Cape Town stories

It’s another windy day in Cape Town and I’m a bit tired from family celebrations. My mom’s turning 70 on Tuesday and yesterday we celebrated in style at The Greenhouse restaurant at The Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia. It was like being in a very stylish tree-house looking out over the maginificent gardens there. Very fitting for someone whose main passion is gardening.

But that’s not what I’m on about today. I’ve been wanting to post on novels set in Cape Town for a while but I’ve battled to find 10 (or even 5) that I really want to write about. Today I have three – two books and a play.

1. In A City Imagined, which is a collection of 19 different writers’ reactions to and associations of Cape Town, Stephen Watson writes:

In the past it has been common to hear that Cape Town comprises a tale of two cities only. There is the city of the privileged, their rose and vanilla mansions hugging those contours of privilege close to the city’s mountain chain, its forest slopes, and better beaches. On the other hand, there sprawls the immense city of the dispossessed and deprived, the apartheid dormitory towns and squatter camps, steadily filling up the waste ground between the city’s mountain backbone and the barrier range of the Hottentots Holland.

One of the things I enjoyed about this collection of memories, stories and associations of Cape Town is that it showed me this city that I know so well, and have lived in for the majority of my 39 years, in such a familiar and yet different way. Each of the 19 contributors brought their own perspective and personality to their accounts and the result is a tale of 19 cities. Damon Galgut writes about the beauty of the city which is also tinged with longing and regret and sorrow almost. We have gay Cape Town in Mark Behr’s account of his first love and having to betray his lover for the sake of the military. Then we also have PR Anderson on the Newlands Forest, Jeremy Cronin on Simonstown, Finuala Dowling playing tour guide and Sindiwe Magona remembering her family’s home in Blouvlei (near Retreat) before Group Areas moved them to Gugulethu (which has the ironic name of Our Pride).

I liked this quote which Watson gives from Albert Camus writing about his native Algiers: “What you can love in Algiers is what everybody lives off: the sea visible from every corner, a certain weight of sunlight, the beauty of the race.”

Then we have the actor Antony Sher writing about his memories of Cape Town:

Back in the Sixties all I wanted to do was to leave Cape Town. These days I can’t wait to come back. It isn’t just that I rejoice in South Africa’s flourishing democracy; it’s also because those childhood impressions of my birthplace are imbedded in me, even if I was rather careless about collecting them in the first place. The sense memories are like seeds: they lie dormant for most of the year while I’m in the UK, but I only have to step off the plane at Cape Town International Airport, and the sunlight only has to hit them, and a plunge in the sea only has to water them, and they blossom again, and their fragrance breaks my heart.

Reading Antony Sher’s account of playing Cape Town, I felt a sense of serendipity since I kept making connections. For example he talks about saying goodbye to his mom who has Alzheimer’s and then he mentions the delicious bagels that Katie, his mom’s ‘coloured’ cook, learned to bake from Antony’s mom, who learned it from her mom, who learned it back in the tiny shtetl of Plungyn in Lithuania. Alzheimer’s? The shtetl? What was next I wondered. Well it turns out that he’s friends with Janice Honeyman, who was then directing Sindiwe Magona’s play Mother to Mother at the Baxter which P and I had seen a few days before.

2. Mother to Mother is a moving and poignant one-woman play based on the book of the same name. Magona was a friend of the mother of one of the killers of Amy Biehl, a young American volunteer who was tragically killed in Gugulethu the year before South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. The book is an attempt by this mother to explain to Linda Biehl, the mother of the victim, how such a terrible thing could have happened. I remember being so shocked at the time that this vibrant young woman who was trying to make a difference in a poor country far from her home had been killed by an angry mob of protesters. I can’t vouch for the book but the play was heart-breakingly sad but also funny and hopeful at the same time. There was a powerful sense that it will be through telling stories such as this one, as difficult as they are, that the traumas of the past can be reworked into a more inclusive and integrated future.

3. The third book that I want to mention here is Whiplash by Tracey Farren. It’s a first-person narrative about a prostitute (or sex worker to use the more PC term) who lives in Muizenberg. I found this an ambitious and interesting first novel and I really admired the thought behind it but I just couldn’t stay with the narrator for the whole 300 pages.

Tess is a (white, blonde) prostitute who lives in Muizenberg and the novel is a first-person narrative addressed to her mother. The story is raw and gritty and shows up the violence and exploitation which is bound up with the sex trade. Tess is addicted to codeine pills and appears to want to numb out her working life. Her narrative is a bit disjointed and jarry but she has some excellent descriptions. For example one of her clients gives her a ticket to a prestigious horse race and she and her friend get all dolled up and go there to the absolute horror of the men and their wives.

