Dan Sandman

Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

43: The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction on 25/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Lost World of The Kalahari by Larens van der PostI found this book in a posh charity shop, part of chain that supports Save The Children, called Mary’s Living And Giving found in the heart of Primrose Hill. It stood out among the other books because it was in a nice Vintage Classics edition and appealed to my fascination with the Kalahari desert. At the time of discovery, I couldn’t recall knowing anything about Laurens van der Post but knew a fair bit about Africa from my previous reading, television viewing, friends and travels. So obviously I picked up the book, took it home for £2 and to my delight fell in love with it.

Laurens van der Post has a sprightly prose style that simply leaps off the page and comes alive inside the imagination. The stories in this book are based on his time exploring the Kalahari desert with a revolving crew of fellow adventurers. There are ten longish chapters, each chapter forming one part of the journey to discover and observe the indigenous people of Southern Africa, the bushmen, with the aim of chronicling their way of life in writing and on film. Through his remarkable book, written in 1958, Van der Post made a heartfelt appeal to preserve the bushmen’s way of life, their customs and traditions. Aggravated by the discovery of diamonds in the early nineteen eighties, the bushmen way of life, stretching back ten thousand years, has continued to remain under threat.

About halfway through the book, I begun to find interviews with Van der Post and was pleased to hear his voice which gave my reading an authentic sound. Born in 1906, before the first world war, he begun life as a farmer and writer. During the second world war, he fought for the allies in Japan where he spent three years in a prisoner of war camp. After WWII, he spent much time travelling between London and his native South Africa, organising adventurous expeditions and writing about the extraordinary experiences of his eventful life. As an environmentalist, philosopher, and political adviser to a prince and a prime minister, he was an influential voice of the twentieth century. When he died at the age of ninety in 1996, he had lived long enough to see his native South Africa become a constitutional democracy.

I found reading this travel story exciting because it took me on an adventure to another time and another place. It was educational to learn about the bushmen’s cave art and musical instruments, to read about the challenges faced by the explorers whilst camping in the harsh environment of the Kalahari. The book remains a fascinating depiction of human endeavor and how with focus, determination and enterprise, anything is possible. The bushmen of fifty years ago had established a unique society and culture by carefully managing their water supply and following a set of laws deeply rooted in their surrounding environment. In some ways, they represent humanity’s roots as a species, engineering ways to cope with survival, as well developing a relationship with the natural world. The explorers, whose story it is we follow, come from a contrasting metropolitan world where finding Land Rover vehicles and signing legal contracts to gain funding are essential to the completion of their mission. As human populations become overwhelmingly urbanised, I think it is important that we remember our origins and strive to show respect for the forces of nature.

The bushman has much to teach city dwellers.

42: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

In Books, Fiction, Romance on 18/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry JamesFirst published as a book in 1881, this classic novel by Henry James revolves around an intelligent, privileged and beautiful young lady from America called Isabel Archer. Following the death of her father, Isabel is taken by her aunt to Europe where she inherits a fortune and encounters a number of marriage proposals. Our heroine begins her story as a high-spirited feminist choosing independence over marriage but she is eventually corrupted by Machiavellian scheming. The novel deals with the thematic transition from innocence to experience.

Henry James’ wit, particularly towards the beginning of the long novel, is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde – whose work shared a similar historical context – perhaps with a touch less of Wilde’s biting satire. Wilde was an Irish outsider observing the hypocrisy of the British elite, James an American equally as fascinated by the British, class obsessed society he was integrating with. But, whereas for example, The Importance of Bering Earnest by Oscar Wilde is heavily critical of the ruling class, exposing hypocrisy using exaggerated humourous circumstances, the problems of Isabel Archer are presented in a more realistic light. However, one can’t help feeling that Isabel’s problems are somewhat superficial when compared to the problems of the barely visible working classes.

When she walked in Kensington Gardens she stopped the children (mainly of the poor sort) whom she saw playing on the grass; she asked them their names and gave them sixpence and, when they were pretty, kissed them. Ralph noticed these quaint charities; he noticed everything she did. [pg. 195]

Notice how the use of brackets diminishes the “poor” children and patronises their poverty. Charity is seen as something “quaint” by the privileged class and observed as a curiosity. This is a novel that fails to even pretend to be interested in the inner world of those struck down by poverty in the late nineteenth century. James’ sole interests throughout the novel, concern the thoughts, feelings and private worlds of the American and European upper classes. Unlike Charles Dickens, who is often guilty of sentimentalising the plights of the poor, Henry James chooses to completely ignore them therefore creating an escapist landscape from rich people’s romantic entanglements.

However, that being said, he is a brilliant writer with a great eye for detail and a great ear for amusing dialogue. Within this majestic work are wonderful naturalistic descriptions of historical sites and the kind of sparky dialogue present in an Oscar Wilde play. James has the hands of Michelangelo and the mind of Franz Schubert. Technically, this book is a masterpiece that stands alongside the great works referred to within it. His remarkable writing style, where the narrator uses the first person but is not actually present within the story as such, was an ingenious way to engage in an almost psychoanalytic approach to his characters. Freud was still in his twenties when this book was first published.

