Every great city has a writer whose work you can’t hope to get around; one whose books you’ll never weasel out of reading, whose recommendations you’ll never dodge from booksellers. In the case of Cape Town it’s J.M. Coetzee, who was born and educated and who later taught in the city. As with any writer of legitimate genius, using his fiction as a guide to the city is like using a map of the moon to find your way to the shops.
This is particularly true of Coetzee’s work, which ranges across unnamed countries, through mysterious provinces and into queasy metafictions and writings-about-writing. South Africa, and sometimes Cape Town, are everywhere, but glimpsed in a distorting mirror of broader, often allegorical concerns: shame, humbling, haunting, imposture, exploitation, disgrace. Take “Life & Times of Michael K”, for example – Coetzee’s first Booker winner – which opens in a recognisable apartheid-era version of the city before its narrator, whose ethnicity is glimpsed only in a single cryptic abbreviation, sets off on a desperate vagrant scramble through a Cape riven by a mysterious civil war.
You might also look at “Disgrace”, about the shattering events that befall a Cape Town academic and his daughter in an Eastern Cape farmhouse, which weighs moral horrors in a prose of terrible dispassionate distance. Or there’s “Age of Iron”, a grim epistolary fable about a dying white woman and her vagrant companion in a burning Cape Town. Its protagonist musters a shattering sociopolitical directness rare in Coetzee’s work: “Let me tell you, when I walk upon this land, this South Africa, I have a gathering feeling of walking upon black faces. They are dead but their spirit has not left them. They lie there heavy and obdurate, waiting for my feet to pass, waiting for me to go, waiting to be raised up again.”
By the way, it’s pronounced coot (the oo as in cook)-SEA, apparently, not curtsey or goatzay or whatever you/I/we/they have been saying all these years. And if you’ve read all the J.M.C. you care to, or can withstand, here are some other suggestions:
Alex La Guma A Walk in the Night and other stories
There’s extraordinary energy, both linguistic and political, powering this first work by Alex La Guma, a black journalist, activist and political leader who went into exile from South Africa in the mid-1960s. Its title story – a novella, really – follows several characters over a single night in a low-class black and coloured neighbourhood of Cape Town during the early apartheid era: there’s a gang plotting a heist, a young murderer and his accidental fall guy and a brutal white cop ready to do some damage, all whirling towards destruction in grim and slangy prose. What stays with the reader is the bleak and fiery anger articulated by La Guma’s protagonists as they spit out their “Yes baas” or submit to another humiliation. Like La Guma’s other books, which include the anti-apartheid political drama “In the Fog of a Season’s End” and a memorable prison story, “The Stone Country”, its sense of injustice has not been in the slightest blunted by the passing years. And rightly so.
Henrietta Rose-Innes Nineveh
I haven’t been able to get this elusive, serio-comic, distantly allegorical book out of my head since putting it down; it carries on revolving quietly somewhere at the back of consciousness, poised, gently humorous and perfectly immune to interpretation. There’s something ever-so-slightly Ballardian about its set-up, in which Katya Grubbs, a humane pest controller, is asked to clean up a seemingly non-existent infestation of beetles (or goggas, in the wonderfully expressive South African vernacular) in a new housing development. But the gleaming precincts of Nineveh are perched over oozing swampland, someone keeps crawling in and out in the middle of the night and everyone says the plague of creatures is coming any time soon… It’s a mysterious delight, written in a pithily compressed, often funny prose but with an air of deepening significance around every corner.
Lauren Beukes Moxyland
This vigorous debut novel came out in 2008, contributing to the sense that all the cool and terrifying visions of the future suddenly belonged to South Africa (see also: Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9”, any early Die Antwoord video). Beukes was also one of the writers who saw that, far from fading away, a bunch of tropes from Eighties cyberpunk – corporate control, human branding, big data, false-flag social unrest – were about to become the big stories of the internet age. In the future Cape Town of Moxyland, where everyone’s phone has a built-in tazer controlled by police HQ, the government is pushing a sociological Project Fear, an always-on lifeblogger is mining for virtual weapons in online worlds, and young cultural influencers are being paid wild sums to broker their bodies and immune systems to fizzy drink companies. It’s spiritedly nasty stuff, set in a city still recognisable beneath its imagined social and virtual lineaments, and very much worth seeking out.
Deon Meyer the Benny Griessel series
Until this series was recommended to me, the only book I’d read by Deon Meyer was “Fever”, a lumbering novel, set in the wake of a pandemic, that struggled to creep out of the long shadow of its genre forebears. Huge mistake, it turns out, because the rest of the time this Cape Town Afrikaner author (excellently translated by K.L. Seegers) writes acute crime thrillers about the rifts and oppositions in present-day South African society. “Devil’s Peak” is the first of a series featuring the detective Benny Griessel, a character who might in other hands be a walking cliché – a hangdog recovering alcoholic with a heart of gold and a bloodhound’s nose for crime – were it not that Meyer writes about alcoholism in a wrenchingly grim and unromantic way, and brings his crime plots (here, a sex worker’s confession, a Zulu hitman turned anti-paedophile vigilante, and the day-to-day running of the Cape Town PD) crackling to life. If you’re new to a country or a culture, decent crime fiction is often a great way to get a sense of its hopes and fears, and you certainly take in a lot of instruction with your entertainment while reading Meyer. I’m several books in now, and having trouble putting them down.
Ingrid de Kok Seasonal Fires
I’m cautious about recommending poetry, mainly because most of what I know about contemporary verse is just how little I know. But two striking Cape Town poets and their work have come my way recently. First, the poet and academic Ingrid de Kok, whose deliberate, measured lines swing around with unruffled gravity to target intimacies both personal and public. “Seasonal Fires” is the title of the collected poems, but to give you an idea of the way her lines inhabit the city, here she is, in lines from the poem “Ground Wave”:
Behind the house we feel
the mountain’s friction against our backs.
Deep fissures are predicted by the almanac,
earth and trees heaving to the shore.
Scorpions come in at night
for cool killings on the flagstone floor.
Koleka Putuma Collective Amnesia
The second, recommended by a South African friend, is Koleka Putuma, a writer, performance poet and theatre-maker from Cape Town whose debut volume “Collective Amnesia” was published last year. It’s powerful stuff, articulating voices, identities, ethnicities, upbringings and sexualities that undoubtedly represent a vast chunk of South African experience but rarely find their way into foreign views of the literary culture. There’s plenty of Putuma’s work on YouTube, but I was particularly struck by her talent for the barbed zinger (“The gospel / is how whiteness breaks into our homes / and brings us to our knees”) as well as her ironic way with a bleak incontrovertible:
isn’t it funny?
That when they ask about black childhood,
all they are interested in is our pain,
as if the joy-parts were accidental.