Book review – On the run from a horror past

2013-09-08 14:00

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The debut of a novelist raised in SA before leaving for the UK crackles with insight and tension, writes Charles Cilliers

Conventional wisdom has long held that an author’s debut novel will mostly be about herself.

In the case of Marli Roode (28), some of that may be true. Like her protagonist, the young journalist Jo Hartslief, she too was raised in South Africa and left for England after school.

But that’s where most of the similarities end, and Roode is lucky that is the case because Call It Dog tells of the often darkly violent episodes that follow Jo’s return to South Africa from the UK at the height of the 2008 xenophobic attacks.

She’s initially dumped straight into the thick of it, but that turns out to be the least of her problems. Instead of focusing on her reporting of the attacks, Jo ends up on a road trip from hell with her estranged, seemingly psychopathic, father, Nico, who’s on the run from prosecution over his suspected role in an apartheid death squad decades earlier.

It is Jo’s fraught, abusive relationship with Nico that makes Roode’s book more readable than a lot of well-intentioned post-apartheid fiction. Thanks to Nico, the ambiguity multiplies. And like Jo herself, the truth becomes entangled in her father’s increasingly frayed web of lies.

The two crisscross the country from Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal to the lodge where Vusi Silongo died and beyond, including a turn in Bloemfontein. It feels authentic, despite being written from Roode’s home in London, using a blend of memory, photos and Google Maps.

Jo desperately wants to believe her father is innocent. In what she sees as a bid to prove his innocence, they seek out the former members of the death squad, trying to stay ahead of the group’s apparent leader, a mystery man named Gideon.

But her father’s agenda is always clouded, even at the end, when Jo is supposed to be disabused of any notions he may be redeemable. It’s tough stuff.

Most people mispronounce Roode’s surname as “Rude” in the UK, Roode says with a laugh. She has an MA in creative writing from Manchester University.

In her now clearly English accent and charmingly diffident manner, the writer explains that the genesis of her novel was “the relationship between Jo and Nico. I hadn’t really read anyone like Nico before. And yet I know many people who are different shards of him. The relationship was an opportunity to explore the young-old dichotomy of South Africa. A lot of books tend to use that generational divide to do that. And there’s something interesting in that sense of complicity in family and your father’s actions – particularly when you can’t stop loving him.”

And Nico’s hard to love. He says some of the most offensive and hurtful things anyone possibly could to a daughter, such as on page 3: “I hope those k*****s roughed you up a bit, put their pink hands all over your pasty skin. That’d teach you.” And that’s not even the worst of his barbs.So how does Roode get on with her father? She admits “it hasn’t been all daisies. But it would be disingenuous to say ‘this is my dad’. And I’m so glad it’s not. Nico took on a life of his own. I still dream about him now. I know that sounds very esoteric, but to me he’s a real person.”

Through Jo’s eyes, Nico has his redeeming moments. Even as the reader, you want to believe there can be something more to him than just a racist, self-centred chauvinist. Roode says: “It can take decades of the same behaviour before someone sees it isn’t good for them. Jo keeps doing the same thing, thinking she can handle him. But it becomes increasingly clear she can’t. That being said, it’s her dad and she wants to believe.”

Roode’s writing shows that she is a rare new talent. She’ll doubtlessly be writing more (she penned the first draft of Call It Dog in one month straight).

Among the novel’s opening words, she writes: “Tin shanties glint through the sugar-mill smoke and dusty tracks cross the red hills to mark mission churches, now crumbling. In front of us, the green swarm of cane stretches to the horizon.”

She maintains this sense of poetry throughout, though the book is carried by its dialogue.

Paul Silongo, the fictional deputy premier of Gauteng, features as the son of the slain Vusi. He wants to find the man who killed his father (who he believes is Nico). Like many in South Africa, he’s no longer content to make do with thin forgiveness and reconciliation.

He wants real justice, but Paul’s single-minded quest to apprehend Jo’s dad seems to distract him from his job as a politician.

The episodes with him and Jo are almost inevitably less perfectly rendered than those with Nico and the quick-step manner in which the two become lovers is a bit jarring, as if forced in for the sake of plot. But Paul’s need to know the truth feels real.

Later, an Alexandra township scene that tells the story of the worst of the xenophobic attacks also uses a lot of artistic licence, particularly in its relation of a man being necklaced.

Despite the famous photos of the burning man in Reiger Park, there were no necklacings during the 2008 attacks.

But Roode’s scene, though it might annoy historical pedants, still rings true because of the vigilante culture that has again taken root in townships. And necklacing has made a very unwelcome comeback.

Roode says: “When the riots started in 2008, I really wanted to deal with that as an important milestone in the post-1994 narrative of South Africa. I really wanted to make sure I didn’t write a book about South Africa that was just backward-looking.”

But as bad as the xenophobia is in the book (it includes a description of rape), the township violence is small fry compared with Jo’s imagined reconstruction of how Vusi Silongo was killed.

This is not for the faint-hearted, but is worth suffering through. It shines a courageous light on the callous inhumanity of apartheid, which some still struggle to face head-on – a little like how Jo struggles to face who her father really is.

Call It Dog, written with the objectivity of a South African outsider who has memories of growing up within it, is an important contribution to understanding our pitiless, bloody, often unavenged past – and how tough it is to move on.

» Marli Roode appears at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town today at 4pm

Call it Dog by Marli Roode

Penguin; 333 pages

R216 on

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