Review of Kill Yourself & Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

Reproduced in full with kind permission from the Sunday Times.

For an entire generation of South Africans, the Border War and the workings of the SANDF remain mostly a mystery. It was not, and I believe still not, taught in schools. For the 80s kids and born-frees, there’s an entire history barely documented and shrouded in obfuscation, shame and silence. It is not something that one can bring up freely, because there are still men haunted and ruined by what happened during their conscription.

Kill Yourself & Count to 10 loGordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRoks at a chapter in South African history that has been shoved so far out of the textbooks that it might as well be another country’s problem. When I heard of the book, my interest was piqued by the mention of the repulsive Levin, also known as Doctor Shock, a man infamous in my Rhodes days for his torture of gay conscripts during the Apartheid era. While charged by the TRC, he still remains mostly out of reach for his crimes here in South Africa.

Greefswald was a camp out in the Northern province where anyone considered unfit for the Nationalist army’s Calvinist-scripted needs was sent for rehabilitation. While much of it has been scraped from the records, Torr has done his research and crafted a narrative both riveting and genuinely horrifying. He also draws from his own experience of the camp, as discussed in this interview with The South African newspaper. The humiliation, degradation and physical privations of the conscripts makes for sickening reading. The frothing-mouth madness of the apartheid regime is fully on display, a madness that enabled a rogue psychiatrist to build a camp for his favourite broken toys.

And the writing! It is filled with shaking rage, with long, wonderfully complex sentences that just build and build and explode, splattering the page with disgust and sorrow, speaking for those who no longer can’t, or won’t, or don’t know how. It is writing put to its very best use – it is writing meant to stir and outrage. A particular favourite:

“It strikes you for the first time that all these boys have got Christian names, that at one time or another they would probably have been loved by their mothers and fathers, that their mothers and fathers would have had high hopes for them, and that you’re not the only one whose talent and potential will be fucked out of you before these Greefswald days are over.”

At several points, this was a difficult and depressing read, a corridor straight into the hearts and minds of young conscripts who had done nothing wrong, genuinely nothing wrong, and who were sent away and tortured for the entertainment and twisted research of one particularly deranged individual.

Kill Yourself and Count to 10 is essential reading for South Africans. It is especially important for those, who like me, had this entire history excised from their textbooks. It shouldn’t be the kind of thing that is a surprise to anyone.

 

This fine book is available at all good bookstores. 

Review of ‘White Dog Fell From The Sky’ by Eleanor Morse

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­whitedog1A book that deals with apartheid will always tread on treacherous ground – who has the right to write about such a dark and difficult time? And how do we do it without cheapening or misconstruing it? Eleanor Morse is a white, American woman who spent some time in Botswana in the 70s, and according to her bio has spent some time volunteering in southern African prisons. Whether that covers prisons during apartheid is not clear, though I doubt that anyone who wasn’t a prisoner, guard or government member was allowed into those heinous places. I raise this issue because while White Dog Fell From the Sky demonstrates superb technical ability, it still somehow manages to miss the point a bit. Well, by a mile, really.

Briefly, Isaac flees from South Africa after his friend is arbitrarily murdered by members of the South African Defence Force, and he fears they may decide to kill him too. (This is the reason given, but it is incredibly weak. The soldiers don’t know or recognise him, so why run?) He gets into Botswana by hiding in the base of a coffin and awakes on the other side of the border in a country with no apartheid. There’s also the eponymous white dog, a sledgehammer of a metaphor that starts off being cute and gets pretty tired by the end. 

