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Austin Chronicle Writes of Spring

APRIL 12, 1999: 

Kafka's Curse: A Novel by Achmat Dangor, Pantheon Books, $22 hard

Very early on in AchmatDangor's first novel, Kafka's Curse, a middle-aged Muslim loses his life and mysteriously transforms into a "beautiful and sensitive" willow right in his own bedroom. The parts of his body that do remain are nothing but unidentifiable patterns of, well, dust and crust at the foot of his bed. Now, I happen to be a natural sucker for hocus-pocus stories and visuals done nicely, so this basic premise of Dangor's seems, to me, entirely seductive. It is, after all, based on an Arabic myth that tells of a lowly gardener who falls in love with a princess, only to be cursed into an eternity of being a tree for foolishly desiring a maiden so sadly outside of his class. Placed in its context, though, Dangor's novel, which should really be called an extended tale, is a dreamish view of race relations, family life, and love affairs in post-apartheid South Africa. Not so hocus-pocus after all.

The figure of a man who turns into a tree in Dangor's telling is Oscar, an architect who has erased his original name (Omar) and Muslim background in order to advance as an architect in South African society and marry a white woman, Anna. Though he passes himself off as a Jew, this self-erasure is never entirely successful -- Anna's family openly doubts him and his own relatives feel rightly scorned by his denial. Nobody has much time for such scorn in this tale, however, since everybody else finds themselves deep in their own sins and dramas. Anna still struggles with memories of incest commited against her by her brother Martin, Oscar's brother Malik has an affair with Oscar's psychoanalyst and mistress, Amina, following his metamorphosis, Martin endures a separation in his marriage to Helena, and Anna finally becomes remarried to a wholly new character, Andy. Oh, and Anna finds out her father sired another family on the side. Whew! What makes the saga still more delicious is the fact that all of these characters -- to Dangor's great credit -- are both believable and highly bizarre. As one character puts it near the end: "I remembered Malik's suicidal fathers and grandfathers, a grandmother who was said to be a witch and a whore, a brother who turned into a tree, and Malik, dear Malik, who thought he was a hawk and swooped to his death in a parking-lot."

The book itself is rather short, but Dangor plays with his plot just enough so that he creates the illusion that the actual book is thicker than what your hands remember holding. The best device he uses to achieve this strange effect is his habit of casting a tale very far out, like a net in the sea, and remembering to drag it back in much later. As he drags it back in, of course, his net is full of new details and incredible findings. At one point in the story, Malik's wife and daughter sit on a wall by the beach, feeling the water's spray inch up their legs. "Like being licked," the daughter says. Only days later, a huge wave sucks three people sitting at the same wall into the sea. One survives, but the other two die. It isn't until much later, as Dangor pulls back this net to the fore, that the reader learns that the two who were killed were the secret lover and the mother of a friend of a new character. Confusing? Perhaps, but it is fun to catch all the echoes of Dangor's moist prose.

Did I just say "moist prose"? That seems like a weird way of putting it, but the work in this book is eerily set under the cutis. Again, it seems rather harmless at first -- a simple and short retelling of an old Arabic myth. But there's also the added appeal of the sharp Afrikaans dialogue that weaves in and out of the English -- and a useful glossary at the back of the book, too. So even if you don't like the book, you can at least put together phrases like "you kok and you kou, klonkie" (you shit and you chew, little boy) for fun. Chances are, though, you'll like this book. It's not often that a poet turns his attention to prose and creates a work that succeeds in such a subtle manner, without silly tricks or sentimentality. --David Garza

Cairo: The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck, Knopf, $27.50 hard

Roland Barthes once distinguished between the paradigmatic child's question, which is "Why?" and the sage's question, which is "What does it mean?" The first question gives you a birth story, mythology, and history. The second gives you eroticism, anthropology, and the higher punditry.

Max Rodenbeck tries to straddle both questions in his book. This is the preferred style of late 20th-century travel literature. You reprise the history of some exotic or quasi-exotic place while physically encountering it. The prototype is undoubtedly Rebecca West's Black Lamb, Gray Falcon, the encyclopedic journey she took through Dalmatia in the Thirties. Modern successors include Bruce Chatwin (Patagonia) and Claudio Magris (The Danube). Last year's novel by W.B. Sebalt, The Rings of Saturn (which I consider the best novel of 1998), might also fit in with this group.

Rodenbeck, a staff writer for The Economist, doesn't quite make this company. This isn't to knock his good qualities. For one thing, he is dealing with 5,000 years of history, more or less (granting him Memphis as the earliest version of Cairo, which might make some Egyptologists tisk tisk). And he reprises it valiantly, so that the reader never feels unduly like he's staring at a bunch of names on a blackboard. Along the way, Rodenbeck takes some distinctly Nineties positions. Only a man of the Donald Trump era could analyze the building of the pyramids, which since Herodotus' time have been a trope for oppressive labor, as a version of pharaonic Thatcherism. The workers, Rodenbeck claims, ate well, and the work wasn't that hard. Luckily, Rodenbeck isn't all laissez-faire. In the second half of the book, which is devoted to modern Cairo, he shows a lot of sympathy for Egyptian nationalism, and even Nasser's pan-arabic socialism.

