Hysterical realism, violence and a principled stand

EVENT: Hari Kunzru and Etienne van Heerden (Friday, 23 September; Fugard Studio)


Hari Kunzru and Etienne van Heerden read from their work and take questions. Chaired by Christopher Hope.

It’s a strange thing we do when we ask writers to read aloud from their work. Presumably, they become writers because they prefer silent communication. Even those who read or perform well have the odds – poor acoustics, inadequate lighting by which to read, bronchial audiences – stacked against them. And how do you find a passage that is sufficiently well-perforated to be torn off and read in isolation without leaving your audience baffled? A novel is as painstakingly constructed as a Jenga tower: only a skilled player can remove a piece without collapsing the whole.

Etienne van Heerden is an ace Jenga player. Reading first from Leon de Kock’s translation of his novel, In Stede van die Liefde (In Love’s Place, to be published by Penguin next year), he sweeps us up in a fateful drive with his protagonist, Christian Lemmer. The narrative shifts in subtle and satisfying ways, building up from quietly contemplative memory – “The mountain where he ran as free as a Rhebok”; to mild irritation – flicking his lights at a car driving without headlights; to anxieties about his poor anger management and risk of cardiac arrest; to harrowing flashbacks to the Angolan war. The climax is the inevitable, shattering confrontation between driver and gangster.

Etienne tops this with a highly disturbing body-burning scene from 30 Nights in Amsterdam.

Accomplished novelist Christopher Hope plumbs Etienne on the predominance of violence in his fiction: in answer he agrees that his work is unsettling, even for him. “But each time I read [it], I feel better. My generation writes about violence. It comes easily to me to write about violence … easier, certainly, than for a Swiss writer.”

British Indian writer Hari Kunzru chooses an excerpt from his Gods Without Men that is as difficult to follow as a passage from ‘Revelations’. Why am I hearing this? I wonder. What am I supposed to get out of this? But perhaps mystification is the point. Hari isn’t a beginning- middle- and-end kind of writer, but one influenced by the multiplicities and intersections of postmodernism and postcolonialism. “Hysterical realism” is a term associated with his fiction. Had he read a scene between the characters so many reviewers rave about, I might have been caught up in the comfortably familiar, but at the expense of the engagingly fresh.

Hari is illuminating, however, during question time. He speaks of his refusal to accept the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize because it is sponsored by the Daily Mail, which has “a long and dishonest history of xenophobia and pressurising asylum seekers and immigrants”. We hear about how the idea for Gods Without Men came to him when he was stranded in America as a result of 9/11 and decided to rent a car and drive to Death Valley, California.

How can he reconcile himself to living in America now, asks a member of the audience?, who also reminds him that he has been singled out at airports for questioning because of his ethnicity. “New York is different,” quips Hari. “They do irony.” Also, there’s a sense of shame over the events of the past decade, he says – though not in the case of “war criminals Rumsfeld and Cheney”. Later he describes Richard Dawkins as “the militant wing of the Church of England” and “culturally tin-eared”.

Christopher Hope had suggested in his introduction that Hari and Etienne “shake us loose of place and race”. Even though these two authors didn’t engage with one another on the stage, one could sense the parallels between their work – the deep-seated trauma, conflicted psyche and compromised history that perforate their characters.