Now, Isaac is a fourth-year medical student and capable of rational, intelligent thought, but the narrator feels that he should have a dumbed-down, ‘look at the native storyteller’ cadence despite his advanced education. The level of what is rightly called pathetic fallacy is rather insulting. The two protagonists are not far apart in education, but the white female protagonist Alice enjoys the full expressive powers of the author whereas Isaac is only able to relate his pain to basic human anatomy. “The sadness told his belly not to eat”, or “He was a monkey, cornered by a lion”. (I thought it was universally acknowledged that it is pretty racist to call people monkeys.) This may sound like a minor hiccup, but this makes up nearly half of the book. Add to this the subtle undertones of white people saving the !Kung people and poor people like Isaac, and it just rings hollow for South African readers. All of the gushing reviews seem to be from the US or the UK, and only Kirkus touches on the treatment of the black characters as noble victims while all of the white characters enjoy both agency and full characterisation. To illustrate my point, the white pharmacist gets more characterisation in five pages than Itumeleng, Alice’s housekeeper, who is present throughout the novel.

After the kind of truly brilliant anti-apartheid novels our own authors have produced, this seems flat and forced. No doubt Morse is a gifted writer – the book does have moments of stunning description. Still, it feels like the tourist’s view that it is, and while undoubtedly authors can write about places they’ve never visited, the subject of apartheid must always be afforded full gravitas, especially when told from the views of those oppressed by it. Compared to authors such as Zakes Mda, Athol Fugard, Ingrid Jonker, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, this is just a bookclubby attempt at handling delicate material, weighed down by its sentimental treatment and white messiah complex. Ultimately, Morse fails to give her African characters the depth they require for her story to really have authenticity.

Review of “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton

two-brothers-by-ben-eltonTwo Brothers by Ben Elton

I don’t usually dip into historical fiction, as the writers often hide poor character-building behind supposed historical accuracy instead. Often the books are unreadable due to their saturation of research and lack of coherent plot or technical ability. But Two Brothers is not ruined by either of these things: instead it manages to capture madness rather than shoving it in the face of the reader.

Undoubtedly, any story with Nazis in it treads a fine line between being comically grotesque or insultingly dramatic. While the Nazi regime was undoubtedly hideous, boundless in depravity and as insane as it was ruthless, it is still possible for an author to trip over this into ridiculous territory. Every sane person knows the Nazis were evil. But it takes a talented author to shade in the madness at all of its levels rather than creating a caricature that strips it of its terror. And, too often, books rely on ‘here’s a Nazi thing, so terrible so terrible’ without taking the time to put the horror in context and give it the appropriate death.

Two Brothers follows the story of a family from Berlin 1920 right through to 2006 (but without being one of those tedious ‘the story of three generations, family, love, wark wark’ efforts). When Frieda gives birth to twins and one dies, she immediately adopts another son whose mother dies in childbirth. That the child is German is unimportant to this Jewish mother, and the first quarter of the book is filled with the loveliest of stories of the boys Otto and Paulus, as well as the charming father Wolfgang and beautiful, kind mother Frieda. One becomes grateful for this time setting up the characters and their personalities, because by the end of it I truly cared for this family, ruined by the Nazis. (This isn’t really a spoiler – it is a book about a Jewish family in Nazi Berlin, after all.)

I enjoyed this book particularly because it combined outstanding research with several levels of human pain – from petty teenage fighting to full-scale war, from unrequited love to suicide to being rounded up and taken away. The insanity of the regime, often forgotten amongst the industrial scale of its cruelty, is looked at in the Nazi schooling, the petty laws (so similar to Apartheid) and in two key events in German history: The Night of the Long Knives and The Night of Broken Glass.

There are thousands of books about the Nazis, and about the lives they ruined. I have read a few, key of them being Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel. The good ones are the ones that balance horror with hope, which is hard to do with such heart-rending material. This book has stayed with me since I finished it, which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. I felt such anger towards the character of Dagmar, who is selfish and beautiful and doesn’t deserve the love of the wonderful Stengel twins. Poor Silke, who is kind and loyal and never gets rewarded for it. Frieda, the brave Jewish doctor who was filled with kindness and strength until the very end, and who I will remember through many books, and her musical, ruined husband Wolfgang, who goes through more than any one should have to endure. Through them, and those they meet, the true horror of the Nazi regime is delivered right into the reader’s heart. In the sixty-odd years since the Holocaust, that entire terrible time has become so caricatured, appropriated and simplified that sometimes we need a book that explains the extent of Nazi crime, the slow, fine grinding of Jewish lives into something approximating oblivion and the people caught up in it.

