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The Children's Day
Translated into Afrikaans as Verkeerdespruit

Translated into French as Jours d'enfance

Translated into Dutch as Een jongens vriendschap

The Reluctant Passenger

Translated into French as Le Passager Récalcitrant

The Typewriter's Tale
Translated into French as La dactylographe de Mr James.

Bodies Politic

Lost Ground

Translated into French as Un passé en noir et blanc (Philippe Rey, 2013)

Invisible Furies

A Sportful Malice 


The Children's Day

Jonathan Ball, 2002

Re-issued 2008

Published in the US by Tin House Press, 2009

Shortlisted for the Booksellers' Award 2002

 

Childrens' Day American edition Children's Day French edition

What sets it apart from the start is the quality of the writing: the humour, the wryness and Heyns’s skilful use of the power of understatement.
David Medalie, The Sunday Independent.

It is beautifully and profoundly written. . . It is the best book I have read so far this year.
Janet van Eeden-Harrison, The Natal Witness.

This is one of those novels that has an entirely original feel …
Jane Rosenthal, Mail and Guardian.

… right up there with the best.
Kay-Ann van Rooyen, Fair Lady.

The Children’s Day is ‘n wonderlike, bittersoet boek wat jou sal laat skud van die lag of wrang sal laat glimlag … The Children’s Day is ‘n moet.
Sonja Loots, Rapport.

.. ‘n merkwaardige boek met ’n merkwaardige, ontroerende ontknoping …
Cecile Cilliers, Die Volksblad.

You will not easily come across a local book that recreates history as palatably as The Children’s Day.
Rachelle Greeff, The Cape Times.

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Extract from The Children's Day

Having had the protected childhood that was the only kind possible in Verkeerdespruit, I was used to piecing together my understanding of the great world from literature in the broadest sense, that is, almost anything that I could find to read in an unliterary community. Steve, I learnt from old copies of Die Huisgenoot in Mr Welthagen’s barber’s shop where I reluctantly went once a month to have my head scraped with his blunt clipper, was not unique. 'He's a ducktail,' I announced one day as we were standing around outside Steyl's cafe hoping Steve would arrive. 'You can see it from the way he combs his hair.'
'What's a ducktail?' Louis challenged in a truculent tone intended to neutralise the humiliation of having to admit ignorance.
'They're people who drive around on motorbikes and comb their hair like Steve's,' I said, conscious of a certain circularity of definition. This was not lost on Louis. 'Big deal,' he said. 'So what?'
'They live in Johannesburg,' I added, 'and they have Sheilas. The Sheilas are women who smoke.'
Louis wasn't going to be trapped into another admission of ignorance. 'Then where's Steve's Sheila?' he demanded, and to myself I had to concede that Louis had seized the initiative. To him I said 'In Johannesburg, I suppose. Sheilas live on the streets.'
'So? There are streets here, aren't there?' and Louis gesticulated indignantly towards the dusty waste of Voortrekker Street.
I laughed scornfully. 'And what do you think a Sheila would do on Voortrekker Street?'
'Just what she does on the Johannesburg streets, I suppose,' Louis countered. 'A street's a street, isn't it?'
Looking at Voortrekker Street in the meagre light of an unexuberant spring, its one cafe and two shops, its petrol pump and its hotel, its ragged eucalyptus trees, I shook my head. 'No. A street's not a street,' I said, though without quite understanding what it was that I was trying to say. 'No Sheila could live on this street.'

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Verkeerdespruit

Human & Rousseau, 2006

 

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The Reluctant Passenger

Jonathan Ball, 2003

Re-issued 2008

Shortlisted for the Booksellers' Award 2003

…entirely convincing, wise and entertaining … a satisfying read on many levels … complex and very funny.
Jane Rosenthal, Mail & Guardian

With the illusion of effortlessness, Heyns develops stories within stories, he depicts postures and positions, and he creates dialogue spiced with authorial attitude in a way that combines to create that curious sense one gets when reading good fiction – of yielding to a world that is complete …