It slowly emerges that Tess was abused by her stepfather as a child and that sex work is her way of dealing with this abuse. Her mother seems to have known about the abuse but did nothing, becoming sick instead and eventually developing cancer. It’s unclear for much of the novel whether she’s still alive.

What I found difficult to relate to is the disjunction between Tess’s voice, which is rather defensive and monotonous at times, and that of the author, who has clearly done her research into sex work and is interested to tell this story. I kept wanting to hear more of this voice as opposed to the numbed-out monotony of Tess.

I also found it difficult to feel much empathy for Tess since she herself seems often quite far removed from her own pain. The emotional numbness serves to distance us from the experience. I can understand that she would want to escape the sordidness of the sex acts that she is involved in but the euphemistic word of “jumps” makes it sound almost like a game. I’d be interested to read more about this seedier side of Cape Town but I think it would help to be a lot more transparent about that other voice. Just describing the process of writing makes me as a reader much more involved in the novel.

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14 Responses to Cape Town stories

  1. doctordi says:

    Cool post, Pete. That anthology sounds like the ideal introduction to your city and its literature, and the book-to-play sounds heartbreaking. The third text speaks to what I tried to convey in that post for the Varuna site last week, because there you are, the reader, instantly smelling the rat. The author has barricaded herself in the protagonist’s defensive detachment, but it protects her from nothing, as you can see her perfectly well.

  2. Pete says:

    Doctordi – Yes, I think it was your post that actually helped me to formulate what was wrong for me about that novel. I think the novel would have worked better as different voices (including the author’s own more clearly present). Thanks for your authorial input 😉

    • doctordi says:

      Oh gosh, not at all! There’s an interesting conversation there about voice – one or several, first person or third – these are big decisions, and sometimes I think it’s worth a writer revisiting the one they made early on to see if it’s still working once the book’s taken shape.

  3. tobeme says:

    Thanks for the reviews. I don’t read very many novels, however you have intrigued me with your reviews.

  4. Harriet says:

    I’m sure Cape Town is a fascinating place with a rich history. It’s about as far away from here as is possible I think. Thanks to the internet I feel like we’re right next door!

  5. sandyphd says:

    Thank you for putting this together. I’d like to know more about your South African city and you’ve provided some direction.

  6. litlove says:

    Yay! Fabulous – some Cape Town recommendations! That anthology does sound like an excellent place to start, but the play and the novel are intriguing too. Oh and happy birthday to your mother – hope she’s having a lovely day.

  7. thanks for the books–not ones i’m familiar with.

  8. David says:

    I realize that I know exactly nothing about Cape Town, but now, thanks to you, I’m curious to amend that knowledge gap.

    I find it hilarious that there’s now a PC term for “prostitute.” Is there a PC term for “pimp” as well? Maybe … “transaction enhancer”?

  9. Pete says:

    tobeme – You’re welcome!

    Harriet – I know, Texas is so very far away. But thanks to the internet, close by.

    Sandy – I’ll have to return the favour and get to know Austin a bit better too 😉

    Litlove – I’d be interested to hear what you think of that anthology if it ever makes your reading pile but perhaps a good, juicy crime novel would be better. Will let you know if I find one that’s suitable.

    Lilian – Well I did tell one of my mom’s friends about A River Midnight last night. She’s the daughter of a rabbi so I’m sure she’d enjoy it.

    David – Funny city, Cape Town. Undoubtedly beautiful but very provincial (oh dear, that sounds terribly judgemental) not to mention windy!

  10. Harriet says:

    Pete, I’m not in Texas. Not that there is anything wrong with Texas, but I just wanted to clear that up. I’m on the east coast of the US.

  11. Pete says:

    Harriet – Oops! Not sure why I thought you lived in Texas. Thanks for clearing that up 😉

  12. Maire Fisher says:

    http://richarddenooy.book.co.za/blog/2009/05/11/i%E2%80%99m-not-doing-this-because-i-enjoy-it/

    I thought you might like to read this review, and the comments that follow it. It’s written by another reader who enjoyed Whiplash more than you did. It’s always good to hear more than one opinion – especially with a book like this which has led to very interesting debate.

  13. Pete says:

    Maire – Thanks for the link to Richard’s review. I just want to add that while I certainly admire Tracey’s writing skills, at the time I read this I just wasn’t hooked (if you’ll excuse the analogy) to keep reading all the way through. But as Litlove says, all books are 50% writer and 50% reader so this doesn’t detract from the book itself.

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