Analysing the unbelievable

2008-08-01 00:00

Christopher Hope is fascinated by things he doesn’t understand. Like the man featured in his latest work, The Garden of Bad Dreams, who collects small people. Or like the complexities of the tribal wars in the former Yugoslavia. And like the unfathomable spectacle — which he witnessed personally — of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor leaving office to go into exile through streets lined with people and guns, while a choir, dressed in white, sang the theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman.

“I love to look at things I find unbelievable, and then try to find the words to describe them, so that others can see what I have seen,” said the acclaimed author when we met in Cape Town for an interview. “I am a useful witness, I suppose.”

Hope was in Cape Town recently to promote his book and attend a literary festival.

When we met at the buzzing Vineyard Hotel, we shared a laugh at how many important people we spotted. “I could swear I’ve just seen Stephen Hawking in the restaurant,” I spluttered. “Yes, it’s definitely him. He’s here on his mission to find an African Einstein,” he said, equally thrilled. “And there’s Alex Boraine,” I said, as we spotted the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission vice-chair chatting to someone, probably about his latest book.

Asked about his writing regime, Hope described his life in France, where he lives in an old stone hut in a small village towards the Spanish border. “It has no electricity and we use spring water from a forest on the mountainside.

“I have a study down in the village — a torture chamber — into which I lock myself to write. I sit down, lock the door and fight off a wave of despair from eight o’clock until one every day,” he said.

“The thing with writing is that nothing apparently happens, but unless you sit down like that, nothing happens at all. A novel is like training for a marathon you know you may never get to run. It feels rather like a person with a blunt machete hacking away through dense forest with no guarantee that he will ever find his way out.

“After my morning of work, I am brain dead, and I can’t do anything useful. I go to the café on the corner and I walk. It’s like a release, like playing hookey. Then I return to work the next day and do the same thing.”

His writing is interspersed with commissions from publications to visit places and write about them.

He visits South Africa often, where he has the use of a house not far from Knysna. “I lock myself up in the house and work. I also spend time talking to people and getting my South African fix.”

An engaging, friendly man, Hope, who is drawn to “kindly people” and who once said he felt disturbed by the “ready aggression of local life” in South Africa, has pondered the question of why South Africa is such a violent society.

“This has always been an intensely rough place, a cruel place, a place in which force has been the only thing that counted,” he says. “Lots of countries are like this, but there is something particular about the sort of violence to which we are prone.

“We are odd. Innately, we are deeply rebellious. The best of us never accepted certain views of the world. That is one of the great saving graces we have had here, but it is an ephemeral, fragile thing in the face of the other thing, which is to reach for violence. We make people do as we say.

“It is a profound question,” continued Hope, who still considers himself South African.

“What is it that makes us the way that we are? Why is violence so instant and immediate, and, God knows, so widespread within us? If I have thought of an existential answer, I have sometimes thought that it is based on a terrible loneliness, on the fact that we lived in a separated society for so long that it is only by hitting each other that we know that somebody else exists.”

Hope grew up in Johannesburg and studied at Wits, where he became politically active against apartheid, before emigrating to England in his 30s.

Hope enjoys immersing himself in other people’s realities, which means that he loves to travel — and to get lost, preferably alone. “If I am alone, then I don’t get embarrassed when I get lost. If I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere, because it is precisely the experience of getting lost that I love.

“I find that if I don’t understand what’s going on, if I look and listen carefully, and ask the people around me for their impressions, then I start to get an idea of the truth about a place that lies below the level of the facts,” he said.

He travels “an awful lot” and has spent “an awful lot” of time in Africa, including Liberia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. He is regularly commissioned by top newspapers — such as the Guardian, and the Sunday Times — and the BBC to write about people and places, precisely because he loves what he doesn’t understand.

Hope, who is interested in writing about power and its perversions, and who wrote about Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in his book Brothers Under the Skin: Travels in Tyranny (2003), is working on another novel about power.

“I find it extraordinary that we have a despot on our doorstep about whom nothing can apparently be done. I find it remarkable and am reminded of the days when we had a white despot, Ian Smith, on our doorstep, about whom nothing could be done. Zimbabwe is not sustainable without the propping up which South Africa gives.

“As Mark Twain said: ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme’.”

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