He puts together a portmanteau of narrative sub-genres: political thriller, social satire, courtroom drama, boys’ adventure saga, coming-out story, urban legend, hijack yarn and finally, even a gay love story. That’s quite a feat, if one considers that the overall product is entertaining and engagingly readable
… Heyns’s narrative vivacity also contains a seriously drawn and detailed plan of the social topography of post-apartheid South Africa’
Leon de Kock, Sunday Times

‘… a joy to read …[Heyns] has done something extraordinary with the new novel … [he has] dared to look at our South African situation with … a fair measure of humour and irony ... What endears the reader to the characters in Heyns’s writing are the finely-honed personality descriptions … the details of feature, speech and behaviour are keenly observed, to the point of excruciating reality and often very naughty humour… Heyns has woven facts, fiction, urban legend, domestic concerns, academic argument and wicked observation into a sensual story of discovery – again similar to his first novel but teetering at times on the edge of Tom Sharpe lunacy … Heyns is intelligent, hugely entertaining, and writes fabulously.’
Alan Swerdlow and Anne Williams, Bookshelf, SAfm Radio

‘… a literate comedy about the kind of stuff that should be taken very seriously’
William Pretorius, Bookshelf, Safm Radio

Not many books get you to laugh from page one till … well… forever. But THE RELUCTANT PASSENGER did this for me. Don’t be fooled by this book’s being local, it truly is a universal novel. And could make an excellent movie … Any takers?’
Fakazile Myoza

‘No sacred cows are spared: everything is fair game to the witty insight and lively humour of Mr Heyns. The conversational style works well, resulting in an informal, easy-to-read, laugh-aloud book that will have the person next to you asking to borrow it as soon as you lay it to rest. More please, Mr Heyns!’ -
Tess Fairweather, Wellread reviews from Fairlady Book Choice January 2004

Michiel Heyns’s highly successful and acclaimed first novel THE CHILDREN’S DAY was published in 2002. His second, THE RELUCTANT PASSENGER, shares with its predecessor Heyns’s gift for comedy and his concern with identity and its formation in the South African context … the new novel is a rollicking tale of lavish and exuberant energies … It is a satire, a zany comedy, a whodunit of sorts, and a tongue-in-cheek account of sexual emancipation and self-discovery. At its most serious, it explores aspects of the struggle for power during the period of political transition in South Africa, problems of selfhood (especially the tension between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ in the making of identity), and questions relating to ecology and conservation … THE RELUCTANT PASSENGER is a whirligig of a novel, fast and funny and gleefully irreverent.’
David Medalie, Sunday Independent

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Extracts from The Reluctant Passenger

I’m fond of reading, but sometimes find it difficult to concentrate on very long books. My friend Gerhard says my attention span is adjusted to the sonnet rather than to the nineteenth-century novel, but I don’t seem to find poetry very interesting either: there’s such a lot of unassimilated emotion around for so little reason, as far as I can see. Gerhard says the point of the sonnet is exactly that it tidies up the emotion, but I’m not sure that uncontrollable passion succumbs that easily to a few quatrains and a rhyming couplet. I once saw a man transporting his Rottweiler in a shopping trolley through a No Dogs Allowed area: the beast was clearly well trained, and stayed put, but you could see that all it really wanted to do was chew the wheels off all the trolleys in the universe. That’s the sonnet.

It was becoming evident that even the most uneventful existence is shaped by events outside itself, unless you can contrive to live in one of those fortunate countries more boring as a whole than as the sum of the boredoms of its citizens, and known mainly for scenery and dairy produce. And even then, history has it surprises, as witness the experience of a friend of my father’s in the nineteen-seventies. Intent for reasons of his own on retiring to the spot on earth least likely to be disturbed by event or catastrophe or debt collector, he argued sensibly that it would have to be a remote, under-populated island, preferably under British dominion to guarantee the peace and the plumbing. Acting on this calculation, he arrived on the Falkland Islands just weeks before the Argentineans seized it. He was one of the few civilian casualties, shot by a female British sergeant while in the act of indecently exposing himself. There was an inquiry into the incident, and the sergeant was fully exonerated on the grounds that she thought that he was reaching for a concealed weapon.
This seems to suggest that even the stragglers, the deserters and the flops end up in the passenger compartment of the Juggernaut of history – or in our case, perhaps more accurately, the minibus taxi of history: over-crowded, hospitable, unroadworthy, unlicensed and completely unpredictable as to destination. So the year following the Election of 1994 affected me as it affected all South Africans, if not yet materially, then in a gradual and sometimes abrupt change of perspective, a sense of moving very fast in an unspecified direction, with a novice driver not necessarily elected for his driving abilities. The Government of National Unity was a bit like a crowd of passengers trying to agree on a route when they all had different destinations in mind, National Unity being about as precise a designation as Utopia or Shangri-La. At times it seemed as if one half of the country would continue to drive on the left-hand side of the road, and the other half would switch to the right.

