BOOK CLUB: There Should Have Been Five

Professor BILL NASSON is enchanted by MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five which vividly brings a highly-charged 1940s wartime episode to life.

There Should Have Been Five by MJ HonikmannShould you ever judge a book by its cover? You have my blessing to do so with MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five. A first glance at its quietly dignified and intriguing cover design is enough to excite curiosity and interest. The staged front photograph portrays three dark-complexioned and khaki-clad Allied servicemen from the rear. They are gazing across flat and brown desert terrain towards a distant explosion which is sending a massive red-and-white ice-cream cone topping oozing out against a streaky blue sky. Who were these men, and where were they? What was the eruption that had caught their gaze?

The back cover illustration is a rampantly romantic head-and-shoulders colour portrait of an African soldier, with chin jutting and eyes set in a flat stare. Again, it begs a question. Who is this Othello in camouflage and with shoulder-flaps?

The answer – and an explanation of this book’s enigmatic and poignant title – is provided by the author’s engaging and imaginative historical story-telling. There Should Have Been Five is a compact dialogue between the present and the past which illuminates a largely-forgotten adventure from the Union of South Africa’s participation in World War Two. While Marilyn Honikman’s exceptionally readable novel is aimed at young adult readers or mature teenage readers, it has a wide enough reach to grip adult readers who need not be stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, like your reviewer. In other words, it merits a readership beyond the breathlessness of Teenzone Mag or the earnestness of The Teacher.

Impeccably researched, with a valuable short bibliography listing books, articles, oral interviews, private correspondence and even a recent documentary film, this book recreates a highly-charged episode from the wartime experiences of the 1940s in a fascinating and novel manner.

The peg upon which this drama hangs is the real figure of Lance-Corporal Job Maseko, a non-combatant African support soldier of the country’s Native Military Corps. Involved in Allied campaigning in East Africa and in North Africa, Job Maseko ended up in Western Desert fighting at Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. Hemmed in by circling Italian forces and punched by the German General Erwin Rommel’s crack Afrika Korps, the South African command threw in the towel in June 1942. With Tobruk having fallen, tens of thousands of South African troops, white and black, were rounded up and taken prisoner. Among them was a no-nonsense Lance-Corporal Maseko.

While the Union’s front-line white soldiers were shipped off to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Europe, most black servicemen did not cross the Mediterranean. Instead, they were consigned to local desert camps and pressed into labour service by their captors. Having laboured for Pretoria, they now found themselves labouring for Berlin and Rome.

As depicted here, Maseko was prominent among those who toiled for the enemy most grudgingly. During his work time unloading Axis supply ships at the port of Tobruk, a scheming Maseko was on the lookout for an opportunity to make things hot for the enemy. Single-handedly, he secretively pieced together oddments that had been collected – matches, fuse-wire, an empty tin, a pile of cordite extracted from old discarded bullets. This was sufficient to rig up an explosive contraption. When an opportune moment arrived in July 1942, Maseko got three of his most trusted fellow-POWs to distract their easily-diverted Italian guards, wormed his way deep into the hold of a supply-ship, and laid a slow burning device in an incendiary spot. By the time the delayed explosion set the ship on fire, a stealthy Job Maseko and his associates were back in their POW camp, their captors left none the wiser.

After the end of World War Two, four white South Africans were awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of valour. Maseko was also nominated, but this was vetoed by the Union Defence Force high command on the grounds that it would not do to award so high an honour to a lowly and subordinate Native Military Corps serviceman. But some recognition there had to be, and it came with the giving of the Military Medal.

We learn from Marilyn Honikman that this heroic character survived the war in which he had been “Lance Corporal Job Maseko MM”, only to return to a postwar South Africa to find that it was business as usual in a place where his place was to be called “boy”. True to this personal drama, Maseko’s end is tinged with tragedy, sadness and mystery. No one knew for certain what had happened, but “they found his body on the railway line… Not a good way for such a splendid man to die,” one of the story’s aged characters concludes.