The sustaining theme of the book is Cairo's extraordinary mutability, which perhaps accounts for its 5,000-year run as a city. A city too intent on preserving itself would have become its own ossuary. But it isn't only the physical changes that Rodenbeck talks about. This is a city that has changed dramatically from conqueror to conqueror, its ancient religion supplanted by Christianity, and that supplanted by Islam; its grand temples and palaces, mortuary monuments and places of amusement, in their decay, camped in by the poor, and quarried by a thousand years of vainglorious rulers; prey to every world power, from the Assyrians who burnt the place down in 700 BC to the French and the British in the 19th century to the Soviets and the Americans in the 20th; its very language shed, and its older tongues forgotten. Yet it retains some dispersed essence which Rodenbeck, who first saw the city when he was two, spreads the nets of his sensibility to capture.

It is here that Rodenbeck is less successful. In his back-and-forth between 19th-century Cairo, the golden era for European colonists, and the late 20th century, which has been a story of talents baffled, we require the novelist's eye for the emblematic anecdote -- that story that can bind into itself and then project the energies of the historic moment. Readers of travel books depend on these. Rodenbeck doesn't have that kind of talent.

To give him credit, he does dole out some fascinating tidbits. For instance, in spite of the vogue for the British Raj and all things colonial this decade, he's refreshingly up-front about Egypt definitely getting the short end of the stick from St. George. It developed, in the 19th century, a public school system which was as good as that of France, but when the British took over they dismantled it. Cost too much money, especially since the British channeled the enormous wealth Egypt had accrued by growing cotton (an aleatory effect of the American Civil War) into paying off the debts to (you guessed it) British banks.

The best chapter in the book, "High Life, Low Life," gives us an impressionistic Cairene tableau. Rodenbeck describes the society of the qahwa (coffeehouses), each with its specialized clientele. He explains the bawab (doorkeepers), who, like the concierge of Paris, have an important place in urban legend. He contrasts two friendships -- one with a poor, or perhaps one should say averagely compensated, man in the Old Quarter, and one with a multimillionaress living in one of those ostentatiously luxurious penthouses in Giza. Still, Rodenbeck is too habituated to the journalistic convention of neutrality to give you the feeling of an erudite, or at least eccentric, eye filtering the colors and shades of a whole landscape, which is the charm of West, Chatwin, et al. So my advice is -- read this book for the why, and go to Naguib Mahfouz, the great Cairene novelist, for what it means. --Roger Gathman

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson, Overlook Press, $24.95 hard

When we meet Thomas Penman, he is a nasty little man. Without the information necessary to understand his outlandish behavior, we are confronted at the outset of this anomalous book by a young and willful boy who "from the age of four ... navigated all lavatories and shat himself everywhere else." He squats, besmirched, in the garden, in the classroom, behind couches, in the car, always lurking and listening and looking to discover other people's secrets. Thomas is on a quest for a personal grail -- the golden key to the cabinet that houses his grandfather's extensive collection of pornography. But, as his very ill grandfather Walter tells him, "When you're out hunting secrets, make sure you're looking for the right one."

This is Robinson's first novel, and its tenor is far removed from both the political intensity of The Killing Fields and the twisted humor of Withnail and I, both films that Robinson scripted. Here, his approach is to employ overwhelming precision as he chronicles the immensity of the problems Thomas faces. Everything and everyone seems huge and frightening, and it is with flashes of indefinable understanding that Robinson transports us to the tumultuous mind of a very confused young man. Robinson's descriptions of the cavernous Victorian abode Thomas inhabits bring that mind to life: The house is a living, breathing, putrid, decaying beast engulfed in "the constant smell of meat cooking." Its walls seem to seethe with a whirlwind of negative energy, more from the mutual hatred churning just below the surface of his parents' marriage than from Thomas' miscreancy or from Thomas' grandfather Walter's decline. The passage in which Thomas is discovered by Walter as he rummages through the old man's belongings, thinking him to be fast asleep, looking for the magic key, is as tense and touching a moment as they come. Robinson shows a knack for jumping tracks from one all-consuming feeling to another, as scatology provokes sympathy, and exasperation turns to heart-wrenching empathy. One minute, the little bastard can't keep out of other people's business, and the next you wish with all your soul that the poor young Penman would find, at long last, the love and peace that he deserves.

As he ages, Thomas' obsession with crapping up the house is replaced by his obsession with obtaining pornography, which is subsequently replaced by his obsession with a certain Miss Gwendolin Hackett, the blooming love of his life. He approaches each of these occupations with a well-thought recklessness that can only be attributed to youth or to passion, which are here one and the same, both brilliantly portrayed. When Thomas broaches the age where he thinks about girls and subsequently falls in love, he becomes a more accessible and identifiable character, and you can't help but feel the pangs of his first infatuation. A hellacious and boggling period of growth and hormones and vexatious discoveries follows, as does the unraveling of events that brought the Penman house to such an unwholesome state.