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Le Passager Récalcitrant

Editions Lattès, Paris, 2007

 

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The Typewriter's Tale

Jonathan Ball, 2005

Freight Books (UK), 2016

St Martin's Press (USA) Forthcoming 2017

Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Africa Region) 2005

Translated into French as La dactylographe de Mr James (Philippe Rey, Paris, 2012)

Shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger, Paris

Awarded the Prix de l'Union Interalliée 2013, Paris

 

 

.. a hugely refreshing South African novel … Heyns has a knack for building clear, expressive prose like a watchmaker fitting together the workings of a timepiece.
Gareth Pike, Sunday Times.

… Heyns … is an extraordinary wordsmith who delights in the potential of the English language’s variety and for whom every sentence presents an exercise in balance.
Heyns’s first novel, The Children’s Day, was impressive for its poignant lyricism; by dramatic contrast, his second novel, The Reluctant Passenger, was an acerbic romp. In The Typewriter’s Tale he has fashioned an elegant combination of these apparently divergent styles.
Karen Scherzinger, The Sunday Independent.

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Extract from The Typewriter’s Tale

The James family arrived in August, pleading exhaustion from their travels, but otherwise more cheerful than Frieda had yet seen them as a family. They brought with them their daughter Margaret Mary, known as Peggy, and their son Henry, known as Harry. Frieda thought that Peggy and Harry suggested a child-like jollity and chumminess altogether absent in the bearers of these names, and preferred to refer to them as Miss James and Mr Harry respectively.
The son had inherited all his father's confidence with little of his sensitivity or intelligence. He was a successful man of affairs, and treated his uncle with the condescension of a young man consciously more capable of dealing with life than an elderly bachelor who spent his time writing books that nobody read. Frieda guessed that he took his tone from the family dinner table, where the impracticality of Uncle Henry would be a frequent subject of good-humoured head-shaking. There was, in the way the young man settled into Lamb House and its amenities, something assessing and critical, as if he were already taking possession, it being presumably a made-out case that as eldest off-spring of Mr James’s eldest brother he would in the natural course of things inherit Lamb House. He irritated George Gammon by proposing improvements to the garden, which the gardener dealt with by affecting not to understand ‘American’; he infuriated Max by pretending to throw sticks for him to retrieve and then producing the stick from behind his back after the dog had dashed off into the empty distance yapping excitedly. He was, as a man of affairs, elaborately interested in his uncle's system of dictation, and asked if he could be present at the sessions in the Garden Room. Mr James, who in the past had treated the Garden Room as an inviolable sanctuary from even the most favoured guests, found it difficult to refuse his brother's family anything, and reluctantly agreed. Harry assured his uncle that he would not be an obtrusive presence, but as he was a rather large young man, and blessed with the family catarrh, he blocked the path of Mr James's circumambulations and sounded like a marine mammal in distress. This caused Mr James's dictation to be even less fluent than usual, more prone to long pauses and revisions.
Apart from this literal invasion of his sanctuary, Mr James had to bear with any number of other calls on his time. A bad headache on Mrs James’s part, for instance, to which she was much prone, would necessitate the offices of Dr Skinner, the local physician; or an enquiry on Mr Harry’s part as to the guest facilities of the golf club would impel his courteous uncle to accompany him there in order to introduce him. And whereas Harry’s golf was conceivably, unlike his mother’s headache, a matter that could be deferred to the afternoon, the young man’s manner did not provide for that possibility. All the minor inconveniences occasioned by his own consideration Mr James revelled in even while he groaned at them; indeed, the more he groaned at them the more he revelled in them, as proof that he could, in refutation of his family’s estimate of him, be of use.
Miss James took up less space than her brother, or did so less aggressively: her presence suffused rather than asserted itself, but was difficult to ignore, like a slight but damp draught. She was pale and serious, prone to nervous exhaustion, the subject of endless solicitude on the part of her parents and ill-concealed impatience on the part of her brother; this in spite of being alleged to have benefited greatly from the ministrations of Mrs Newman, the mental curist.