Read this because it is a wonderfully detailed, wide-ranging story of a family you will come to adore within an exquisitely, carefully detailed setting. It does not trivialise violence by putting it at the very front and centre, but keeps it constantly  menacingly in the background. I would give this to my children one day as part of their reading, to help them understand the nature of the Nazi regime, in all of its howling, murderous insanity.

Want to read what others think? Head on here:

The Independent.ie

Jenny Colgan at the Guardian.co.uk

Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph

Liked this? Try these:

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Night by Elie Wiesel

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

Surviving the Angel of Death – Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

This is Your Revolutionary Reading

Today, South African media is taking to the streets to protest the battering-ram speed of the Secrecy Bill being pushed through. In my heart, I want to believe that this will get stomped on by the Constitutional Court but it seems far too audacious to hope for that much right now. At the least, we can be sure that alternative media and the Internet will continue to be sources of information, and there’s too much traction against this for it to go forward. Compared to the apartheid era, with a mostly compliant white population and a completely disenfranchised black population, this Bill will have to go up against ten of millions of South Africans with voices. I hope that it will be enough.

It makes me think about books that are influential to this kind of mood. Besides the obvious 1984 by Orwell, there are hundreds of titles dealing with revolution, history and protest. Below are some of my favourites:

One No, Many Yeses, by Paul Kingsnorth

A manifesto, an investigation, a travel book: an introduction to the new politics of resistance which shows there’s much more to the anti-globalisation movement than trashing Starbucks. It could turn out to be the biggest political movement of the twenty-first century: a global coalition of millions, united in resisting an out-of-control global economy, and already building alternatives to it. It emerged in Mexico in 1994, when the Zapatista rebels rose up in defiance of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The West first noticed it in Seattle in 1999, when the World Trade Organisation was stopped in its tracks by 50,000 protesters. Since then, it has flowered all over the world, every month of every year. The ‘anti-capitalist’ street protests we see in the media are only the tip of its iceberg. It aims to shake the foundations of the global economy, and change the course of history. But what exactly is it? Who is involved, what do they want, and how do they aim to get it? To find out, Paul Kingsnorth travelled across four continents to visit some of the epicentres of the movement. In the process, he was tear-gassed on the streets of Genoa, painted anti-WTO puppets in Johannesburg, met a tribal guerrilla with supernatural powers, took a hot bath in Arizona with a pie-throwing anarchist and infiltrated the world’s biggest gold mine in New Guinea. Along the way, he found a new political movement and a new political idea. Not socialism, not capitalism, not any ‘ism’ at all, it is united in what it opposes, and deliberately diverse in what it wants instead — a politics of ‘one no, many yeses’. This movement may yet change the world. This book tells its story.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

In short, V, the eponymous character, sets out to cripple and destroy the government of his day. Voted in by a terrified public after a nuclear war, the fascist Norsefire runs the country in an ongoing battle against anyone who isn’t white, heterosexual, Christian and obedient to the invasive machine. With the Eye, Ear, Mouth, Nose and Finger working as branches of the government in the constant surveliiance and abuse of the citizens, V begins his vendetta against the people who started this terrible regime. Along the way he rescues Evey, and she becomes complicit in his work. An orphan who has been battered by the regime, she becomes more than just V’s stray; she becomes instrumental.

Fight Club by Chuck Paulahnuik

You are not your bank account, and you are not who you tell yourself you are.