To conclude, I found this Victorian, Anglo-American novel to be a touchingly sad account of a lucky woman who is unlucky in love. She has beauty, intelligence and money but she still chooses to marry the wrong man. Isabel Archer is an innocent victim of her own fortune, manipulated into a bad marriage. As I got into this book, I couldn’t help noticing the tragic quote, said by our heroine at the start of the novel, written in orange on the back of my 2003 reprinted edition: –

“I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.”

Really? Women in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918.

41: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Poetry on 11/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

Beowulf by Seamus HeaneyWhen a writer dies, bookshops and libraries begin to show a renewed interest in the work left behind. Following the recent death of Seamus Heaney, nicknamed ‘Famous Seamus’, my local library displayed his poems in the window for passers-by to read and appreciate. It was reassuring to see that poetry could still have pride of place in a public space. And so, I encountered this brilliant book, with an accompanying CD, and was transported to a fantasy land conjured up in or around 900 AD.

As Heaney states in the book’s introduction, the original Beowulf exists in one manuscript only now housed within the British Library. In the eighteenth century, this important text, at first written in Anglo-Saxon, barely survived a fire. The Oxford scholar and teacher, J. R. R Tolkien was fascinated with the poem and gave a groundbreaking lecture in 1936, entitled The Monsters and The Critics, in which he emphasised the poem’s qualities as a work of literature. Prior to Tolkien’s lecture, many critics had focussed on its relevance as a source of Anglo-Saxon history whilst downplaying its artistic qualities. Ironically enough, Tolkien’s own innovative fantasy fiction novel The Lord of The Rings was harshly reviewed by, the rather stern looking, American literary critic Edmund Wilson who called it “juvenile trash”.

Unfortunately, there has always been negative commentators who see it as their mission to attack fantasy fiction.  However, I personal believe that stories involving heroic battles against monsters and dragons are great fun. Take Beowulf for example, it has a powerful hero who bravely fights against an unquestionably evil trio – Grendel, Grendels’ mother and the dragon – of enemies. The world he inhabits is one where honour is achieved through combat, where reward is bestowed upon those who can master swordplay, where there is a clear distinction between good and evil. It’s the world that draws comparisons to the Japanese samurai of old, or even such twentieth century texts such as Star Wars or Harry PotterBeowulf is a fictional landscape where we can escape from the trappings of twenty-first century living by imagining an alternative reality.

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from this entertaining book and CD for many reasons, of which I shall now state a few. Firstly, it has been a great pleasure to hear Seamus Heaney, the poet himself, reading from his own erudite translation. Heaney has a strong Northern Irish accent and his reading adds great musicality to the poem’s rhythm and sound. I highly recommend finding the audio version, I got hold of the CD from Primrose Hill Community Library, but there is a copy of it available freely on the world’s most popular video streaming service. Secondly, I found the language of the translation to be highly evocative of the rousing sound produced when reading Anglo-Saxon. When I was at university studying English, a lecturer called Rob Pope used read to his students that old Germanic language upon which English is partially based. When listening to the CD, it was very easy to imagine how it would sound untranslated – which leads on to my third point. I am grateful to the now sadly departed Nobel Prize winner who wrote with such force and integrity. This rewrite and this recording, have made an otherwise very difficult story to understand accessible to those with an interest in fantasy fiction and / or the history of the English language.

Epic and poetic storytelling.

40: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 04/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall SmithWhat a wonderful premise Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series of books has: create a warm hearted heroin who wants to set up a private detective agency with her inheritance money. Precious Ramotswe is Botwana’s finest – and only – female private detective. She uses her erudite people skills to investigate cases that require the kind of discretion not available from the police service. Her methods often involve telling lies to uncover a crime. Although she believes in making up false stories to reveal information, her actions are always underpinned by a strong moral centre.

“Lies are quite all right if you are lying for a good cause.” (pg.185)

And so the good-natured Mma Ramotswe follows people in her little white van sleuthing. She is a strong and independent woman with an entrepreneurial spirit; a feminist of sorts living in a traditionally patriarchal society. Troubled by a bad experience involving her ex-husband, she champions the causes of womankind against traditionalism.

For example, when Precious meets two wealthy and powerful men especially threatened by her modern views, she anticipates their prejudice and outmanoeuvres them to her advantage. Firstly, Mr. Patel is obsessed with the idea that his daughter might be seeing a boy not vetted and approved in the tradition of arranged marriages. He stands for the oppressive traditions of a male dominated system of behaviour. Through her charm and investigative skills, Mma Remotswe is able to convince Mr. Patel to allow his daughter to live more freely. Secondly, Mr. Charlie Gotso, BA is endangered by the discovery of some very dodgy Muti (traditional Southern African medicine) involving the bones of a dead child. He is on the side of those who believe that murder can be justified in the name of superstitious traditional values. By pretending to support Mr. Gotso’s beliefs, once again the courageous Precious Remotwe is able to save the day.

Our heroin is a savvy private eye who works according to her own code of justice, a loveable character who falls on the right side of good and bad, and a friendly person who knows the importance of a tea and sympathy. Fearless and super cool, she has the kind of magnetic personality that is bound to produce laughter and smiles. All the way through this excellent set of detective stories, I couldn’t help effortlessly turning the pages.

A very good read indeed.