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura, published by The Clerkenwell Press. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win a copy of Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close 15 August 2013.

Allegory of abandon

BY SOPHY KOHLER

The second novel from Japanese-American writer Katie Kitamura, author of The Longshot, recalls neither Gordimer nor Coetzee. While it has been compared to both (Coetzee’s Disgrace making the most regular appearance), not least by Salman Rushdie, it is more accurately reminiscent of Ceridwen Dovey’s lesser-known debut, Blood Kin. Not only is Kitamura’s style of writing similarly sparse, her sentences almost scientific in their minimalism, but she depicts an equally violent world, with equally brutal description.

Gone to the Forest takes its title from a quote by Knut Hamsun which also acts as an epigraph to the book. But the title is mismatched to the bleak environment in which Kitamura’s characters find themselves. The novel describes a father and his son, Tom, two white farmers in an unnamed colonial country on the brink of rebellion. We think immediately of Zimbabwe, but Kitamura is unavoidably using the lack of specificity to hint at the universality of her story.

The father, known only as “the old man”, is preparing to pass the farm, rich in dorado, on to his son. But an unprecedented volcanic event destroys the land and kills the fish; it is an omen forecasting the seizure of the farm and the old man’s demise. The remote farm in a desolate landscape is an effective, if obvious, metaphor for the relationship between the two men. The old man is any father, the stereotype of a father; he represents the old order, dying with the arrival of the rebels and with the dawn of the new era. If the novel has a fault, it is this — Kitamura’s reliance on allegory seems, at times, a cop-out. It is a way of avoiding any real explanation.

Gone to the Forest may be a novel about men, their power and their weaknesses, but Kitamura seems to use this to make a point about the status of women — her female characters are treated not unlike the land. It is a thoughtful consideration of the bloodthirstiness of colonialism and resistance.

Gone to the Forest is published by The Clerkenwell Press and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win a copy of Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close 15 August 2013.

Hard landings

BY SOPHY KOHLER

Though classified as memoir, Julian Barnes’s slim volume, Levels of Life, is more of an extended essay, a reflection on the highs of love and the lows of grief. The book opens with the line, “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” This becomes a refrain, used to tie the three sections of the narrative together, and secure our experience of it as a book of opposites, of juxtapositions.

In “The Sin of Height”, Barnes introduces us to the history of ballooning through the little-known figures of Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt, and the more familiar Félix Tournachon. The key figure here is Tournachon, known simply as Nadar (“affectionately rebaptised” with the suffix -dar to become first Tournadar), who is not only a “balloonatic” but also, according to Barnes, “the finest portrait photographer ever seen.” In his attempt to combine aeronautics with photography, “two things that have not been put together before” (though with little success), Nadar is for Barnes a symbol of the kind of aspiration that makes us soar, but inevitably crash: “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet — and so — we aspire,” he writes. “Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.”

The book unfolds as an extended metaphor, in which height is used to illustrate experience and emotion (on top of the world; in the depths of despair), and in which its protagonists “soar” and, later, “crash”. In “On the Level”, Barnes turns to focus on a love story — the romance between Burnaby and Bernhardt, and two people are put together who have not been put together before. But, as Barnes forecasts, “Every love story is a potential grief story.” We realise, here, that Barnes is not simply speaking universally, but about the death of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years.

While it is only the final section of the book that is devoted to Kavanagh, we know that he has been talking about her the whole time; that we have arrived at what the prose has been circumscribing. The writing becomes more concrete, less abstract, as Barnes confronts the death of his wife, with whom he soared. For this it is necessary for him to move beyond metaphor, the descriptions of ballooning have achieved their aim, they have got us to this point. Perhaps significantly, “The Loss of Depth” is written as though a letter to the reader, signed “J.B.; London, 20 October 2012”, hinting at something more real than the stories that come before it.

With Levels of Life, Barnes has not written a Joan Didion or an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, this is a different approach to mourning. We are made to think of different kinds of hard landings, of Icarus, and of our own misfortunes. Barnes notices how it is the small things, writ large, through which the world changes; how maybe it is in being brought back down to the ground that we are able to see more clearly.