This book uses the device of a lost or forgotten past being discovered by a curious present in a consistently lively and informative story which weaves back and forth between 1942 and the early 21st Century. We discover – or rediscover – Job Maseko through the widening eyes of two teenagers, John and Zanele Matshoba, who come across his noble painting while visiting the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Consumed by curiosity over “a Black South African who won a medal in the Second World War”, they launch a barrage of questions. The most animated answers come not from tattered 1950s copies of Drum Magazine, but through spending a night with their grandmother or gogo, in Diepkloof, Soweto.

As a writer who wants to get across a point or two about this relatively neglected aspect of South African history, Honikman’s approach is to grab the reader by the lapels and not to let go. In a deft contrivance which works entertainingly in this kind of historical fiction, the grandmother’s old next-door neighbour, “Old Mr Ndebele”, turns out to be a WW2 veteran who had actually served alongside Job Maseko.

Drawing on a sprightly set of wartime memories, he captivates his teenage visitors with an array of jaw-dropping tales, from driving army lorries in Kenya and Abyssinia, eluding Italians, and dodging ravenous hyenas, to encountering Rommel himself in a POW camp. These snapshots are an effective mechanism to bring a vivid historical story alive for contemporary readers, especially for those who are younger. Of course, this also entails doing something which historians should never do – making up words to stick into the mouths of dead people. But Honikman gets away with it. As with Elizabeth Bowen, the classic Anglo-Irish novelist of childhood, here the sharpest observers and most probing questioners are not adults, but buzzing children. A scrupulous and self-aware author, in her interesting author’s notes at the end she reflects upon what had to be done –adaptation, minor invention and borrowing – as devices to deal with matters that could not be known. Maybe more history should be left to accomplished writers who can write well and with verisimilitude rather than to historians who have forgotten that history is a literary craft.

Lance Corporal Job Maseko is the spine of a plot in which time flits back and forth, between the army recruiting pamphlet waved at African mineworkers in the early 1940s and a teenager’s iPad in 2014. Around it, the author fills a rib cage with an account of some of the experiences and fortunes of the almost 80,000 black South Africans who volunteered for the Union’s war effort, touching on their motivations, their feelings about serving a racially discriminatory country, and their return home to a deflating life. For Jan Smuts’s opportunistic claim that “the world cause of freedom is also our cause”, was, predictably, specious. Dedicated to “the great-grandchildren of the 354,000 South Africans of all races who volunteered to serve… in the fight against Hitler, the Nazis and the Italian fascists in World War II”, this little book is a moving and worthy tribute to all those who had hoped that victory might have been brought them a better society at home.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.

THE BOOKSELLER: Audrey Rademeyer – Kalk Bay Books

Kalk Bay Books

Audrey Rademeyer is the owner of Kalk Bay Books, Cape Town’s southern peninsula gem that offers a range of interesting literary fiction and non-fiction and has an impressive newsstand.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. The antithesis of depressing, it’s about so many things, among them, death and our sticky relationship with life itself. The sometimes prolonged and senseless suffering of “medicalised” death, and how we could and should die better, with more dignity and with less trauma to ourselves and to our loved ones. I think that this is one of those books which come along every once in a while and fundamentally shift things in our collective mind.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

We are very lucky in that we don’t have a huge problem with this, but when it does happen it’s likely to be Long Walk to Freedom or Shantaram.

The biggest seller of the past year?

Sapiens by Yuval Harari. He tells a gripping history of our species, and has been accused of vandalism, recklessness and caricature. But there is an urgency in what he is trying to get us to comprehend about ourselves, because there isn’t any time left. He’s setting us up, at lightspeed, for Homo Deus, in which we glimpse the successor we are currently nurturing. The one who we probably aren’t going to like very much in the end, precisely because of who we are and what we’ve done.

The most underwhelming book youíve read in the last year?

The Heart goes Last by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. But I don’t think it was Margaret’s fault entirely. Some of it was mine.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?
What will People Say by Rehana Rossouw. An illuminating, important novel set in Hanover Park in the 80’s, and also a great read.