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Bodies Politic

Jonathan Ball, 2008

    Winner of the 2009 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Fiction

     Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award 2009, the M-Net Prize for English Fiction and the Johannesburg University Literary Prize for English Fiction.

 

 

 

...Compelling and at times very moving, this is a daring novel, in which Michiel Heyns takes a series of literary risks. ... Bodies Politic resonates on a number of levels: on an intellectual level as a meditation on perspective in history; on a historical-political  level as a study of the relationship between activism and family;on an emotional level as a reflection on love, guilt, loyalty and the difficulty to truly forgive. It deserves to resonate at the bookshop sales counter .
Anthony Egan, Mail and Guardian

Michiel Heyns's fourth novel, Bodies Politic, should be taken up as required reading in creative writing courses because it shows the economies of novelistic art in a way that is clear, instructive and a pleasure to read. ...
There are several important lessons  for writers in the implicit substrate of this excellent, hugely readable novel.
Leon de Kock, Sunday Times

Bodies Politic  is a fictional feast.
Karina Magdalena Szczurek, Sunday Indpendent

 

 

Extract from Bodies Politic

Sunday 8 April 1928

Christabel says Wapping is no place for a Pankhurst. I reply that the Pankhursts have always identified with the poor and the downtrodden. She says identifying is one thing, living in the slums another.
   ‘Leave that to Sylvia,’ she says. ‘She likes dinginess and squalor. You’ve always wanted beautiful things around you.’ She looks critically at the wallpaper, which is indeed of an ugliness to distress the soul, a floral pattern wanly aspiring to cheerfulness and arriving only at vulgarity.
   ‘I did change the carpet,’ I venture. ‘I thought it might discourage the wallpaper.’
   ‘I’m not sure that a grey carpet is an improvement, Mother. What looks elegantly understated in Belgravia merely looks gloomy in Wapping.’ She puts down the little dog she has been nursing on her lap. ‘I hope little Flora will cheer things up for you.’
   ‘I am sure she will,’ I say, though in truth I think the little creature is itself too despondent to inspire cheer in others. ‘It is very thoughtful of you. I only hope I shall be able to give her the attention she requires.’
   ‘Oh, she doesn’t require attention, Mother. Just being around you is all she asks.’
   I want to say that being around me hardly seems to exhilarate Flora. But Christabel is not really thinking about the dog: she is inspecting the room as if she suspected it of harbouring rats. ‘It’s not as if you have to live here, you know,’ she says over her shoulder, too loudly; I would not want Mrs Chipperfield to hear. ‘Any number of people would be only too honoured to have you.’
   Any number of people – among whom Christabel is not to be numbered. ‘I know, darling, but I am tired of living in other people’s houses.’
   ‘You know you hate small rooms.’
   ‘Yes, I do, but at least I am paying for it and it is mine. As long as I have my own desk where I can work, I feel comfortable. And Nellie Hall has been an admirable secretary.’
   ‘Nellie Hall can be an admirable secretary quite as much in Kensington as in Wapping.’
   She walks to the little window, parts the flimsy curtains, and peers into the street. Her vivid colouring and beautifully cut frock make the threadbare room seem even drearier, the attempts at decoration more tawdry. She turns again, runs her finger along the mantelpiece and inspects it. There is an ornament of sorts, a shepherdess or some such bucolic fancy, on the mantelpiece. Christabel chucks it under the chin and it falls over. She leaves the figurine sprawling inelegantly, and opens the door leading into the adjoining bedroom, then quickly closes it, as if to prevent some noisome smell from escaping. ‘It’s hideous,’ she says, with a shudder. ‘You could get something nice in Kensington or even near me in Hampstead for not much more, you know, if you asked the right people.’
   ‘But I do not want to ask people, Christabel. It is too demeaning. And Mrs Chipperfield is very attentive, when her other duties allow.’
   ‘I’m sure she is, Mother, but with all due respect, Emmeline Pankhurst deserves better than to live on the Ratcliffe Highway and be tended by a butcher’s wife during intervals between disembowelling pigs.’
   ‘Mr Chipperfield is a barber, dear, not a butcher. And I do not see how I can aspire to represent a working-class district in Parliament when I shy away from living in one.’