Levels of Life is published by Jonathan Cape, R200, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2013.

EXTRACT: Skinned by Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog
Photo © Karina Turok

every day I treat you as if you were mine

after an eighteenth-century engraving of Table Mountain*

We know that when one crosses the equator everything becomes
Wilderness: white becomes black, good becomes bad, culture becomes
A kind of barbarism in which nothing has a name:
Women throw a tit over the shoulder
Cannibals, winged lions, vulvas hanging down to the knees
One-eyed people bark and snakes stand upright in the trees.
Nobody will ever believe our relief when, one morning, we saw this
Table—something simply so miraculously ordinary in the wilderness
—something so civilised one at last could pin a memory there.
That’s why, when we named it, we didn’t honour any
God or king, but simply threw a big party on the
Southern tip and baptised it ‘Table Mountain’.
Now, listen carefully: because I had named you, I let you
Rise somewhat higher in my engraving—up—like a real
Table. So that with you as backdrop we could throw our arms
Northward, we could stylize your skyline against the wilderness
And, as famous logo, send you home, yes—we learnt
Quickly how the crumbs fall from international tables.
I draw your tabletop neatly—nothing will hang skew.
To the side of the bay I put those who we say call themselves Hottentots.
They eat raw intestines and look! to have his cow give milk, this man
blows into her bloody cunt. One has to know one’s bearings here, or what am
I talking about? To turn you into legend against the wilderness
I pull you slightly more to the front—that’s it, your feet close to shore.
Windeberg and Leeukop, a formal request—please throw your arms open
As if to embrace. To me it looks, and forgive me if I overestimate
Your reaching out, as if you and this continent have groaneth and
Travaileth in pain until you could be delivered into glorious liberty
By the children of God. Every piece of property I number and name
As they rise stepwise against your slopes—say what you want
But we did bring so much order to this place that on my engraving
I can add cultivated gardens blooming in the wilderness. And while
I’m at it, let me show the church somewhat larger in scale. Next to the jetty
There, let’s have the gallows—you never know, you know—this bay
Hangs full of heavily laden ships anchoring at this Place of Name.
For colour I plant two flags flying over order against the chaos.
(Whatever this engraving adds, whatever it leaves out, however wide
One casts the eye or carefully names—the mountain was the forerunner
Of how apartheid and forgiveness were applied against a continent’s clamour)

'prospect of the cape of good hope' plate 199. No. 114. Vol 2 p. 404.Collection of the Iziko museum
*’prospect of the cape of good hope’ plate 199. No. 114. Vol 2 p. 404. Collection of the Iziko museum.

*

litany

here along the long white shadow
where I thought where I thought I’d leave the litany of locust
of locust and death I’ll always hear the litany of sound
here along the long white shadow
where I grab lustre grab honour that once was lustre and white
the truth I’ve heard and how to molest it
that I travel I travel along the corn or chaff of my past
that my past crawls forth on its deadly knees without once looking up
that I claw on my knees claw to that place
that light place that does not want to dim
here along the long white shadow of mortal and molested truth
we buried many we buried without shroud or ritual
many we buried and from the graves it sprouts
the shadow sprouts of lustre, burdock and wheat the locusts of sound
here along the long white shadow
and my past sits so well in its teeth all along
its teeth sit well in the shadow of sulphur and lime it’s time
the time of assassin and shame and tin
I keep slipping slipping out of truth
while next to me along the long white shadow walks the shudder
that I was walks the long white shudder of ash
set me I who keep slipping in the long white shadow
out of time out of random and lies I want slipping from the shudder
along the emptiness of litany and shadow
set me set me from revenge and loss
from ruin set me from the long white scar the lichen and ash set me
free into remorse oh my hand my hand grabs the sheet like a throat

(written in 1996 during the first Truth and Reconciliation hearings and published in Country of My Skull, 1998)

*

Extracted from Skinnedpublished by Umuzi, R190. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Skinned: A Selection of Translated Poems by Antjie Krog. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.