Book review – Squirrels and other middle class problems

2013-08-25 10:00

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Sheltered suburban reality comes to life in a somewhat unusual novel about an ordinary life, writes Charles Cilliers

Apart from having a mouthful for a title, Mark Winkler's debut novel, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything), is also an honest look at the reality that while big social issues may be going on in South Africa, the average middle class person is just trying to get on with their own life and deal with their own problems.

The protagonist, Chris, a successful architect in Cape Town, is making a fair bit of money, which his wife is not shy to use on surgical enhancement procedures. Chris’ business partner is trying to get him to sign on a black partner so that they can score big government tenders, but Chris is reluctant.

As part of his back story, Chris is adopted and lost a leg along with an old girlfriend in a car accident years ago. He also has a son who is going through adolescence.

And Chris’ house has a bit of a squirrel problem.

It’s hardly earth-shattering stuff, which makes this novel somewhat unusual.

The author explains: “So much South African fiction has a backdrop of apartheid or racism or inequality of some sort, and the issues of crime and guilt that follow. The immediate obstacle, I thought, was how to make Chris’ story relevant in South Africa, and my initial response was the expected one: how to build overarching themes of post-apartheid angst and guilt into the narrative.

“But however I cut it, it just seemed so ‘done’ that I almost gave up. Then I realised Chris should be perfectly entitled to tell his own story, and not be obliged to tell someone else’s, or to be impacted by someone more directly affected by South Africa’s past.”

In this novel, broader social issues become something that can almost be looked upon as passing spectacles. The Marikana killings play out as little more than a news report on Chris’ TV.

“Every South African (one would hope) is aware of apartheid and its legacy, but this awareness, in reality, affects very few of us in our daily lives. Winkler goes on: “In Chris’ case, it affects him purely selfishly. Today’s South Africa makes him feel not only unwelcome in the only country he’s ever lived, but just plain rootless as well.

“Serendipitously, I’d given Chris one leg, which further seemed to suggest his disconnection with the ground he walks on, and I’d made him an architect, someone who puts down foundations and builds ‘immoveables’ on behalf of others. Then, giving him a spouse and a son who become increasingly estranged from him, and making him an adopted child, seemed to further amplify this rootlessness.

“As a result, Chris’ point of view is, I think, something of a departure from much South African fiction, which to the best of my knowledge doesn’t give wealthy, white, middle-aged, English-speaking men much airtime.”

It’s true, away from romance fiction, most of the dramas in South African literature centre on the collision of culture, histories, race, lifestyle and class – and often violently so.

But Chris’ worries are merely about turning 40, about whether or not to have an affair, whether or not his wife is having an affair, what to do with his business and how he’s losing touch with his wife and son.

Winkler goes on to say:

“While I wanted the story to be a South African one, it was important to me that it had a universal appeal.”

When an overloaded Opel carrying poor people crashes into a tree, Chris and his family simply drive past the smoking accident scene, wondering if they should even call for an ambulance.

Winkler explains: “I almost deleted this scene for being too incidental to the narrative, but decided to keep it in as a comment on Chris’ choice not to get involved with the South Africa outside of his own orbit.

“But if people like Chris continue to hide from the reality of the country behind their high walls, they will never feel truly ‘South African’”.

An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything), while not even remotely living up to its bizarre title, still worked for me as a humane and sometimes tragic portrayal of some of South Africa’s more privileged classes, particularly the white ones, an important group who by and large still dominate the economy.

And it doesn’t pander to ideas of what a “South African novel” should be, which is sadly why it probably won’t be noticed much either.

An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything)  by Mark Winkler

Kwela; 224 pages

R195 at

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