REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders


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.

What the words know


How many voices are there in Antjie Krog’s Synapse (2015)? It’s difficult to tell. Aside from the shadow-voice of Karen Press, her current translator, it is also possible to discern the faint vocal traces of former translators Catherine du Toit and Ryk Hattingh, the translated and re-translated voices of poets such Martin Versfeld, //Kabbo and Celan, and pastiche or collage-like snatches, snippets, cuttings and clippings of phrases, images, extracts and exclamations by a host of other poets, novelists, theorists and cultural commentators.

This does not undermine the idea of poetic “voice”. Rather, it should alert us to the way that Krog engages with the possibilities and pitfalls of what might be called a poetics of polyvocality and, perhaps more pointedly, with the question of how any kind of voice might emerge from the history of voices by which it has been conditioned.

The impress of history is everywhere apparent in this collection. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Synapse opens with a poetic sequence in which a speaker – most likely the poetic figuration of Krog herself – considers the entanglements between her genealogical roots and her country’s legacy of colonial and racial trauma.

The voice in this sequence seems, perhaps unsurprisingly, timid and uncertain of its place in the world. As she observes the burial of the patriarch, the speaker notices the mood of “offspring [who] stand where we feel we don’t belong/sustained by natal ground in which we have bloomed/for generations”. Yet this uncertainty is hedged by the almost metaphysical fatigue of those who have inherited not only land but also the guilty burden of their complicity in historical atrocity. There is, in the speaker’s acknowledgement that “a sighing thing pours from us from our Afrikaner/conscience our languages our whiteness/ apprehensive bold a resigned dilapidation” a weariness that implies a willingness, at last, to wash one’s hands of heritage—to shuck, like a second skin, all commitments, obligations and connections to land, history, culture and language.

Krog does not seem willing to allow this to happen. In the course of her opening sequence, and in the volume more generally, she will revisit, frequently with bitter and resentful irony, key moments in the almanac of her memory. She will remind us that her entailment to land originated when Paul Johannes Delport “spread out/the gold coins/in payment for the farm” but she will undermine the legality of such ancestral claims by acknowledging that he also acceded to the role of “Baas” once he had “signed the purchase contract”. She will nevertheless reflect on the volubility of her love for land and landscape, marveling at how place “could always snap my skeleton into language/coil me into voices”. At the same time, however, she will concede that the land’s fructifying potential lasts only “until a flamescorch of longing slashes it to neverstubble”. In “like before”, she recalls “a vignette / at the big dining room table of an intimate accord” where “without fuss I slip into my usual place and the word//privilege doesn’t once occur to me” before subjecting those who might have enabled her own childish ignorance to a rebuke of startling and syntactically convulsive apoplexy:

I once walked out as your child, your white beneficiary child
Across the yard’s wide expanse of lies because look
A host was under our heel a world
That bled: I carry with you that which now breaks
through a hedge of blood and vengeance

For Krog, then, the prospect of turning away from or surrendering one’s obligations to the past is deeply undesirable, even unethical. She seems intent, instead, on subjecting her own personal history and memories to revisionary interrogations designed to extract confessions about the lineaments of the historical atrocity that has been committed and, consequently, to identify more clearly her own complicity therein.

In doing so, Krog acknowledges the presence of a burdensome historical legacy in her own contemporary moment. As poems devoted to youthful relatives suggest, she also appears to insist on its continuance into the future. Even as she celebrates her love for a newborn nephew in “junior”, and even if she imagines that he might “share his sandwiches/with black friends and learn how thinly white alone rattles”, she remains “aware that [she is] discriminating –/why will he escape the deluge of hatred that’s heading his way?” Similarly, while she remains proud of a niece who always does her best – “her absolutely / bestest best” – she undermines the meritocratic impulse of narratives that cajole children into believing that they are exceptional by adding the bitter proviso that “doing your best will make you / unhappy for with this for the rest of your life”.

Is it historical injustice that prompts Krog’s guilt? Is it guilt that obliges her to subject even her closest relatives to such stern rebuke? Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) Krog does not reserve judgment for her own kin. Following Martin Versfeld’s observation that “The world as food is the world humanized”, Krog reminds us (didactically) that “feeding people is a moral deed//a resurrection.” Yet if she is struck by the idea that sharing food with family is an uncommon privilege, she proceeds to suggest that guilt-ridden acknowledgment of such privilege is not enough, that “resurrection begins with the bread and the butter/and the man at the open door’s mouth of a shared world.”

