REVIEW: The First Law of Sadness

BY GARETH LANGDONThe First Law of Sadness

The title of Nick Mulgrew’s latest short story collection, The First Law of Sadness, gives only scant insight into the depth which the young author has been able to plumb with his sophomore collection. Ambitious, insightful and relatable, each story in the collection speaks volumes about how Mulgrew has grown since his debut collection, Stations.

The trouble with analysis as almost any first-year English class will teach you is that it is simply too easy, and too novice, to associate narrator and character with author. But reading Stations and The First Law of Sadness side by side (as I have done by pure coincidence) does everything to invite such a comparison.

I remember when I read Mulgrew’s work the first time. Stations felt throughout to be deeply personal, a collection that seemed naturally auto-biographical in some sense, outlining carefully some of the author’s more formative childhood and adolescent moments. The First Law of Sadness is a departure from this personal space: an apparently deliberate pivot. Mulgrew is clearly forcing himself to be challenged and grow as a writer – to not be predictable or pigeonholed. As this fresh batch of stories shows, Mulgrew is growing into a writer who is able to inhabit the minds of new characters, many of whom are nothing like him, and unpack human experience in new and interesting ways.

Mulgrew takes many risks in this work, especially with the characters he chooses to write as and about. Inhabiting other selves is a dangerous pursuit, especially when these other selves are so far outside of your normal. Attempts at this — especially by young authors — can quite often lead to superficial, ignorant and even offensive results.

Happily, this is not the case in The First Law of Sadness. From middle-aged suburban housewives, to men of colour struggling with their homosexuality, to divorcees and drug addicts, Mulgrew’s analyses and depictions of character are, while not perfect, still brave, mature and more often than not, movingly insightful explorations of everyday experience in both the ugly and the beautiful. Drawing us closer to these unique experiences of the characters through well written narrative, Mulgrew has been able to foster empathy in the reader in ways that are usually reserved for seasoned authors.

Explorations of otherness are not always simple though, and the most difficult instance of this appears in “Bootlegger” in which Mulgrew inhabits the mind of a black student who has, accidently, killed a duiker, which he then decides to turn into biltong. The student is not a first language English speaker, and Mulgrew attempts to recreate his inner monologue verbatim:

A grand problem started then. There was one of your private securities. He walked to me as I attended the butchery bureau, and commenced to shout at me. He asked if I have paid for my produce. I say no. He says I am not authorised to eat this produce. I must pay first. I attempted to explain, no, you do not understand: this is my biltong. He interrupts. He calls me a thief. I say, no, again, you do not understand. I carry this biltong with me. I made it myself. He says this is impossible, that I’m a pirate of biltong, that I must pay. I am grabbed by him, and all of the people in the supermarket, they look at me in the way that your people do when a man like me is at the centre of a problem.

This passage felt uncomfortable. Mulgrew has used a language here that is deliberately stodgy, with almost no contraction or use of the active voice: “grabbed by him”; “do not understand”. This reads like the voice of someone who has a weak grasp of English, and the otherness is reinforced by the final “man like me” drawing attention to the character’s blackness amidst a group of (assumedly) white people at the supermarket.

Writing this way raises questions: What does it mean for a privileged white author like Mulgrew to write in a voice like this? What does it mean for him to inhabit the mind of a black character and then assume the level of this character’s grasp of English? Where does the author’s license end? While he is drawing attention to the racist society this story is set in, in what way does he contribute to these assumptions about others through his choice of diction, his very way of writing? Most interestingly though, I found myself asking seriously why this made me uncomfortable, and was the discomfort as a result of my own ingrained prejudices and misunderstandings about an entire race and class of people, and indeed of the author himself. In any case, the fact that Mulgrew could, through a single story, cause me to begin to pick apart my personal assumptions about race, and how to write about it, is a sign of his growth and of his undeniably bright future as an author in South Africa today – a place that needs bold and brave narratives to help us understand each other.

