BOOK CLUB: Firepool

Firepool, Hedley Twidle’s outstanding new collection of essays, is an exquisitely observed snapshot of contemporary South Africa and a deeply personal journey into the mind of its author. By GARETH LANGDON.

In an age of social media, blogs and easy self-publication, the idea of the personal essay (and indeed, essays in general) has become almost repulsive to me. As Jia Tolentino opined in The New Yorker earlier this year the genre, which came to be dominated by whiny 20-something white women with a MacBook and a Lena Dunham poster on their wall, has largely faded away leaving in its wake a scorched earth of forgotten blogs and silenced millennials.

However unpopular it may be, the essay provides a unique lens through which to view the world. A good, well-written essay situates the author in the world in a particular, subjective way – providing a personal spin on a set of ideas or an argument that novels sometimes can’t do. In Hedley Twidle’s new collection of essays, Firepool, he does exactly that.

When I took Twidle’s English classes as a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, I found his teaching always engaged students in a way that was more casual, more inviting, and more human than the more formal lectures I was accustomed to elsewhere in the department. Twidle has done a good job of achieving this same comfortableness in his essays, without losing any of the intellectual rigour or political punch so necessary in a country as fraught as South Africa.

The collection moves, somewhat chronologically, from the author’s days as a young pupil at boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, through to his years as a student at Oxford, his years as a lecturer at UCT, his personal experiences travelling through the country and some views on the contemporary politics of South Africa. The collection is named after an essay about the tragicomic “firepool” saga in which President Jacob Zuma used an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money to pay for additions to his private homestead in Nkandla. He claimed the lavish pool area, complete with auditorium style seating, was a “safety precaution” – the water there to be used in case of a fire breaking out among the many thatched rondavels of the homestead. The joke was aided by the performance of firemen pumping water from the pool to demonstrate its usefulness in an emergency. Twidle deals eloquently with this issue, and what it really says about our country and its leaders, in the final essay of the collection.

But “Firepool” is not a political opinion piece. It is not a criticism of South Africa and its many faults, nor is it explicitly an examination of the country’s many good qualities. What made “Firepool” an enjoyable read for me was how it placed the author’s personal experiences of the country in a broader national context. Novels, as Twidle notes, are protected by the golden rule of literary criticism: “This is not a book about the author, don’t read into it”. But the essay removes that veil entirely and in fact embraces the personal as a central part of its conceit.

Twidle is at his most deft in an essay about his hike along the Otter Trail, a five-day hike along South Africa’s coast. One of Twidle’s party is unashamedly racist; the essay carefully exposes the flaws in this man’s arguments, and the many frustrations the author suffers when engaging with him. It concludes amicably, noting the humanity of each attendee on the hike, despite their flaws. For Twidle, alongside a necessary self-awareness, is the empathy required to engage effectively in post-apartheid South African discourse – to be human in the face of hurt across racial divides.

The majority of the essays in the collection run in this fashion, placing the author in a seemingly typical situation – on campus, on a hike, writing or discussing literature, or thinking about his own position as a writer and teacher in South Africa – but manage also to look inward, relating the external to the internal. This kind of subjectivity speaks volumes of Twidle’s self-awareness and his desire to speak up and speak back to the national condition, something which is sorely needed in a society that all too easily loses perspective. Sucked up in the news cycle, from disaster to disaster, we can so easily forget about human emotion and its relationship to political experience, and its important role in the creation of a better future.

Without delving into each essay in detail here, I would go so far as to say that as a snapshot of contemporary South Africa, and as a deeply personal journey into the mind of the author, Firepool stands out amongst its peers. Twidle shows that it’s time to wrench the essay medium from the hands of the millennials, and bring it back to the bestseller shelves. For the right reasons.

Firepool is published by Kwela Books. Read an extract from the book here