 

 

Take it Personally: How Globalisation Affects You by Anita Roddick

An extraordinary book from outspoken business leader Anita Roddick that brings together some of the most prominent of authorities on globalisation (including Susan George, David Korten and Naomi Klein), taking a hard-hitting look at the myths and reality behind this phenomenon that affects us all, and showing us how we can all fight it. Some of the leading names in the globalisation debate have contributed to the book, including Naomi Klein, Susan George and David Korten, as well as organisations and charities such as the Rainforest Action Network.

The book deals with a diverse range of the issues surrounding globalisation, including human rights, the environment, international trade and finance, health, the food we eat and the clothes we wear.

‘Globalisation is the most important change in the history of humankind, and the latest name for the conspiracy of the rich against the poor. It is the phenomenon most subject to the efforts of economists and statisticians, and the least understood and measured change in our time.’ Anita Roddick

Toxic Sludge is Good For You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

Toxic Sludge is Good for You explains exactly how the magic of modern PR transforms the favoured policies of the rich and the powerful into uncontroversial common sense. It is without doubt the most important book about the methods and objectives of corporate public relations ever published. Reading it will make life for the executives at Hill and Knowlton, Ketchum and Barston-Marstellar a little bit more difficult. And that can only be a good thing.

Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Around the world in Britain, the United States, Asia and the Middle East, there are people with power who are cashing in on chaos; exploiting bloodshed and catastrophe to brutally remake our world in their image. They are the shock doctors. Thrilling and revelatory, The Shock Doctrine cracks open the secret history of our era. Exposing these global profiteers, Naomi Klein discovered information and connections that shocked even her about how comprehensively the shock doctors’ beliefs now dominate our world – and how this domination has been achieved. Raking in billions out of the tsunami, plundering Russia, exploiting Iraq – this is the chilling tale of how a few are making a killing while more are getting killed.

Media Control by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s backpocket classic on wartime propaganda and opinion control begins by asserting two models of democracy—one in which the public actively participates, and one in which the public is manipulated and controlled. According to Chomsky, “propaganda is to democracy as the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” and the mass media is the primary vehicle for delivering propaganda in the United States. From an examination of how Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Commission “succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population,” to Bush Sr.’s war on Iraq, Chomsky examines how the mass media and public relations industries have been used as propaganda to generate public support for going to war. Chomsky further touches on how the modern public relations industry has been influenced by Walter Lippmann’s theory of “spectator democracy,” in which the public is seen as a “bewildered herd” that needs to be directed, not empowered; and how the public relations industry in the United States focuses on “controlling the public mind,” and not on informing it. Media Control is an invaluable primer on the secret workings of disinformation in democratic societies.

New Rulers of the World by John Pilger

John Pilger is one of the world’s most renowned investigative journalists and documentary film-makers. In this fully updated collection, he reveals the secrets and illusions of modern imperialism. Beginning with Indonesia, he shows how General Suharto’s bloody seizure of power in the 1960s was part of a western design to impose a ‘global economy’ on Asia. A million Indonesians died as the price for being the World Bank’s ‘model pupil’. Ina shocking chapter on Iraq, he allows us to understand the true nature of the West’s war against the people of that country. And he dissects, piece by piece, the propaganda of the ‘war on terror’ to expose its Orwellian truth. Finally, he looks behind the picture postcard of his homeland, Australia, to illuminate an enduring legacy of imperialism, the subjugation on the First Australians.

The Silent State by Heather Brooke

Award-winning investigative journalist Heather Brooke exposes the shocking and farcical lack of transparency at all levels of government. At a time when the State knows more than ever about us, Brooke argues that without proper access to the information that citizens pay for, Britain can never be a true democracy. Silent State is a groundbreaking and important book, which should be read by anyone who wants to know how Britain really works.

Confessions of An Economic Hitman by John Perkins

As an Economic Hitman (EHM), John Perkins helped further American imperial interests in countries such as Ecuador, Panama, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. As Chief Economist for the international consulting firm Chas. T. Main, he convinced underdeveloped countries to accept massive loans for infrastructure development and ensured that the projects were contracted to multinational corporations. The countries acquired enormous debt, and the US and international aid agencies were able to control their economies.