Mulgrew is adept at dealing with the everyday too, and one of my favourite examples of this is “Jumper”, where the author takes the seemingly horrifying site of a man apparently about to kill himself during a victory parade (the particular South Africanness of the moment brought about by it being a parade for the Springboks) and turns it on its head. I can’t explain the joke without ruining the story, but my audible giggle while reading is testament to Mulgrew’s ability to play with different perspectives, circumstances and the sometimes banal sometimes confusing aspects of everyday experience in South Africa. In “Jumper”, assumptions are undercut in a way that mirrors what Mulgrew does throughout the book. You might think you know what life is like for others, but really, you have no idea.

Overall, The First Law of Sadness, is a wonderful, richly detailed work. With each of Mulgrew’s collections demonstrating an upward trajectory in authorial maturity and skill, I’m excited to see more from this promising South African talent.

The First Law of Sadness is published byDavid Philip Publishers.

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.

WORK/Life: Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog by Antonia Steyn

Antjie Krog is the author of the Alan Paton Award-winning Country of My Skull and A Change of Tongue. Her first poetry collection, Dogter van Jefta, was published when she was aged 18; other collections include Mede-wete / Synapse and The Stars say ‘tsau’. The English edition of Lady Anne, a collection first released in Afrikaans in 1989, was recently published by Human & Rousseau in collaboration with Bucknell University Press.

Krog has been an extraordinary Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the University of the Western Cape since 2004.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing, for me, means to attempt to say the unsayable.

Which books changed your life?

I don’t read books that do not change my life. I expect of every novel or poetry volume to shift something in me so that I am a different person by the end of it.

Your favourite fictional character?

Petrus in Disgrace and maybe a real character such as Teboho Raboko who shouts in his Sefela: “Hail you, fire-speckled giraffe, Hail you quinea fowl, with water tearing upwards from your head.” And in Afrikaans, a character by Eugene Marais: My vaal sussie Gampta, “al wat ek in die wêreld het, buiten my ou ouma.”

What are you working on at the moment?

I try to return to poems. Just single individual and not-thought-about poems.

Describe your workspace.

I write poetry, or the beginning of poems on my bed. They are reworked on paper until they move to the computer. I only got a “study” with a surface exclusively for a laptop and dictionaries when I was around 47-years-old.

The most important instrument you use?

Pencil. Sharp. HB. A4 paper and a Pelikan rubber. That’s for poetry. For non-fiction: laptop and a good chair.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Half-past-four in the morning, for non-fiction. Poetry is like a big shit. It comes when it wants. If you squeeze it back, it will be hard and dry. So you must have “endless” time…

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I once read that a writer’s block has to do with ego, so I work on the ego.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

To sit down. To lift the pencil over the white empty page. To allow it to be a fishingrod lined into the unconscious, touching and lifting out shimmering fishes from below, fitted out to say what you try to say. The hardest thing about being a poet is that you don’t know when it will leave you – just one morning, and it’s gone, that heard-voice coming from you don’t know where. Gone. And as far as I can make out: it never returns.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

I have no advice for younger poets in this technological age – coming from a time where the poem was what mattered, not the poet, her looks, her recipes, her relaxation methods, her self-doubt, his marriages, his Facebook page, agent or public utterances. That is why I didn’t answer some of your questions, those that I thought: jesus, what the fuck?

[Editor’s note: Those questions unanswered included “What do you dislike most about yourself?, “What are you afraid of?”, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?” and “How do you relax?”]

Lady Anne is published by Human & Rousseau.

Author photograph by Antonia Steyn.

BOOK CLUB: History Matters

A richly varied and highly entertaining new collection of pieces by Bill Nasson showcases the breadth, consistency and versatility of one of our leading historians, writes ALEXANDER MATTHEWS.

History Matters

I must confess to approaching this review with more than a little trepidation. It’s not just that (for reasons that should soon become apparent) I think Bill Nasson is one of finest historians working in South Africa today. It’s also because writing about his writing is rather close to home. Literally. Nasson lives a few blocks away from my parents; in my teenage years I’d often see him pass by on his bike or walking his dogs.

More recently, he’s become a dear friend – and, ever since its founding, one of AERODROME’s staunchest supporters. Over the past four years it’s been a great pleasure to publish on this site a number of book reviews he’s written – several of which appear in History Matters, a wondrous compilation of his writings stretching back to 1970. In this tasty smorgasbord, we see the depth, length and breadth of his writing – and both his versatility and consistency. The book is helpfully grouped into different sections such as book reviews, social histories, and the world wars, which means you can snack on whatever takes your fancy, in whichever order you choose.

