Wounds of grievance and guilt

2010-06-09 00:00

“AS a writer, my job is to open old wounds. And if there are no old wounds to open, it is to inflict new ones,” says Chris Marnewick, talking in his office in the Advocates’ Chambers in Durban.

There is a beautiful view out over the harbour, but Marnewick sits with his back to it. It would be too much of a distraction, he says. Instead, he faces his tin-can guitar and three wonderful, elongated sculpted figures of musicians.

We are talking about where the ideas for The Soldier Who Said No came from. He admits his publishers persuaded him to make his book fit into the thriller genre more closely than he had originally intended — and it fits very well — but it is his opening of old wounds that gives the story its edge. He describes what he does as “creative nonfiction”, taking a piece of recent history and presenting it to the reader in a fictional context.

The plot here includes a South ­African attempt to assassinate Robert Mugabe. Fictional maybe, but Marnewick says there were three such attempts on the Zimbawean president’s life by South African agents in the eighties. He also deals with the matter of the Tuhoe tribe in New Zealand who have been fighting to have their ancestral land restored to them, a place of which Marnewick says he has no words to describe how beautiful it is.

Marnewick lived in New Zealand for five years, and a lot of the book is set there. But it does not come across as a paradise. Marnewick says immigrants are second-class ­citizens there, particularly the Chinese. As for South Africans: “They fly below the radar. If you admit to being a South African there, they either assume you’re a racist and hold it against you, or that you’re one of them and must agree with their ideas on race. You keep a low profile.”

But if New Zealand doesn’t come out of the book in a very positive light, neither does South Africa. I ask Marnewick about the Afro-pessimism I have sensed.

“Yes, it’s there. But it’s the character’s pessimism,” he says. “For me the book is about cancer — several cancers, apart from the physical. In New Zealand, it’s the cancer of tribal grievance. Here, every man who fought in that war in Angola feels guilty for having been involved. And the ones who think it was the right thing to do feel guilty because they can’t talk about it, except in their own little groups. They feel a guilt that they don’t have anything to do with the new South Africa. It’s a cancer that is festering out there.

“And for the Webers [Johann Weber was a central character in Marnewick’s first novel, Shepherds & Butchers, and an admirable one. But here, he is disquieting], it’s the cancer of cutting themselves off. It’s the attitude of ‘we’re not responsible, so we won’t care’. It’s one of the themes of the book. Immigrants do much the same thing in the countries they go to.”

This is shown clearly in the character of Pierre de Villiers, the South African recce who is now in the New Zealand police. He will always be a foreigner in New Zealand, but he no longer belongs in South Africa.

I ask Marnewick if he would consider living permanently in New Zealand. He went there originally for six months to work on a legal text book and stayed for five years. But he says he never felt that he belonged, or was entirely welcome. Having recently been there for a month, he says he met only one person in the street who greeted him — and that was the man who gave him the idea for the book. “And there is something indefinable about this country,” he says.

Marnewick is a busy senior counsel at the Durban bar. Has he ever thought of giving up practice and becoming a full-time writer? “Every night,” he says. “But I earn in a week what I have earned in royalties from my books.” However, the good news is that Marnewick is planning another novel, and Shepherds & Butchers is likely to be filmed, with Anant Singh working on a screenplay. His “creative nonfiction” may not be earning him a fortune, but he is a writer who is being taken seriously.

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