REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.


Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.

A wife’s travails


Njabulo S. Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela defies easy classification. Its hybrid form – part novel, myth, essay, and biography – matches the complexities of its subject matter. Ten years on from its first publication, this revised edition with new content, which includes an introductory essay by Ndebele himself, as well as essays by Dorothy Driver, Antjie Krog, David Medalie, and Sam Raditlhalo, continues to provoke South Africans (and possibly others?) to confront difficult questions not only about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and our nation, but also about our own personal biographies.

This new edition’s cover no longer bears the striking image of a metal-sculpture representation of Sara Baartman, housed in the main library of the University of Cape Town, but the dedication to her remains: “For Sara Baartman, who endured the horrors of European eyes, was desecrated beyond her death, and finally returned home, to rest”. Like Baartman’s story, which conjures up the complexities of negotiations between Europe and Africa, personal pain and suffering, and the idea of home, so too does Madikizela-Mandela’s story, interwoven with the narratives of four other women from South Africa’s troubled history – all women who waited for their absent husbands, victims of forces beyond their control.

Their stories are framed by the ultimate paradigm of a patient woman, Penelope, that wily wife of Odysseus who waited nineteen long years for her husband to return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. Comparable to its Greek counterpart, the “Mother of the Nation” and former wife of Nelson Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela’s story has achieved its own mythic quality. And in a country still recuperating from its tragic past, these are stories that need to be read and re-read, especially when told in the delicate and lyrical prose of a storyteller like Ndebele.

The Cry of Winnie Mandela is published by Picador Africa, R150.

EXTRACT: All That Is by James Salter

James Salter

In the mood of euphoria that was everywhere after the war it was still necessary to find a place for oneself. He applied at the Times but there was nothing, and it was the same at the other papers. Fortunately he had a contact, a classmate’s father who was in public relations and who had virtually invented the business. He could arrange anything in newspapers and magazines—for ten thousand dollars, it was said, he could put someone on the cover of Time. He could pick up the phone and call anyone, the secretaries immediately put him through.
Bowman was to go and see him at his house, in the morning. He always ate breakfast at nine.
“Will he expect me?”
“Yes, yes. He knows you’re coming.”
Having hardly slept the night before, Bowman stood on the street in front of the house at eight-thirty. It was a mild autumn morning. The house was in the Sixties, just off Central Park West. It was broad and imposing, with tall windows and the facade almost completely covered with a deep gown of ivy. At a quarter to nine he rang at the door, which was glass with heavy iron grillwork.
He was shown into a sun-filled room on the garden. Along one wall was a long, English-style buffet with two silver trays, a crystal pitcher of orange juice, and a large silver coffee pot covered with a cloth, also butter, rolls, and jam. The butler asked how he would like his eggs. Bowman declined the eggs. He had a cup of coffee and nervously waited. He knew what Mr. Kindrigen would look like, a well-tailored man with a somewhat sinewy face and gray hair.
It was silent. There were occasional soft voices in the kitchen. He drank the coffee and went to get another cup. The garden windows were vanishing in the light.
At nine-fifteen, Kindrigen came into the room. Bowman said good morning. Kindrigen did not reply or even appear to notice him. He was in shirtsleeves, an expensive shirt with wide French cuffs. The butler brought coffee and a plate with some toast. Kindrigen stirred the coffee, opened the newspaper, and began reading it, sitting sideways to the table. Bowman had seen villains in Westerns sit this way. He said nothing and waited. Finally Kindrigen said,
“You are . . . ?”
“Philip Bowman,” Bowman said. “Kevin may have mentioned me . . .”
“Are you a friend of Kevin’s?”
“Yes. From school.”
Kindrigen still had not looked up.
“You’re from . . . ?”
“New Jersey, I live in Summit.”
“What is it you want?” Kindrigen said.
“I’d like to work for the New York Times,” Bowman said, matching the directness.
Kindrigen glanced at him for a brief moment.
“Go home,” he said.

Extracted from All That Is by James Salter, published by Picador, R225. The book is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of All That Is by James Salter. To enter, email competition(at), 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 30 August 2013.