‘Brilliant characterization’: Mphuthumi Ntabeni reviews A Library to Flee on africaisacountry.com

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“[I]t gradually resembles the best of Truman Capote’s writing, with acute observational powers, brilliant characterization, and narrative prose”
Mphuthumi Ntabeni reviews A Library to Flee on africaisacountry.com.

If an author writes with empathy, precision and authenticity about experiences foreign to their own, they’re a good writer and not a cultural appropriator.

The writer, Etienne Van Heerden, has admirable sweeping narrative powers to join events and cliffhangers into tight, jaw-dropping moments. He often grasps ideas by the nettle and delivers them in beautifully cut, clinical prose that produces intense emotions.

His new novel, translated from Afrikaans as A Library to Flee (original: Die Biblioteek aan die Einde van die Wêreld), is a collage of opinions about South Africa’s socio-political realities. At first, like most long reads, it feels disjointed and confusing—an inconsequential recording of semi-isolated occurrences and reportage culled from media outlets. But if you persevere, it gradually resembles the best of Truman Capote’s writing, with acute observational powers, brilliant characterization, and narrative prose.

Thuli and Ian are the book’s main, unhinged characters. They happen to be classmates in a Master’s translation course at the University of Cape Town. Through their class discussions, we’re introduced to hot topics, especially around former South African president Jacob  Zuma’s administration (2009 to 2018). Thuli and Ian’s off-campus relations extend through the person of Elizabeth (Liz), who is Ian’s fuck buddy as well as Thuli’s colleague friend. Liz hires Thuli to be her publishing company’s manuscript “sensitive reader.” This immediately introduces you to one of the main topics of the book, the fear of “cancel culture,” and hypersensitivity towards language as a weapon of violence.

Born of exiled political parents, Thuli grew up in Britain. Her father is high-up in government, working as an advisor to Zuma. On campus, Thuli is involved in Fallism (the real-life student movement that dominated the headlines between 2015 and 2017). Like most children of struggle-era parents, she overcompensates in her political views and actions. She begins suspecting her father of being involved in shoddy deals, and on the sniff of that goes to China, bobbing with angry anxiety and suspicion about his doings. She investigates these suspicions and discovers they involve some corrupt business deal of face recognition technology. This is what informs the title of A Library to Flee.

The connections with China extend to what is referred to in the book as “Scar Literature,” so named “… after Lu Xinhua’s short story ‘The Scar,’ which is considered the beginning of scar literature, exposing state corruption and hypocrisy in [China in] 1978.”

Ian, a former dissident Afrikaner, with a shoddy apartheid army-related past, is a guilt-ridden and proud born-again believer of the new dispensation. He feels in-between worlds, but willing to cosign profit-making big business deals. His company in Cape Town has business interests in face recognition technology through academic connections at Stellenbosch University and the business fraternity in the town. He surreptitiously crosses wires with the shoddy business partners of Thuli’s father. Things take a sinister turn. Ian has a posh office on the Foreshore which he loses when he gets “canceled” for sending a slightly derogatory tweet, during an unthinking moment, about “Africa never being in a hurry for efficiency.”  When his business connections dissolve, Ian feels adrift and exposed without the cushion of prestige. He decides to reinvent his identity, going as far as to undergo plastic surgery.

Another fascinating character is Jerome Maarman, one of the rest-less (meaning without a dorm or residence room) students from UCT living at Futsek (a play on Voetsek), an informal settlement of tents under the local freeway bridge. Jerome is also one of the Fallist leaders. Through him, we get the angle of the first people [Khoi and San] of Southern Africa. He has tremendous respect for Thuli who he respects for not being afraid to move away from her privileged position by fighting for less privileged students. When interviewed Jerome describes the Fallist Movement in this manner:

We use the Fallist Movement as a kind of crowbar and we work it into the cracks of the English liberals’ self-satisfaction, and between the closed eyelids of the Boers, we force those cracks open. We want to force open their thinking.

Unfortunately, if we had to measure the success of the Fallist movement by how it forced open the thinking of white liberals – like say Helen Zille (a longtime leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance) – or Afrikaners, then Fallism failed. Most white liberals and Afrikaners have instead become reactionary and historical revisionists. Fallism was successful only in bankrupting the two-face fence-sitting political ground and exposing closet racism, including the language of violence of ultra-left nationalists who sometimes overlap into fascism. Jerome despises what he calls Fallism’s “phrases of hunger and intimidation. Feverish, rabid. Phrases that make audible a deep pathology.”

A Library to Flee is a capacious and ambitious book that clearly aims to provoke discussion on identity, status, crisis and theft. It preempts by serving arguments from different sides concerning myriad topics, ranging from political and cultural appropriation, decolonization, the abuse of technology and racial-based economic inequalities, and, of course, the gangrene of corruption in modern (public and private) organizations and institutions. The book also brings to fore South Africa’s identity crises, especially from the era of the Anglo-Boer War, when white English and Afrikaans languages and cultures violently clashed. Regrettably, for me, it doesn’t go back far enough to the era of the Frontier Wars to interrogate the large-scale land, culture, identity, and economic dispossession of that era.

My favorite thing about the book is the manner by which it ventilates the English language, writing it through an Afrikaans filter and cultural memory bank. I guess this is also as much due to the prowess of the translator, Henrietta Rose-Innes. The need to translate our cultural backgrounds, which ultimately informs our thinking, is paramount to Van Heerden’s writing. What makes us not only intelligible to each other but also humane, is seeing each other through the lenses of our authentic identities. This is the missing jigsaw piece that often makes us fail to complete the picture of our humanity.

In humanity’s plan, no language or culture is more important than the other. We might use a certain lingua franca; for ease of communication, but this becomes more authentic and humane when done through cultural filters of our unique identities. Conscience incrementalism, the strength of this novel, and literature’s non-judgmental solution to all human problems, often sounds bogus. But it is the only thing that works because consciously involved people often come up with better solutions for solving their own problems than dreams of highfalutin philosophies.

In fictional worlds where we make even animals, plants, etcetera, speak in an anthropological sense sometimes, we should not be shy of imagining other people’s lives; people whose backgrounds are different from us due to obsessing too much about the question: “Who’s story it is to tell.” Fictional stories should not be made weapons of exclusion.

If an author, like Van Heerden, writes with proper empathy, precision, and authentic depiction of experiences foreign to their own natural background or identity, then, as a good novelist it is their right to tell whatever story they wish to narrate. Some writers of our era dread to do this for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation.

We tell stories to imagine ourselves as others in order to expand our consciousness, and explore  our experiences and ideas towards enlightening our common humanity. Universal humanity should be a sufficient passport to imagine whatever story we want to tell in a humane manner. And A Library To Flee does expand the reader’s consciousness.