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.

Commemorating sight and sound

BY DAN WYLIE

Textures must be one of the most unusual, even ironic, poetry collaborations to have come out of Zimbabwe in recent years. Zimbabwe’s publishing industry being in a state of near-total collapse now, amaBooks in Bulawayo represents a rare light of literary trust and hope – and this is a particularly brave publication.

One limb of this attractive double-hander is John Eppel, probably now the country’s most long-standing resident poet and satirical novelist. He is vilified in government-controlled rags such as The Patriot, partly just for being white, inconveniently and persistently present, partly because his satiric tone and self-deprecating demeanour are routinely missed or misunderstood. He has now published a number of poetry volumes, beginning with Spoils of War (1988), and a swathe of satirical novellas and short-story collections. These have become a little more serious of late, approaching the seriousness of the poetry in this volume (except, to be sure, the poem “Dorothy Recollects”, in which he sends up his own ‘colonial’ Wordsworthian Romantic inheritance).

The second limb is less well-known, a younger and almost preternaturally talented newcomer, Togara Muzanenhamo. Unlike Eppel, who as far as I know has never been published in volume form overseas, Muzanenhamo has already been picked up by Carcanet Press in the UK. These two poets’ contributions (some 30 poems apiece) are arranged in interlocking groups, setting one another off in intriguing ways.

It is both ironic and heart-warming to see the white and the black, the established and the upcoming, in counterpoint and communion. Ironic also because – contrary to stereotype – it is Eppel (though South African-born) who appears the rooted local, Muzanenhamo the globally-travelled intellectual. Eppel writes about the local flora, fauna (especially birds, here), and landscapes, and of highly personalised feelings; Muzanenhamo writes mostly of anywhere but Zimbabwe – Peru, the USA, Norway, Mozambique – alongside apparently wholly unlocatable, almost fantasial scenarios.

The volume is prefaced with a perceptive introduction by Drew Shaw, then lecturer at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology. He quotes a revealing and poignant comment by Eppel:

[A]s you get older you have a much more powerful sense of mortality, so you don’t take being alive for granted anymore. But you don’t see life and death in nature; you just see one form of energy changing into another form of energy, in nature time is cyclical. And somehow I think there’s consolation for ageing poets to spend more time observing the minutest details out there.

Those details, however, are always turned to inner psychological capital, with mythic resonances, as in one of the several bird poems, “Brown-Hooded Kingfisher”:

                                    You have been immobilized
by instinct, by a chronic state of bliss.

You once fished in waters above the sky,
in the firmament of death and desire.

… Impossible beak,
orange legs, reddish feet glued to a tree;
Dickensian eyebrows, unnerving shriek
shadowed by a gentling, ‘pity for me’.

This exemplifies a number of characteristic features of Eppel’s poetry: the intimate, almost scientific detail, the precise rhythms and stanzaic rhymes, and a certain intrusive note of the maudlin. Also, the hint at his wide reading in the allusion to Dickens; such referencing – a trait he shares with his companion poet – gets quite dense on occasion:

Can’t get that dangling girl out of my mind,
nor the jealousy that provoked it. Why
are pampered Olympians so unkind
to mortals who challenge them, vivify
them in the first place? Athene, mistress
of weaving, versus the Lydian wench,
Arachne, who dares to make Olympus
say yes to human pain. How do the French
put it: la Terre détruit le Ciel?
It’s a story Sartre might want to tell. (“Golden Orb Spider”)

A jocular tone wrestles with nostalgia for the entanglements of thwarted or lost love – perhaps his presently most common theme – and the colloquial ironically counterbalances the careful form. The hyper-local is viewed with affectionate wryness through the lens of world literatures. These are subtleties typical of Eppel at his best.   He works persistently with ‘traditional’ European forms – four-line stanzas, villanelles, and especially sonnets, as in the sequence here of five sonnets exploring the environs and sentimental meanings of Bulawayo’s Hillside Dams. Here, childhood memories, lost loves and everyday textures mingle in intimately realised scents and sounds.

Muzanenhamo, by contrast, tends to utilise the limber and fragmented forms characteristic of late Modernism: he combines, one might say, the intellectual prism of an Auden with the vivacity of a Neruda. Like Eppel, though, Muzanenhamo reveals an extraordinary range of reading, often glimpsed in his poems’ epigraphs, which come from unlikely sources, ranging from a cricketer and a Tour de France cyclist to quotation from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A lot of his reading, and so his subject-matter, is historical: so he manages to derive strangely universal meaning from locales ranging from a car mechanic’s workshop to a sailboat to a cemetery in Lexington, USA. In almost every case the technical terms are wielded with complete confidence. Yet most remains visceral and vivid: a poem about a typically abstruse subject, the 1665 Battle of Vågen in Bergen, Norway, includes this segment:

Cannon fire thundered with the heavy vibrato of war.
From his vantage point he could see the crafts
shivering after bouts of light hung
long then rang with distant noise.

In his mind, the thought
of men dying could not be reconciled
with what he viewed. Rain coursed down his face
salted with tears he could not hold back…

Muzenanhamo has an enviable ability to imagine himself into such an historical situation. Other of his poems also seem to displace the ‘personal’ emotional life at one remove into imagined scenarios; some read like snatches from South American magic-realist novels. “Peruvian Sunsets” opens thus:

Xalvadora stumbled back after Alvaro removed his boots. It wasn’t that Alvaro’s foot was metallic, nor was it the foot’s cold mercurial glow that caused her to panic and suddenly retreat with fear; no – it wasn’t that at all. When Xalvadora looked down again at Alvaro’s bloodless ankle, she saw her own face staring back…

It’s all rather mysterious yet, within its own world, weirdly persuasive. Muzenanhamo’s final twenty-poem sequence, “Game of 12 Moons” – an extended collection to balance Eppel’s Hillside Dams series – is more poetically lyrical but equally cryptic, like overheard segments from lost folktales:

She had been playing the game
with her shadow,
the game of twelve moons –
lifting floorboards in the kitchen,
whispering hurriedly to herself.
The sun would rise soon,
the smell of the air would change,
as would everything else
in the forest.

This is airy and simple, compared to most of his poetry, which incorporates a rare and cerebral sophistication. Nothing could be further from the run-of-the-mill Zimbabwean fare which deals obsessively and dully on common themes, reducing poetry to obvious proverbial mantras and demonstrating a tentative grasp on linguistic accuracies. Eppel writes more accessibly, perhaps, though the loops of his thought, self-consciously yet conversationally threaded through careful patterns of rhyme and syllabics, present enough density to reward many re-readings.

In a way, the two poets are united by so high a degree of craft that almost every poem – they are not all equally weighty or felicitous – serves as a kind of meta-meditation upon poetry itself. As Eppel writes in the poem “Tortoise”:

[T]hose who commemorate sight and sound –
poets, composers, and picture-makers –
will complete the work of undertakers,
and begin the work of he ‘who with his finger wrote on the ground.’

Textures is published by amaBooks.

Dan Wylie is professor of English at Rhodes University.