Yet Krog also seems pessimistic about the possibility of attaining such a “shared world”. In “The Bushman”, for instance, she reminds us of the curiously intimate kinship between landowner and serf, and their mutual culpability in violence meted out against landless others “too wild to rehabilitate”. From her clandestine vantage point “in the mulberry tree” the speaker here recalls how her ears were “paralysed” by the sounds of “a scuffle dull thuds on cement   orders/finally flesh lashes and a cry” before “Pa says don’t set/foot on my farm again”.

Krog is well aware of the links between violence and property and she knows, too, that the violence directed at the bushman’s body is augmented by the language used to consign him, implicitly to the category of “animal”. It makes a certain kind of sense, therefore, that she should direct her argument (and her agony) against a linguistic legacy—the “jawbone of hate” that remains intimately tied to what she calls a “syntax smeared with old blood”. Though everywhere apparent in Krog’s work, this argument is clearly displayed in poems wiling to introduce, without interpretive parsing, languages that lie outside the dominant ambit of English or Afrikaans (“servants [sic.] talk” , “the snail as chimera on the sleeping subaltern cheek”). Any possibility of a “shared world”, these poems imply, depends less on polyvocal or multilingual aptitude, nor even upon hybridized or creolized forms of speech, but on a willingness to allow other linguistic worlds to share the white space of the page.

Krog suspects the fissures that this prospect of shared linguistic living might produce. Citing Gayatri Spivak’s suggestion that “radical alterity – the wholly other – must be thought through imagining” she recognises that “the founding gap in all act or talk” might well be insurmountable. Krog’s “ESSAY ABSTRACTS re: Synapse” nevertheless hopes that translation, as both the “extension and radical precondition of comprehension”, might emancipate us from ghettos of “maimed and disfigured syntax.”

Translation, a technique closely associated with forms of linguistic and cultural violence, seems fundamental to Krog’s poetics. It is helpful, then, that Karen Press foregrounds the collaborative rather than the violent provenance of the her task in a translator’s note at the end of the volume. “The poems in this collection” she explains, “are the products of an intricate conversation between poet and translator, conducted through drafts, queries, suggestions, revisions, requests, new suggestions”.

Press’s postscript is a welcome addition to a volume that, as its Afrikaans title suggests, is centrally concerned with Mede-weteor “co-knowing”. A similar desire for “co-knowing” might be found buried within the etymological depths of the collection’s English title: Synapse may be traced back to the Greek σύναψις , meaning connection, junction, (σύν syn- prefix + ἅψις joining, < ἅπτειν to join) and, in its now obsolete form, it was a genitive noun meaning, simply, “connection”.

Whether Krog succeeds in forging such connections remains open to debate. Her contest with language culminates in a severe interrogation of the communicative and formal conditions of poetic language itself. The arresting visual patterns of poems such as “innerforce”, “inventory of my poetic bankruptcy”, and “Memory” attest to her attempt to sculpt, mold or, perhaps, to violently hammer the disfigured syntax of language into some kind of shape. Krog’s interest in the possibilities of poetic shape links her work to avant-gardist traditions of surrealist and, more pertinently, concrete poetry. The argument, for these precursors as for Krog herself, is that language is not a transparent medium of communication, nor is it the repository for “meaning”. Instead, by foregrounding the materiality of the medium quality Krog hopes to “assume a total responsibility before language”.

Regarded as an artificial material, language becomes an object to be broken up, recombined, moulded, hammered, bent, shaped or smashed together like willfully discrete atoms in the in the Large Hadron collider of Krog’s will. Unlike the atom-smashers at CERN, however, she continues to hold out hope of finding some unifying “God-particle”. Until she does, we will probably

keep poring over the grain of gurgling dove choirs
myopically deknow(ny)ing that our slimefleshed lives want hearts
the colour of universe devotion –

Whether this means that “(we ought to be exterminated/as sensedeprived hatewithering greedshitting boxes of/willing fuckals)” is another matter entirely.

Synapse is published by Human & Rousseau.