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Lost Ground

Jonathan Ball, 2011

Winner of the Herman Charles Bosman Award for English Fiction and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for 2012

Shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Prize for English Fiction, 2012.

Shortlisted for the M-Net Prize for English Fiction

Translated into French as Un passé en noir et blanc (Philippe Rey, 2013) 

Lost Ground

…funny, although never without a powerful underlying tension… excellent.’
 Margaret von Klemperer, The Witness

 Heyns’s style – his dry, funny scrutiny of his characters, his narrator’s self-effacing and slightly self-mocking personal insights, his ability to convey the grainy texture of even the simplest emotion – makes Lost Ground an unmitigated novelistic joy to stumble into.
 Karin Schimke, Cape Times

It’s remarkable, and you should not only read it but buy a copy as you will want to look into it again. It’s hard to know how Michiel Heyns does it – part magician, part juggler and fine linguist, he presents a novel that is as mysteriously alluring, yet as simple as the photo of some dorp street on the cover. It has something of the quality of a John Meyer painting: unpretentious, familiar and the light is right.
Jane Rosenthal, Mail & Guardian

Michiel Heyns has fast become one of South Africa’s most respected novelists. His latest book, Lost Ground, is among the finest to have been published in the last few years. Well-written, engaging and almost perfectly paced, the book stands above many of its coeval. M Blackman, The Sunday Independent

Heyns’ venture into the literary thriller is moving and humane.
Diane Awerbuck, Sunday Times

Exciting … Read this book.
Dries Brunt, The Citizen

‘[Heyns] is as intent on the language and the way he writes as he is to explore and go places that will thrill and engage the reader.’
Diane de Beer, The Star

[Lost Ground] has all the hallmarks of a great novel: murder, sexual tension, racial conflict and the existential angst of a South African grappling with returning to the country of his birth after a long time living abroad.’
Charlene Rolls, YOU Magazine

Extract from Lost Ground

The Queen’s Hotel has clung onto its name, but, like a widow cutting loose in middle age, has in every other respect gaily abandoned its former identity.

I remember it as a respectably gloomy establishment, surviving on its Bar and Lounge, the latter later gentrified into a Ladies Bar (without apostrophe). Round the back was a decidedly un-gentrified Non-European Bar, really only a counter from behind which Nathan Friedman’s wife, Joyce, dispensed boxed sweet wine and half-jacks of brandy. The hotel sported, next to its front door, one little champagne glass, indicating its classification as a one-star establishment by the unexacting standards of the time.

The hospitality of the Queen’s was enjoyed or at any rate employed by the odd commercial traveller whose territory covered this part of the Little Karoo, known as the Ghanta, of which Alfredville is the main centre. Calling it a metropolis would be stretching things, but when I lived here, Alfredville did rather lord it over neighbours like Barrydale and Riversdal. This was the seat of the Ghanta Co-op, where the wine farmers (really just grape farmers) brought their grapes to be processed – the Ghanta Pinotage enjoyed a brief period of fame, after John Platter’s Wine Guide pronounced it a ‘best value wine’ for 1988. The area’s municipal offices, including the all-important Traffic Department that issued tractor licences, were also here, occupying the second most imposing building in the main street, Victoria Street – the most venerable by far being the large white Dutch Reformed church, defended or at least surrounded by cannon from the Boer War, whether Boer cannon pillaged by the British or British cannon pillaged by the Boers I never did know. Alfredville was the site of the annual Mosbolletjiefees, when the region’s wives competed hotly and often crossly for the title of the best mosbolletjie baker. (The dictionary says a mosbolletjie is a sweetish rusk made with unfermented grape juice, but that’s like saying haggis is ground-up intestine boiled inside a stomach –accurate enough, but somehow missing the cultural je ne sais quoi of the thing.)