The last thing you read that made you cry?
Eventide by Kent Haruf. He has an exquisitely delicate hand in his dealings with the human heart.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

Yes, in fact there is a startling number of them. But I discussed this with my colleagues and we decided that as an answer to this question it might as well be our favourite mutually hated book, that excremental anti-erotica called Fifty Shades, which is an insult to pleasure and a criminal waste of ink and paper.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?
That we’re still here despite being picky and difficult and occasionally grumpy, and that we’re useless at social media, and that we don’t have SnapScan.

The three writers you admire the most?

I must choose three friends, above all others? This is impossible and unfair. Off the top of my head, randomly then: Kent Haruf, whose quiet affection for his characters extends to his readers. His books are genuine treasure. David Mitchell, who writes the kind of stories I most like to read, adventures into which you can completely disappear and when you come out the other side, wild-eyed and shaken up, you’re still possessed for weeks after. George Monbiot, who is fearless and tireless and was reckless long before Harari was, and who is always lucid, and who should be taught in school.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Corporatocracy in the book-supply chain means that certain leviathans, having chomped up all the little guys, have created a perverse situation in which it’s easy to imagine that the intention is to keep books and readers apart. We have speculated that these entities would really rather that bookshops didn’t exist at all.

Describe your archetypal customer.
The one who comes in looking for a book we don’t have, and leaves with three other books instead, then happily comes back for more.

The best part of being a bookseller?
I get to do what I like best, for work. I get to hang out among books with other people who like to hang out among books. It does seem a bit unfair to be this lucky, and sometimes I wonder whether I’m just imagining it.

And the worst part?
That there are just too many good books, and I will most certainly die before I’ve read them, or stocked them, or even seen them.

WORK/LIFE: Paige Nick

Paige Nick

Paige Nick’s novels include Dutch Courage, This Way Up and A Million Miles from Normal (which is also the name of her popular Sunday Times column). A copywriter who has worked on brands such as Santam, BMW and Nashua, over more than two decades, she’s also is one third of the Helena S. Paige trio, whose first choose your own adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, launched in 2013.

What does “writing” mean?

Sitting down and beating off every other distraction to get your words down for the day, every day. Whether they’re for a book, column, or an ad for coffee beans.

Which book changed your life?

When I was 11, I took The Never Ending Story, by Michael Ende, out of my library. It was the first “proper” book I ever read, because it had so many pages. I was completely absorbed by it. That was when I first discovered that I had magical powers, and I could make the whole world disappear, and a new one form in front of my eyes. All I had to do was open a book.

Your favourite fictional character?

Ooh tough one, so many to choose from. It’s somewhere between Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my ninth novel, Unpresidented. It’s a political satire, set in the future. The president of South Africa, Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza, has just been released from prison early on medical parole for an ingrown toenail. Entirely fictional of course.

Describe your workspace.

Whereever I am at any given moment.

Paige Nick's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Easily my laptop, closely followed by my brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I think the best author preparation, has been spending the last twenty-three years with a full-time job as a copywriter in ad agencies. I’ve learnt mental toughness, a resilience to feedback and criticism, and most importantly, I’ve learnt how to be productive at any given moment, and how to squeeze in an hour of writing anywhere I get a gap in the day; whether it’s morning, noon, night, or later that same night.

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

A run almost ALWAYS helps me untangle a plot knot. I also rely heavily on a handful of really amazing (and patient) writing friends. We discuss mental traffic jams, which often unloops me too.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I’ve been properly relaxed since my first novel came out in 2010. But to partially unwind, I run, travel, hang out with friends, have sex, and watch the most disgustingly brain-dead TV series, which I’d be too embarrassed to name in public.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Sarah Lotz, international author, and powerhouse of inspiration constantly influences my work, because I’m constantly picking her brain. There are others to add to the list too; my amazing editor Helen Moffet, and other writer friends, Edyth Bulbring, Rahla Xenopoulos and Yewande Omotoso. But I know that’s not what you’re asking.