Robinson's lopsidedly matter-of-fact manner of narrative is both aggravating and effective, repulsive and engaging in much the same sense as is the book's cover photograph -- an amusingly worrisome close-up of a young boy, eyes bugged, ears protruding. The cause of the boy's intense stare is something that you can't help but reconsider at many points throughout this story, as Robinson eventually coaxes us into placing much emotional stock in Thomas' welfare as he comes face to odious face with the "right" secret that will change his world entirely. --Christopher Hess

Nature Studies by John Henry Ryskamp, Fiction Collective Two, $12.95 paper

This novel can be viewed on several different levels; from all, it leaves something to be desired. The author, John Henry Ryskamp, is also the narrator. However, the narrator may be intended to be someone other than the author, a different persona. This possibly-to-some-extent unreliable narrator holds forth on a variety of subjects: the visual arts, literature, physics, the Constitution (he's a lawyer), and related legal and ethical issues, economics, and ecological matters, with a confidence bordering on arrogance. His posture could involve parodying a know-it-all critic, and perhaps does from time to time. But not as often as the people who published Nature Studies thought, or hoped.

This book may be a tremendously subtle, hip satire, but I don't think so, mainly because the narrator obviously tries to be funny but just comes off as clumsy. He frequently attempts to be humorous and maybe succeeds once or twice in 10 shots. Now if he were clever enough to mean Nature Studies to be a put-on, it seems to me his joking would succeed more. As it is, his humor is like the rest of what he writes: heavy-handed, but once in a while interesting.

The book begins with a chapter in which we are introduced to Big Star Lake in Michigan, where Ryskamp spent summers as a kid. Initially he gives us the benefit of his knowledge of his own nature studies, e.g., "the eagle is a weak, helpless, pitiful bird." He follows with geographical and geological information, but in chapter four he starts expounding on Art. Ryskamp offers us in this and following chapters fictional discussions, often occurring at Big Star Lake, involving, among others, Mondrian, Einstein, Bartok, Duchamp, Freud, Jung, Virginia Woolf, Ryskamp, and Ryskamp's grandfather. On page 116 Ryskamp changes direction, first dealing with the effectiveness of AZT, then going on to characterize the U.S. as a police state and proposing a New Bill of Rights, which, reasonable and modest as it is, would probably be viewed as communistic by a substantial portion of today's mean-spirited electorate: "No individual shall be involuntarily deprived of housing ... maintenance ... medical care ... education... liberty."

Next we have a description of a two-year-old boy being abducted by an eagle at Big Star Lake, cited by the author as "the central, gory incident in this book." Following this, more stuff about art, legal matters, some contained in some fictional material about a lawyer named Sonny Parnassus, a description by The Author Himself about how he structured his book and some rather graphic descriptions of how people were executed by the ancient Romans. Ryskamp himself says of Nature Studies: "This book has everything (and in no particular order!)."

What was he trying to do in this volume? Ryskamp informs us, "Invention, then, was the theme of this manuscript; it is a disquisition on this phenomenon. The invention can take on fantastical proportions where, for example, historical figures appear where they could not have been and say things they could not have said." And shortly thereafter, "I regarded the manuscript as more than a repository; it is a diary of my development as a writer."

That may be enough for Ryskamp, but what about the rest of us? His book contains ringing pronouncements about all sorts of things, but, partly due to his digressive style, he doesn't stick with them; he doesn't make the kind of convincing cases you'd expect from a lawyer. He says about as much about James Joyce as any artist, and his remarks are pretty silly on their face. Joyce, he writes, is a 19th, not a 20th-century novelist because he has nothing to say, "and in the twentieth century this role of having an immense talent for saying nothing at all was taken over by filmmakers, such as Bergman, Fellini and Godard." Ryskamp also thinks Joyce is a 19th-century writer because "he serialized, just as Dickens did. Note the impact on form, where every incident has a beginning, a middle and an end -- a picaresque tale really." And how about this: "Joyce is, in this way, like comic books: he is 'the object of a mesmerized cult, his commentators uniformly ninth rate.'" (Won't Ryskamp even concede fifth-rate status to Edmund Wilson?)

Like Joyce, Ryskamp attempts to be encyclopedic, and digression is a key element in his style. Ryskamp's publishers possibly think that he doesn't really believe the eccentric things he wrote about Joyce, that he's trying to be funny. Possibly, but it's also possible that he has no clothes. Fiction Collective Two is an important press, and those who run it deserve a deal of respect. Perhaps, then, I've misjudged Ryskamp. On the other hand, because he gives the impression of being knowledgeable in areas outside the frame of his editors' reference, they may have overrated him. He could simply be a dilettante who can't control his material. --Harvey Pekar

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