A fascination for eccentrics and artists

2009-03-25 00:00

THIS is a curious hybrid of a book, partly explained by its subtitle: A Portrait of Eccentricity. One part is autobiographical and is Pat Hopkins’s own journey from an alarming childhood in the Drakensberg which included being present when his father was killed in a shoot-out with the drugs squad. He even spent some time as an articled clerk at a law firm in Pietermaritzburg — there are people here who still remember him. The other is the story of the book he tried to write. This was to be the biography of John Anthony Boerma, aka the artist Johnny Golightly. Hopkins wanted to parallel Golightly’s reinvention of himself with South Africa’s reinvention as a country post 1994. It was to be a triumphant tale.

Hopkins is fascinated by eccentricity and outsiders. He writes of a visit to Helen Martins at the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda and to other outsider artists, of how their aim of changing the world eventually distils down to only changing their own immediate environment, and the catastrophic effects this failure has on them.

Hopkins wants to be taken seriously as a chronicler of the eccentric, but tells how his publishers see him as a writer of potboilers, of magazine articles on individual eccentrics, of books on South Africa’s ghosts. There is a curious subtext here — Hopkins seems to be saying both in his writing and in the subtitle: “Look at me. I’m eccentric too, unappreciated, and I too attempted suicide along the way.” And in the meantime, Johnny Golightly/John Anthony Boerma lies and evades and continually slips out of Hopkins’ grasp.

At times you feel like saying to both the author and his protagonist — go away and reinvent yourselves in someone else’s time, not mine. But for the most part this is an interesting experiment, if only partially successful. And it encapsulates the greatest problem of both biography and autobiography. How much can we believe, and what of the bits that have been omitted?

Margaret von Klemperer

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