The Queen’s Hotel, then, used to preside demurely, not to say dourly, over this rather earnest town. If, on a Saturday evening after a victory on the school’s rugby field against Barrydale or Robertson, things got a bit raucous in the Queen’s Bar, by Sunday morning, as the revellers of the previous night took their places in church, by common and unspoken agreement all was forgotten, and each repentant paterfamilias, stoutly buttressed by corseted spouse and bored children, suffered his hangover in solitude, exchanging at most a shamefaced smirk with a fellow-sufferer.

I never saw the inside of the old Queen’s Bar, though my best friend Bennie and I did on one occasion, after writing our matric exams, try to take our dates for the evening, Elrina Potgieter and Gladys Schoonees, to the Ladies Bar for a ‘shandy’. The Ladies Bar was really only the old ‘Lounge’ vamped up to Nathan Friedman’s concept of elegant standards. One half of the room was occupied by a massive bar counter, the top of which was copper-plated; around this edifice perched some over-stuffed bar stools with revolving seats. Behind the bar counter was a multi-hued display of liqueurs and other exotic liquors that, judging by the dust on the bottles, served more as decoration than refreshment. The other half of the room was scattered half-heartedly with uneasy-looking easy chairs uncompanionably assembled around little amoeba-shaped tables on spindly legs.On the walls were virulent oil paintings of nature scenes, of a lushness and verdancy never witnessed in the Ghanta.

I thought at the time that it was all in all rather a larney place for a date. (Bennie and I had put on jackets and ties in deference to the dress code, ascertained in advance, displayed on a gold-coloured perspex sign at the door: Dress: Strictly Smart Casual.) Gladys, indeed, commented, ‘It’s really spiff, hey?’ Elrina, however, who regarded herself as a cut above the rest of us because her mother was the sister of the wife of some disgraced and now defunct prime minister, let it be known after we had sat down on the sticky leatherette easy chairs that she didn’t think it was right to ‘hang around in a place like this’. She had evidently caught sight of Doris Vermaas and Joy Duvenhage on their own at a table, knocking back something viscous and yellow, and guffawing loudly – at, I suspected uncomfortably, the four of us. Doris worked in the Standard Bank, and was assumed to be respectable, but Joy had no known regular occupation and was the subject of heated speculation among the schoolboys, and tight-lipped allusion among the matrons of the town.

It was clear that it was Joy’s presence that was discomfiting Elrina, but such were the reticences of our youth that nobody mentioned this; we simply trooped out even more gawkishly than we’d entered, to the raucous amusement of Joy and Doris. Instead of the long-anticipated shandies, our over-dressed little party  settled for cream soda floats in the Welcome Café and T Room’s ‘Dining Area’,  a comfortless collection of tables and chairs behind the sweets-and-cool-drink counter and the magazine shelves. There was a smell of rancid oil in the air, and meticulously executed embroideries of proteas and springboks on the wall; also, I remember, one that proclaimed JESUS LIVES HERE, which reminded me of those signs on garden gates featuring crop-eared Dobermanns declaring I AM ON GUARD. Gladys, it soon transpired, was sulking: she maintained a dignified but deafening silence for ten minutes, then, deciding that silence was golden but lacked impact, said abruptly, ‘I can’t see that this café is any better than the Ladies Bar, and it doesn’t even have air conditioning.’ Air conditioning, not being common in Alfredville, was one of the attractions of the Ladies Bar.

Elrina replied with monumental dignity: ‘It would need more than air conditioning to purify the air in that place.’ She pursed her lips genteelly around purify, to embody, as it were, the concept while enunciating it.

‘At least it didn’t smell of vrotfish and chips,’ Gladys said, sounding her ‘vrot’ with all the inelegant force of her ungenteel nature. This set Bennie off giggling, it being one of the more puerile of our schoolboy articles of belief that Joy Duvenhage smelt of fish. Elrina fixed first Bennie then Gladys with her Stare, a basilisk-like glare that she used to devastating effect in netball, where as goal attack she had been known to reduce her opposite number on goal defence to jelly and, occasionally, tears.

‘There is vrotfish, Gladys,’ she declared, ‘and then there are vrot people. I prefer the fish.’