I read widely, or rather, as widely as possible, given the time-drought we find ourselves in. But I don’t know who influences my work. Of course Sex & the City influenced my early colums, but my novels seem to be coming from so many different places right now that it’s hard to pinpoint any specific influence.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Nobody cares that you only had the weekend.”

It’s the headline from a print ad from the 70s or 80s for an advertising awards show, and I need to dig it out of my archives again. The copy went to talk about how excuses don’t matter. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the work and how good it is.

This was reitterated by writing coach Sarah Bullen who once told me that you can watch a TV series/go out/sleep/read OR you can have a novel. It’s your choice.

These thoughts play over and over in my mind while I’m mired in a draft of a new novel.

Your favourite ritual?

Probably making tea, sharpening pencils and checking social media and my email obsessively. I do that several times, then get down to work.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Other than the self-hatred and angst when you’re in the middle of it? It’s got to be the market. It’s so freaking flat, I can’t stand it. You work yourself to death to sell a couple thousand books. For what? I can’t stop doing it, but I know I probably should.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

God, how long do you have? We may need a longer page.

What are you afraid of?

Again, I think I need more ink on this one. I have a lot of fear and anxiety. Mostly to do with failure and death, in that order.

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

It’s the most boring advice in the world. Write.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Dutch Courage (Penguin SA, 2016) was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because it was so far out of my comfort zone and realm of reference. It took me four years and two overseas trips to research and write, while all my other books have come out of me in six months to a year. But more than that, I’m proud of where I am. I’ve worked really really hard for this life, and it’s one thousand per cent the one I want to live, and I think there is much merit and some luck in that.

THE READER: Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto is the London-based Head of Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa Economics at Nomura International. His cogent analyses of South Africa’s political economy have made him one of the most widely quoted South Africa-watchers in the media.

What are you reading at the moment?

As I travel a lot I always have at least one book on me though these are invariably non-fiction or work-related. I’m currently reading The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk which I think provides a useful journalist’s view of the development vortex of institutions and ever-shifting policy landscape. I find development economics one of the most bewildering and fraught areas of economics and the book is a reminder of how hard it is to alleviate poverty through direct scalable interventions without getting some simple foundations in place first like institutions and natural markets.

How do you decide what to read next?

Much of what I read I have little choice over – dry budget or policy documents from governments, tomes from central banks of international institutions which can take up a considerable amount of time looking at many different economies. Autobiographies of politicians are always the hardest to deal with and demand to be glanced at but can be dull beyond the titbits picked up in the press. Helen Zille’s book is a prime example which thankfully had an index to remove the need to deal with it cover-to-cover. But I always try and intersperse my reading with fiction from countries I’m dealing with (Francophone Africa is on my list next and especially Diogo) and “hobby” reading (currently about the technicalities of winemaking!).

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I think reading enlightenment thinkers has had the most profound and lasting impact on me. Smith, Locke, Rousseau and then later Hayek etc. as well as their critics. Whilst I’m somewhat towards the libertarian end of spectrum politically now (a place sparsely populated in South African discourse) it’s interesting to see how one’s views shift over time as you read more and see more real-world problems to deal with. The long-term development path for individual countries in Africa is going to be a battle between enabling governments with appropriate redistribution and governments that strangle development and growth. South Africa may find itself on the wrong side of that dividing line versus other places like Ghana or,most exciting, probably Kenya. South Africa needs to find a base of black libertarian voices to steer it in the right direction. For fiction, I think Alan Hollinghurst has had the most profound impact on me. The Line of Beauty has pulled me to read straight a number of his other books.

Do you read on tablet, Kindle, paper or all three?

Paper still has its uses when travelling and for whatever reason I think I absorb information better and enjoy it more with books versus computer screens which seem too much like work. Having a massive stack of books also makes for a more interesting home and brings back memories of poking around my grandparents’ library of books – floor to ceiling – that they had. I wonder sometimes what people will surround themselves with when they grow old if it isn’t books! Blogs though are increasingly a more important source of information especially around my two favourite hobbies which is collecting SA modern art and SA wine.