Nasson’s love of writing, of ideas, of stories shine through all of these pieces. In A Historical Education, the book’s first section, we get a sense of how this love might have been conceived – or at the very least nurtured. Here we encounter the “highly cultured” teachers of Livingstone High in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – most notably, the “super-legendary” deputy principal R.O. Dudley (to whom the book is dedicated). Dudley was an avowed and widely respected opponent of apartheid who was also “wholly contemptuous of any idea of ethnic identity and who never tired of being mockingly disdainful of political populism”. In his 2010 obit after the great man’s passing, Nasson recalls how his “pupils were taught to think critically and widely, and not to see learning as a matter of absorbing this or that school subject”. Dudley went way beyond his remit as a chemistry teacher. He would host secular assemblies as alternative to the school’s scripture-based ones – where students “could gather for Bertrand Russell rather St Paul”. And, in the classroom, Nasson writes that, “what he provided was a historical education that was at the same time an inculcation of political thinking” – always able “to ease the misery of being unable to fathom the periodic table of elements” by offering titbits of metaphysical English poetry or disquisitions on “the deformities of Stalinist Russia”.

At a time when the vital contributions of many non-ANC activists are being airbrushed out of history by the ruling party’s aggressive mythologising, these pages offer a trenchant reminder of the richly diverse and sometimes fiercely intellectual strains that formed part of the struggle against apartheid. The recollections also go a long way in describing the hothouse in which Nasson’s independent, critical thinking and wide-ranging curiosity began to blossom.

The golden thread weaving together all of History Matters’ pieces are Nasson’s beautiful writing, his eye for detail and for the absurd, and a wry, incisive humour – which is directed at himself as often as it is towards others. He shows a deep respect for his readers and for the subjects he tackles; he is witty without being blasé or flippant, critical without being needlessly cruel.

Whether discussing a Ford factory town deep in the jungle, or a history of mail or maps, his book reviews always manage to make the topics in question entertaining. Whether or not you ever end up reading the books he reviews, his pieces about them are still very much worth your time because of their flair, humour and deft engagement with the text he’s reviewing.

Nasson is no reductionist; he knows there are many shades between the starkness of black and white. He is capable of showing contempt for the “detestable” imperialist Rudyard Kipling – while being an Anglophile who grew up on English comics and studied at the universities of Hull, York and Cambridge. Time and time again you see his appreciation for nuance, complexity and paradox – a sensibility that in the age of “no-platforming” seems very much in short supply.

One such paradox we encounter is how an imperial Britain, which had yoked vast swathes of the world under the Union Jack, was, in the opening phase of the Second World War, almost singlehandedly fighting fascism and Nazism – and thereby alone in defending ideas such as equality before the law, parliamentary democracy and free speech. Even more of a paradox, perhaps, was the idea that an Afrikaans man – with the infamous surname of Malan no less – might be one of that country’s saviours. In Nasson’s utterly engrossing history of A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan, we witness his dizzying trajectory as an accomplished fighter ace, one of ‘the few’ that fought in the skies over England in 1940. We see how this Afrikaner, upon return to South Africa after the war, would take up the fight for non-racialism in South Africa – a battle in which he was much less successful.

Although he’s spent his entire career in academia, Nasson is that rare thing: an academic who looks beyond theories to appreciate the humanity, the emotional and social core of history. His writing crackles with intelligence but never descends into the dry, jargon-laded prose so often associated with his peers – he’s never highfalutin, never speaking over his audience; he’s conversational, eloquently weaving anecdote and argument into a rich tapestry. With clarity and crispness both hallmarks of his own writing, it’s no wonder that he includes among his favourite quotes at the end of the book, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “What can be said at all, can be said clearly”. His lampooning of the epidemic of academic jargon in a satirical column, in the now-defunct Southern African Review of Books, is particularly delicious – and as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1993. “Leading cultural spokespersons,” he wrote, “are to be applauded for keeping minds alive and fixed on ‘interstices’,‘textualities’, ‘signifiers’ and ‘mediations’ during a period when so many institutions are burdened by the practical challenges of development and change on the African continent.”