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Invisible Furies

Jonathan Ball, 2012

Lost Ground

Invisible Furies is rich and layered, its utter grimness embedded into a sparkling plot in a spectacular place. Heyns’ fluid writing, his management of tension and the slow release of information make it a book suited to people with a taste for plot and intrigue, and yet this is deeply satisfying literary fiction offering meditations on the endlessly fascinating topic of the nature of beauty.

Karin Schimke: The Cape Times

Extract from Invisible Furies

To tote a suitcase in Paris is to court the contempt of the natives. Parisians never go anywhere – why should they? – and despise anyone who does. That’s why they’ve arranged for a flight of stairs at every Metro exit, to break the spirit of anyone hobbled with a suitcase, and to ensure that the unwelcome traveller will arrive out of breath and red of face, in sweaty contrast with the Parisians, who step out of the Metro as unruffled as if fresh from a scented dressing-room.

Lugging his too-heavy case up the steps onto the rain-drenched Boulevard St Germain, Christopher indulged these musings with a vehemence proportionate to his discomfort. The ride from the Gare du Nord to Odéon had been sticky, slow and crowded, his fellow-passengers resentful of his luggage, impervious to his abject, albeit insincere, apologies. Evidently Paris had not, in the years of his absence, undergone a change of heart: she was still a whore with a heart of stone. There were no longer, it was true, evil-tempered ponceuses dwelling in the depths of the Metro to snarl at you while punching a hole in your ticket; but their spirit lingered on discontentedly in the windy vestibules, the impatiently slamming swing doors, in the general inimical implication of the place. It was, he reflected as he stopped to rest his suitcase arm, the same misanthropic spirit that possessed the po-faced bureaucrats in the French consulate in Cape Town, intent less on easing the way of the stranger to la patrie than on impressing upon him how little his presence was desired there. Ultimately, it was the gloating malevolence of the tricoteuses – knit-one, purl-one, slip-one as another head rolled into the basket.

In spite of the rain, he stood looking around him to get his bearings. Thirty years on, and the Boulevard had not changed, not so that he could notice, anyway: the Odéon GC cinemas showing generic American movies with French titles, the eternal cafés, their serving areas retreated now out of the rain, and cars, cars, cars. The plane trees coming into light-green leaf, the news kiosks, the round columns advertising the latest spectacle – it was a film set with action figures.

He stepped into the street. A strong hand grasped his arm and pulled him back from a car coming the wrong way. ‘Faites attention, monsieur,’ said the Samaritan, irritated rather than concerned. Christopher’s first instinct was to tell the man to mind his own business – if I want to get run over, whose life is it anyway? – but brought out a grudging ‘Merci, monsieur’, all the same. The man, without looking round, shrugged and walked away, shaking his head, probably already wondering why he’d bothered to save the life of a gormless foreigner.

‘And bollocks to you too, mate,’ said Christopher aloud. This was not his normal mode of expression – he’d never called anyone mate in his life – but he felt a need proportionate to his humiliation to adopt an assertive persona in the face of this disdainful city. More cautiously now, he crossed the road to the Cour du Commerce connecting the Boulevard with the Rue St André des Arts – that much he remembered. The cobbles of the Cour were slippery; the wheels of the suitcase were too small for the cobbles, and the bag capsized several times. If Paris hadn’t been so damned picturesque, it may have been more negotiable.

The Hotel du Carrefour, too, had not changed in thirty years. Or if it had, Christopher’s memory was not acute enough to register deviations. The building still seemed crazily out of kilter, not a right angle in sight, the stairs listing and veering at some perilous compromise between gravity and inertia. By rights, the whole structure should have collapsed or at least rearranged itself, but as far as he could tell, the angles were all still at odds with one another to exactly the same degree as before. The effect remained disorientating, making one doubt one’s visual and spatial judgement.

The choir stalls in the foyer, ripped who-knows-when from what church in a frenzy of righteous revolutionary fervour, were at this hour occupied by breakfasting guests, muttering rather than chattering, oppressed by their enforced propinquity. From what Christopher could glean in passing, the breakfast was as plain as ever: the single stub of crusty bread, the postage stamp of butter, the thimble of preserves, the dwarfish pitcher of coffee with its juglet of milk. The serving woman was too young to be the same one as had flung the bread at the guests all those years before, but the flinging action was the same, as was the air of sublime detachment: presumably one of those trade secrets that get passed on from generation to generation. An uninitiated guest was brandishing an empty coffee jug, trying to wring a refill from the serveuse.