What were your favourite books as a child?

It depends how far back you want to go! I always remember a fascination with systems, engineering etc (of the “Little Jonny visits a building site” type!) from an early age. It turns out I ended up studying economic and political systems every day but the roots are the same! I think a fiction serious I read most assiduously was Swallows and Amazons and the issue of self-reliance appealed to me.  

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Daunt Books in London is a treasure trove of appropriate books for presents even for the most discerning reader and the natty totes the bags come in are still an enduring icon for a present to come in. I think the last set of books I got as a present was for my dad who, as a former captain in the merchant navy, is into anything relating to boats or exploration.

The most useless thing you read at university?

Endless books on the underlying theory behind econometrics. Economics should ultimately be a practical social science and learning to derive by hand statistical theories was just too much! Using econometrics to practically analyse the SA economy is a much more hands-on experience.  

Best book on economics you’ve read?

The literature on behavioural economics starting with Richard Thaler (and non-academic books like Nudge) has probably been the most fascinating and relevant I’ve read especially given its use in everything from policy to explaining financial markets after the 2008 crash. It’s an important bridge from the dry theory of micro- and macro-economics to the real world we live in.  This segues into pop economics books like Levitt’s Freakonomics of which most of their explanations of economic phenomena in everyday life come down to behavioural economics.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Reading a lot of dry non-fiction doesn’t necessarily provoke laughs! Private Eye in the UK is normally the most reliable comic antidote to these very serious times we are living through. I suppose the most random book I came across that made me laugh straightaway having found it in a hotel room on a business trip was Carrie Fisher’s autobiography which simply cut through with its candour and honesty to make parts laugh-out-loud funny.  

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

I try to read fiction from the countries I cover to get into the local psyche. Sometimes this works like reading Achebe, Gordimer, Adichie or Coetzee and is useful and insightful. However, this failed spectacularly when I used to deal with Iceland and tried reading Halldór Laxness and came back from one trip there laden down with books. There are now several unopened books on my shelves after failing to get more than a few chapters through the bleakness that is Independent People 

What book do you turn to for advice?

I am a big sceptic of self-help and advice books. They are so often repetitive fluff and it depresses me the number of people reading them on the train every morning. The closet I’ve probably come is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. There are a range of books now coming about the crisis in economics as a profession which are on my reading list which might count as self-help….  

If you could take an author out (dead or alive) who would it be, and where would you take them?

In the South African context it would have to be Nadine Gordimer who always struck – with her quite strength and moral determination – me as someone who I would most want to take out for a nice dinner somewhere with a hushed atmosphere which can sometimes be hard to find in SA! DW11-13 in Joburg is one of my favourite go-to places and would have just the right atmosphere for such a meeting! There is a quiet confidence of purpose to the books she wrote which is captivating.

A book that most aptly sums up the state of the South African nation?

I always find the economic and political books from SA rather depressing. Walking into Exclusive Books I just get confronted with a wall of books that continually seem to say the same things in the same way. They either fall into SA-exceptionalism or are overly simplistic in their characterisation of the issues in SA. This is partly why I’ve resisted calls from people to write a book on SA – it is very hard to cut through prevailing narratives around the situation in SA which are often grossly over simplistic. One book that has stood out has been Frans Cronje’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years which cuts through to the underlying currents in the country very well.

The magazines and newspapers you most frequently?

I have to read the entire South African press every day! The most interesting thing I read is probably The Daily Sun which gives an alternative perspective of grittier reality with Tokoloshe stories etc! Whilst I don’t work with The New Age, I think it’s also always worth a read in these times of capture and to know what certain factions are thinking. The most random thing I probably read locally is the SA version of House and Garden which gets physically delivered to London. I really love the SA design scene and it’s also a nice bit of escapism to get the summer edition when it’s the middle of winter in London and is always a spur to book another holiday to SA!