Stories of the past that connect us

2013-10-15 00:00

THE dark days of the early ninieties, when KwaZulu-Natal reverberated to sounds of war, people died violently or vanished, and journalists and photographers returned to newsrooms with stories of being pinned down while gunfire raged around them, seem distant now.

They are brought back to life in Brent Meersman’s new novel, Five Lives at Noon, launched in KZN last week.

The characters, the “five lives” of the title, appeared first in Meersman’s previous novel, Reports Before Daybreak, set in Cape Town in the eighties.

“I always had a trilogy in mind,” says Meersman, who waited to see how the first book was received before committing to Five Lives.

So, more of how his characters fare, in the years between 1994 and 2000, is on the cards for the future.

I ask why he thinks the events that reverberate through the novel have received so little attention in South African fiction — neither of us can think of another English-language novel dealing with the KZN violence.

“People are often reluctant to engage with the past — and I think that if people had read more about our history, they wouldn’t make the stupid remarks they do. A novel allows you to see into the minds of people at the time, which non-fiction can’t. And the settings of both books speak to the present. KZN in the nineties was the crucible in which much of the new South Africa was forged —you can make an argument that what happened here is why Jacob Zuma is our president.”

As an aside, Meersman gives the chilling statistic that there are reportedly 64 tons of unfound armaments still buried around the province. Be careful where you dig.

Meersman talks about the sections of the book that are biographical accounts of real people, influential at the time. These inserts are lively and strongly opinionated: Meersman spares no one, incuding Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the great self-inventor Laurens van der Post. “The effect I am hoping for is to make the biographies of the real people lively and animated, show their stance, and while I do that, I let the fictional characters speak for themselves.”

In this kind of fiction, Meersman admits there is pressure to make characters representative of something: Frans of the shadowy third force; Bertie of the white liberal and Zukiswa of the exile.

“So I have to let them speak for themselves, limit the third-person narration.”

Except, of course, for Mfundi. He has to carry the weight of the disappeared, provide the overarching link between the others. It is a powerful fictional device. Meersman explains that he had to work out a way of writing about the unspoken and invisible, and how this affects the whole community and the way we interact with one another. “It came to me that I could write about a vanished person who is constantly there, who has a devastating effect on the lives of others through his absence.”

Meersman is honest about how he set out to write an ambitious novel, saying he feels that local writing has lacked ambition for some time. But he also wanted to write a page turner — he has — and a book that would cross the divide between black and white readers, creating a dialogue between black stories and white stories. And judging by the reaction he has received, it seems to be working. “A lot of black readers have found it painful, revisiting those times, but they have bought it.”

It is painful, but it is important. There are things in the past that must be remembered, and Meersman is making sure that we do.

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