The reception desk was still in uncomfortable proximity to the dining area, enabling the owner to keep an eye on the distribution of the matutinal bounty. The owner too, was the same – far older, of course, but showing, in that infuriating French manner, few effects of the passing of the years. Christopher did not think it necessary to mention having stayed here before, but the owner adjusted his eye-glasses – one concession at least to the ravages of time – and peered at Christopher’s passport. ‘Monsieur Turner’ – he pronounced it Turrnirrr – ‘from South Africa; ah, yes, I remember …’, and from the sudden set of his features into something even less welcoming than his habitual scowl, it was clear that he did remember, remembered over a span of thirty years the blocked basin and bidet, the aftermath of an over-enthusiastic indulgence, fresh from the austerities of England, in the vin et crudités à volonté at the Caves Ste Geneviève.

‘I never want to see a grated carrot again,’ Daniel had moaned, as he voided himself of yet another largely undigested helping of crudités and sour wine. Orange and purple, at the best of times an unfortunate combination, had never composed so badly.

‘Don’t blame the carrots,’ Christopher had replied, moralistic even in extremis. ‘They’re not what’s making you puke.’

They had spent the night, or what remained of the night after evacuation of their meal, emptying out basin and bidet with a tooth mug into the toilet in the hallway, but without managing to clear the bowels of the plumbing. They were obliged, thus, to report the blockage to the owner – who, initially apologetic, had, after uncovering the cause of the blockage, been decidedly chilly for the rest of their stay.

‘You will have room 36,’ the owner said, as if pronouncing sentence, producing a heavy brass key suspended from an even heavier brass object, pear-shaped and cumbersome, presumably to prevent theft of the key – though who would steal the key to a garret room in a one-star hotel was anybody’s guess.

‘Ah, yes,’ Christopher said, ‘cinquième étage.’

‘You know it?’

‘It’s where I stayed last time.’

‘Ah,’ the owner said, gravely, as if committing himself with a heavy heart to a course he knew to be unwise. ‘Ah, yes. Of course. Nevertheless. All the same.’

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A Sportful Malice

Jonathan Ball, 2014

Winner of the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Fiction, 2015




He stood around for a moment, clearly wanting a conversation, but I kept on reading as if he weren’t there. (I seem fated to read James under Cedric’s baleful stare.)

After about five seconds of silence, he said, ‘Thought you said you was gonna work.’

‘Yes, I did. And I am,’ I said, not looking up.

‘You call that working? Just reading, like?’

‘Yes I do. This is my work.’

‘Just reading?’

‘Yes. Reading and writing.’

‘So what yer write about?’

‘About what I’ve read.’

‘Jesus. Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why d’yer write about what you’ve read?’

‘So other people can read what I’ve written.’

By now I’d given up even the pretence of reading. Cedric’s not unlike a dog in this respect: the more you ignore him, the more he nudges you for attention.

‘Right. And then they write about what they’ve read what you’ve written?’

‘That is correct.’

He looked at me in disbelief. ‘So when does it stop?’

‘When does what stop?’

‘The readin’ of the writin’ about the readin’ and the writin’ about the readin’ of the writin’ about the reading.’  

‘I suppose it will stop when people stop reading and writing, which, come to think of it, would seem to be sometime soon.’

‘Bleedin’ good thing, ’n all. You know what it reminds me of? Listen, when I was a nipper me old man bought me a pair of white mice, the only thing he ever bought me ’n all, and they were at it all the time, squealin’ and bonking, and it only took them a week and they had twelve little mice and then next thing the little ones started bonkin’ and then they had little mice and so on and on until in the end the whole house was full of bleedin’ bonkin’ mice and we had to drown the lot of ’em in a bucket.’

‘Are you suggesting that all literary scholars should be drowned in a bucket?’

‘If that’s what you call ’em, and if that’s the only way to stop ’em, I reckon yeh, drown the cunts.'

 

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