February 2014 Reading: Satantango, On Black Sisters’ Street, Pigeon English, Every Secret Thing

Satantango by Lazslo Krazsnahorkai (1985; translated by George Szirtes)

This is apparently the Hungarian writer Krazsnahorkai’s ‘most accessible’ novel. The fact that I don’t know where to begin describing the plot, the hugely demanding prose style, the looming and shrinking characterization, and the gloomy, wry pessimism that pervades the whole book is probably a sign that his other works will be beyond me. It is different, and quite brilliant, in a perplexing, juddering way.

On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe (2010)

This novel tells story of four African prostitutes sharing a Belgian apartment who know little about each other, until the disappearance of one of them, Sisi, prompts them to share their stories. Their shocking experiences are related with warm, humorous touches, and Unigwe’s dialogue in particular is engaging and fresh. Personally I found that the girls, and their stories, blended into each other – this may have been part of the point, but it left me without much of an emotional attachment to any of them.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011)

Kelman’s novel has been on my ‘to read’ list for ages – or “donkey years,” as his protagonist, Harri, might put it. I have read a few mixed reviews – it seems there has been a bit of a backlash against the novel’s ‘fairytale’ success. For me, however, Harri’s voice was utterly convincing – like Unigwe, Kelman does wonderful things with language, but he also manages to create a character I completely believed in. It verges on the sentimental, but the clash between Harri’s childish naivety and grim reality of life on the Dell Farm estate creates a dynamic that avoids syrupy sweetness. I think writing from the point of view of a child is one of the hardest things to do, and Kelman, here, has got it just right.

Every Secret Thing by Gillian Slovo (2009)

If writing from a child’s point of view is tricky, then even trickier is the feat that Slovo pulls off in this work of non-fiction: writing about one’s parents. Especially when you consider that her parents were two of South Africa’s most prominent anti-Apartheid activists, public figures as much as private ones (the subtitle of Slovo’s novel, ‘My Family, My Country, reveals the inseparable nature of these two spheres in the lives of Ruth First and Joe Slovo). This is a brave book to have written – the risk of it turning into either a eulogy or a therapeutic catharsis of deep childhood issues is ever-present, but Slovo instead produces a politically relevant, intellectually challenging and moving memoir. I am currently reading First’s book 117 Days, which is equally fascinating, but First’s daughter’s book seems to me, at the moment, to be a more layered, nuanced work.