Vis­ceral mem­o­ries of Apartheid and am­bi­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

SUM­MONED BACK to Cape Town from bo­hemian New York, Betsy Klein finds her­self tend­ing to a once ir­re­press­ible fa­ther now ly­ing in a coma. For days, she lingers around the ster­ile cor­ri­dors of Groote Schuur Hospi­tal with her mother, brother and sundry nurses and doc­tors, all hop­ing against hope for Harold Klein to awake.

But the past is where the book is re­ally lo­cated as Betsy, preg­nant with her first child, re­calls in­ci­dents from her lov­ing yet an­guished re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther. Au­da­ciously, she imag­ines the world through his eyes, grow­ing up the son of a poor Jewish shop­keeper in the rural plat­te­land, feel­ing alien­ated from lo­cal Afrikan­ers and mixed-race Coloureds, yet con­flicted about his own fa­ther Joseph’s Lithua­nian roots.

Some pas­sages are mem­o­rable — on the train jour­ney where the young Harold em­barks on his ide­al­is­tic es­cape from rural claus­tro­pho­bia to be­come a doc­tor, he wit­nesses “the Lange­berge [moun­tains] washed by the cool moon, gi­ant sol­diers bent over in sleep. The raggedy vel­vety sky has a mil­lion holes in it. You pray… for the train to roll to­wards Cape Town, like a stone rolling down a cliff into the sea.”

The me­trop­o­lis it­self is vividly de­scribed and there is some­thing al­most Bac­cha­na­lian about Harold’s lusty tryst with the las­civ­i­ous Koeka as the beat of ghomma drums from Cape Town’s New Year “Coon Car­ni­val” in­vades the airspace of a sleazy ho­tel.

The deep­est stream amid Landsman’s streams of con­scious­ness is the River Touw. Here was where Harold had his first, guilty, sex­ual en­counter; and where he later taught his daugh­ter how to row. Harold is re­turned to the Touw in a fi­nal dream as in re­al­ity he lies in­sen­si­ble with hi-tech in­stru­ments man­i­cally whirring away.

Landsman draws on Afrikaans parochialisms to achieve an ef­fect which, when it works, is scin­til­lat­ing. She evokes a past that is at once soft and sepia-tinted and charged with vis­ceral pas­sions. Through Harold’s eyes, Betsy re­calls Jewish fears as Afrikaner youths in Nazi-like brown-shirts flock to the foun­da­tion cer­e­mony at the Voortrekker Me­mo­rial in 1938.

Later, Harold yearns to join the ad­ven­ture of war but never makes it. In­stead, he does bat­tle on the Satur­daynight ca­su­alty ward, swarm­ing with in­juries caused by fight­ing rev­ellers.

An­gry at “prac­tis­ing on the poor peo­ple of Africa”, he/Betsy chides him­self: “You might as well have pulled your wagon into the laager at the Bat­tle of Blood River and shot your own Zulu.”

Else­where, Harold up­braids white pa­tients for mis­treat­ing black work­ers and laments apartheid’s de­struc­tion of Coloured Dis­trict Six. Yet the great po­lit­i­cal events of 1948-1990 seem dis­tant as par­ent­ing and work am­bi­tions con­sume Harold’s adult years.

The Row­ing Les­son is leav­ened with pe­riod hu­mour: two med­i­cal stu­dents to­bog­gan down Cape Town’s Jame­son Steps, one (a Jew) masked as Hitler, the other as Haile Se­lassie; a girl­friend’s fam­ily ex­cru­ci­at­ingly vets Harold, the lais­sez-faire Jew, over a Shab­bat meal.

At times, how­ever, the del­uge of puns and med­i­cal mantras feels heavy and the con­fla­tion of time, place and per­son can be con­fus­ing.

Betsy paints sub-Sa­ha­ran beasts in her New York loft but other than that we learn lit­tle about her. And the once al­lur­ing, chain-smok­ing svelte and freck­led Stella is re­duced to “my mother, thick­en­ing at the waist, mid­dle age con­geal­ing like a slow-cook­ing stew”.

But, as in her first novel, The Devil’s Chim­ney, Landsman ex­cels at blend­ing the per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal. Hers is a dis­tinc­tive voice which evokes South African mores with sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion.

Lawrence Joffe is a free­lance reviewer

Anne Landsman: dis­tinc­tive voice

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