He tried to write this book four times but was threatened or bribed each time to halt. The events of 9/11 – a direct result of the activities of EHMs in the 1970s – finally forced him to confront the role he played himself, and to reveal the truth to the rest of the world.

Counterpower by Tim Gee

No major campaign has ever been successful without Counterpower – the power that the ‘have-nots’ can use to remove the power of the ‘haves’. This is examined by investigating the history and tactics of the suffrage movement, the labour movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-colonial movement, the environmental movement and today’s human rights and anti-globalisation movement. In the context of the financial crisis and the threat of climate change, engagement in system critical social movements is on the increase. This unique book demystifies the power dynamics of social change.

Banned Book Week

Censorship says more about the people that ban the books than the authors that wrote them. According to the American Library Association, challenges are recorded and tallied, and they have provided us with a fascinating list of the top ten books that have been removed from libraries over the last ten years. While many of the titles are perenially banned and unbanned (Huckleberry Finn, The Colour Purple, The Catcher in The Rye) I am always surprised at which books do get labelled as foul and disgusting and all sorts of colourful pejoratives.

Amongst these titles, there some I would censure only for their terrible writing,

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

like Twilight and Gossip Girl, but I wouldn’t demand they be pulled from shelves. I don’t think that all young girls will look to the main female characters in such books and think “I wish I could be vapid and loved only for how I look!”, and I know many sensible and clever teens who see Twilight for what it is, and isn’t. What it definitely isn’t is subversive. As I have mentioned before, it is so dreadfully, boringly mainstream. How it gets lumped in the same category as Catcher in the Rye escapes me. As far as subversive goes, I’d rather push for Fight Club (actually, anything by Paulahniuk).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Of course, some books will get banned just because they aren’t white enough, not complying to the status quo of ‘white people know and do best’: worth noting in this category are titles like Beloved (One of my personal top 10 favourites) and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  I am surprised that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses isn’t on that list, though I still believe it is his finest work and one of the best ever produced for its vast storytelling ability and brilliant handling of issues so mutli-faceted as to resemble a prism in a sunburst. Unfortunately, too many people think its evil and anti-Islam, an argument that is as specious as it is insulting. And, sadly, always offered by people who haven’t read the book. But I take hope in the fact that books by leading atheists and scientists are not on that list either. To be fair though, the ALA offers this disclaimer:

A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, we do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges.

I suspect this is why a great deal of truly controversial books are not on their list.

The Female Eunuch

I still believe in students, especially this one, who is running an illegal library out of her locker to counter the draconian rules of her school. (If she were my daughter, I would consider myself the most successful parent possible.) I truly believe that there are so many kids out there desperate for knowledge and stories, and as long as ill-informed teachers and librarians hide away great books, they will not have access to literature that challenges the status quo. I have always believed in the power of books to change and grow minds, and books have always been my teachers. And sometimes banning a book does great things for its power. Consider the popularity of Germaine Greer’s wonderful Female Eunuch, a book so infamous in its heyday that women had to buy it in brown paper bags under the counter. (That was 1970. Really not that long ago, when you think about it.)

Subversive?

Unfortunately not everyone can get around bans, so I would prefer they didn’t happen. And it could be said that books like Mein Kampf should be banned lest they influence further evil, but by being able to analyse what motivated such a crazy, evil man, we might better understand what caused his rise and rise. Also, once we start banning two or three books, it isn’t long before anything remotely objectionable gets banned. Sitting on this side of dead apartheid, book banning has a particularly ugly (and darkly amusing) history here. Considering  it was a system so ridiculous as to ban Black Beauty based on the title as well as the delightful Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it is a neat insight into some the things the apartheid government feared most: black people and religious irreverence. And perhaps really big horses.