Tuesday, August 28, 2007

(Books) Out of Africa

When people ask South African journalist and singer Rian Malan why he stays in a country that’s clearly going to hell in a handbasket, he says, “It’s boring where you are.” And it is. Where else can you walk through adrenaline grass as tall as your elbow, knowing you could step on anything from a lion to a black mamba at any moment?

I’m a masochist and I enjoy torturing myself with daydreams of places I'd rather be, so I like to read books set in Africa. I’m not that fussy what sort, so long as they have a sense of place. I haven’t had a go at Wilbur Smith yet, but when I admitted that to one of my Saffie mates, he said, “So that’s what’s the matter with you!” Thanks Richard.

Anyway, here’s a selection of some I’ve read lately. I realise it’s all from a white perspective, but I can’t help that. It’s been too long since I read any Chinua Achebe to review him now. I think there might just be something for everyone here. Well, except people who don’t fancy Africa. No soup for you lot, I’m afraid.

All the way home, Bookey Peek
Bookey and Richard Peek own Stone Hills, a Zimbabwean wildlife lodge, and they love their land and the animals that roam it. They’ve shared their bed with squirrels, their study with owls and kingfishers and their couch with a pampered warthog that took an unseemly pleasure in peeing between the cushions. All the way home is a lovely memoir, full of stories of the injured or orphaned animals the Peeks have rescued, rehabilitated and released.

Richard Peek is an ex-National Parks ranger and a passionate zoologist and ornithologist who seems to find it particularly difficult to suffer fools gladly. Along with the animal tales, the book features all the usual cringe-worthy stories of feral tourists who drink the place dry and expect to see the big five all in one day.

Bookey Peek writes evocatively of her surroundings, bringing Stone Hills and its inhabitants to life. Their little patch of Africa is an oasis in the middle of the basket case that is Zimbabwe.

The Congo and Cameroons, Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley was one tough cookie. At the turn of the century, when upper class women were expected to marry, raise flocks of babies and manage the servants, Kingsley was following in her explorer father’s footsteps, wandering Africa.

This slim volume is an excerpt of the journal of her travels through western Africa. She climbed mountains, canoed in crocodile-infested swamps and trekked through jungles with no-one for company but a rather dubious band of cannibals. But forget the cannibals. Here’s the bit that amazed me the most: she did it all in long skirts.

When she was already that kooky white lady who wanted to poke around in jungles, I don’t understand why she didn’t go the whole warthog and become the kooky white lady who poked about jungles in trousers. After all, she spent half the time wringing wet, scratched to pieces by the numerous thorny things Africa has to offer, bitten by its equally bitey insects and red-raw from sunburn. In comparison, the battles with the locals she hired as bearers and guides were relatively minor and on the scale of a modern traveller’s stoushes with sneaky taxi-wallahs.

Kingsley went to Africa four times, dying on her last trip while volunteering as a nurse in a Boer POW camp in South Africa.

Disgrace, JM Coetzee
Disgrace was published in 1999 and won the Booker Prize, but it’s taken me a while to get to it. David Lurie is a Cape Town university lecturer who has been sidelined by positive discrimination after the end of apartheid. He teaches a bastardised English to uninterested students while composing an opera about Byron’s mistress. Like Byron, Lurie is a sensualist and it ultimately causes his downfall. When an affair with a student goes badly wrong, his pride will not allow him to save his career. Instead he walks away, hoping to find sanctuary on his daughter Lucy’s small-holding. Things go from bad to worse, though, with a raid on the farm that leaves father and daughter wounded in body and soul.

Disgrace is as much a story of modern South Africa and its spiral into lawlessness as a story of one man’s fall. Gradually, Lurie loses everything he once thought important, including his pride. Lucy has an almost unnatural sense of stoic acceptance of the misfortunes that befall her, but Lurie rages against them. By the end of the book, he has come a long way from the pompous fool he was in its opening pages.

Coetzee’s later books tend to make me feel as though I’m sitting through a rather dry and tedious lecture. Elizabeth Costello was a prime example and I didn’t even want to pick up his last, Slow Man. Disgrace, however, is in another league. I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it was far from a pleasant read, but as bleak as it was, it was confronting and thought-provoking and had a lot to say about what people will do when they feel they have no choice.

Safari, Tony Park
I doubt that Tony Park has ever been mentioned in the same breath as JM Coetzee. But then I know who I’d rather have a Zambezi Lager with. Tony Park’s books are my guilty pleasure. Come on – everyone has one. And I’m convinced thrillers are better than watching Australian Idol.