Nasson recognises that history is not merely about great men — the generals, the kings, the prime ministers — but about the ordinary folk enduring extraordinary times. As he takes us from District Six to the battlefields of the Boer War, it’s clear that he sees it his duty as an historian to shine a light on some of these. Among the most fascinating is his account of Abraham Esau – a Calvinia-based blacksmith. Like many other coloureds in the area, Esau was an English-speaking Anglican with “a passionate attachment to the lukewarm liberalism of the Cape Colony’s 1853 non-racial franchise”. During the Anglo Boer War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, he assembled “a motley band” to challenge incursions by Boer forces in Namaqualand, though his pleas to the local magistrate for arms was rejected (due to the belief that giving “guns to coloured civilians would lead to ‘mischief’”). After the Boers took control of the area, Esau was brutally interrogated and shot, becoming “a martyr of Cape liberal political culture” that would be remembered as a hero through the stories and folklore of local coloured communities for decades to come.

My absolute favourite piece is Nasson’s minutely and hilariously observed account of being a historical consultant for a movie, The Deal – when Hollywood came to “Cape Town, its beloved cheaper version of California, where the extras are not led astray by pesky unions or minimum wage rules”. It is these poor extras who get as much (in fact, probably more) page time as the movie’s stars, William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Hired to appear in a Victorian-era House of Commons scene, “these shuffling MPs were shepherded about in bullying fashion by a young, abrasive crew member dubbed ‘Sony’ who took relish in informing anyone within earshot, ‘Fuck man, I’m so sweet’.”  In addition to being tasked with writing the script of this particular scene, Nasson is also roped in to star as a speaker of the house. Before the cameras start rolling, he advises on the removal of historically inaccurate items from the makeshift set, including ball point pens, digital watches and too-modern spectacles – so that “extras faced a fuzzy House of Commons”.

Given how difficult I find the craft of writing, I’ve always rather envied Nasson’s seemingly effortless style – he makes putting words on a page seem so easy and assured. But even he is, at times, at a loss for words. The book’s most poignant piece, After the book-burning, begins with a few paragraphs describing a call in December 2010 from his department head who told him that the history building at Stellenbosch University (where Nasson is a distinguished professor) was on fire.

These paragraphs form an essay Nasson has never completed. As much as he has wanted “to express the meaning of loss”, he has never been able to. If only it were possible to get sentences to run as freely as fire does,” he reflects in the explanatory text below. The blaze consumed 3000 of his books (including a Shelley biography he received in 1969 as an English school prize), films, journals, papers, research material and more – all which “remains unforgettable as much as irreplaceable”. On the facing page are two images showing “what happens to paper (and much else besides) when the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451”. He leaves it at that, inviting us to draw our own, devastating conclusions.

In one piece, Nasson worries that “the country’s professional history writers have largely withdrawn from any common conversation with an everyday audience. In an exchange of numbingly dry products or fields, historians write for each other, no longer trading a literary craft or good writing.” For history books to regain relevance and readership amongst ordinary people, he argues that “historical scholarship needs to dip into the ancestral richness of literary narrative so that it, too, cultivates the classic idioms of human experience like irony, malice and calamity. South Africa’s divided past surely has more than its fair share of those. And, in illuminating its complexities, the power of history can challenge the more unreasoning forces which stalk the posturing present”.

And so, history, he compellingly argues, should be something that enthrals and entertains as much as it should inform.  Collectively these writings show why history really does matter and why it matters that it is written well. They remind us that there are many histories; not a single narrative – as Chimamanda Adichie has warned us in another context, we should be deeply distrustful of the single story. History Matters shows us that often the footnotes are just as fascinating and important as the biggest stories and characters of the age. It reminds us that the better we know our history, the better we know ourselves – and that a thorough understanding of our past gives us a solid foundation on which to build our future.

It’s no exaggeration to think of Nasson as a something of a George Orwell for our time and place: clear-sighted, iconoclastic (and occasionally caustic), not easily seduced by dogma; and both a lover and purveyor of good, clear and important writing that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. I’m not saying I’m not biased – but if you read History Matters I’m confident you’ll agree.

History Matters is published by Penguin.