Park is an ex-journo Army Reservist who spends a few months a year in Africa and writes a cracking thriller. His heroes are ex-soldiers, his female leads are no-nonsense types and Africa steals the show as the main character.

In his latest book, Safari, ex-SAS soldier Shane Castle has been working security in Iraq. After a sticky incident involving the shooting of an insurgent, Castle takes a job as head of an anti-poaching team at a Zimbabwean hunting lodge. The lodge caters for the filthy rich, but as the poacher body count grows, it becomes clear that things aren’t quite as they seem.

Safari is a cracking page-turner with great Hollywood flick potential. I did pick the plot twist fairly early on, but there are plenty of shoot-outs, lots of tramping around the African bush and some rather racy bits. It’s not Booker material, but it's not meant to be. It’s fun and I enjoyed it.

Oh, and Tony Park's got a blog too, which makes him one of us.

I reckon you might like this one, Scorpy.


Ariel said...

What a great post - and a beautiful picture to illustrate. I can understand why you want to be back there. (Esp. as I like to pass my time looking at photos of my travels, too.)

The Mary Kingsley sounds brilliant - I love gutsy women writer/explorer tales. I shall have to look it up.

And I 100% agree with you about Coetzee. I loved Disgrace (though you're right, it's the kind of thing you can't say you liked so much as admired) and hated Elizabeth Costello for exactly the reason you pinpoint. It was dry, the characters felt like they were written to fit the ideas they were supposed to embody (and were thoroughly unlikeable) and it felt like a long lecture. Do you know, four of the 'chapters' in the book were actually previously published elsewhere as essays? Have never been able to bring myself to read Coetzee again since being bitterly disappointed by that book.

And have you read the Barbara Trapido set in South Africa, Frankie and Stankie? It's really wonderful.

Milly Moo said...

Agree with you both about 'Disgrace' which I only got to earlier this year. It's what I'd call a 'worthy' read rather than an enjoyable one. I don't think I'll be rushing out to find any of his other works though.

Is it here, RedCap, that I can announced what November 2007 book will be? 'Play it where it lays' by Joan Didion. I've decided to select something that's been languishing on the shelf for a while, yet is one I've paradoxically heard a lot about yet know nothing about.... if that makes any sense.

redcap said...

ariel, thanks :) I'm really not surprised that chapters of Elizabeth Costello were essays. That's just how they read. Plus, I kept imagining Elizabeth Costello as looking like a female Coetzee, which was off-putting. I haven't read Frankie and Stankie. I looked for it after Temples of Delight, but couldn't find a copy. I should just order it online and be done with it.

milly, Disgrace is sort of the literary version of the recession we had to have, isn't it? You read it because you think you should. And Joan Didion is a great choice! I liked Slouching Towards Bethlehem very much. Which reminds me - I haven't seen it in a while. I think I leant it to someone...

Ariel said...

Red, yes, Elizabeth Costello is so obviously Coetzee in (thin) disguise. (Except she does public speaking) Milly, I'm so excited by your choice! I love Didion and have been meaning to read that book for ages.

gigglewick said...

I will "third" (or is that "fourth") the comments made here about 'Disgrace'.

I wouldn't be rushing to read Wilbur Smith if I were you.

I have similarly struggled with the horror that is Beverley Harper, whose books I grindingly read because my dad inferred that I would be disowned if I did not work my way through a pile of trashy novels four-deep.

I know it's a little bit removed, but I did enjoy 'The Constant Gardener' (book, not film, although I have also seen the film). I'm not usually a fan of political thrillers (which might seem contradictory) but I quite enjoyed that one.

PS don't be lulled into a false sense of security that I've forgotten about my book review. it is coming. Promise.

idle said...

Dear Phish,

You might consider the following:

Scoop (Evelyn Waugh)
A Good Man in Africa (William Boyd)
The Fight (Norman Mailer)


redcap said...

gw, I haven't been game to pick up a Beverley Harper. Or a Frank Coates, for that matter. Poor old Coetzee isn't getting too many votes, is he? I might give Waiting for the Barbarians or Michael K a burl just to see what he was like in his prime...

idle, oh I loved Scoop! It's one of my favourite books.

tonypark said...

Thanks for the wrap, Redcap, and for the comments on my blog.

I'm in South Africa right now, back in internet-contact land after a month in Zimbabwe, churning out (I'm sure that's the right word!) number six.

I'll have a Castle for you.

redcap said...

tony, hey, thanks for stopping by! A month in Zim must have been pretty confronting! Have a Red Heart instead of a Castle for me, though. I like that rum :)