Books: John Carlin on Oscar Pistorius

2014-12-31 10:38

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Author and journalist John Carlin knows how to spin a story. His list of literary accomplishments is bewildering but of these Playing the Enemy, an emotional tale of South Africa’s bid to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, has been his most prominent in print. The best-seller went on to inform the screenplay of the film Invictus, starring Hollywood heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, and cemented his position as one of the globe’s most outspoken voices on the power of sport and politics to shape a nation’s headspace. Naturally, his gravitation toward the life and times of South Africa’s fallen hero Oscar Pistorius was a perfect fit. City Press joined Carlin for coffee at the release of Chase your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius after an 18-month immersion in Pistorius’ tumultuous life.

City Press: What’s the process of writing a book like this?

John Carlin: First the thing about this book, which it had in common with journalism, is that it had a deadline. I was told by my various publishers that I had to have the book handed in within a month of the end of the trial. I didn’t have the scope to go for long walks in the Pyrenees finding my soul or something, you know, so I just sort of got on with it. I’d sit at my desk with no particular sort of routine except that I would work seven days a week. I had lots of false starts with many thousands of words thrown in the dustbin and even when I was well into the book I decided that actually the first chapter was wrong and so what was previously the third chapter became the first chapter and so on and so on…

CP: I haven’t managed to read to the end of the book, but I suppose you didn’t know the end either whilst writing:

JC: That was a big issue. I had written 90% of the book without knowing how the whole saga would conclude, which was enormously disconcerting. In a way that condition, the way that I wrote it, means that it reads in a kind of suspenseful way. One hopes that one gets into the book, forgets reality and imagines the outcome of the book. You can play that trick on peoples’ minds when you play it on yourself.

TROUBLE TO COME Champion paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius rests after a training session in Pretoria in 2007. Picture: Dennis Farrel/AP

CP: What grabbed you about Oscar’s story?

JC: It’s just such an amazing, utterly unlikely story. If I had gone to a publisher and said ‘I’m gonna write a novel, fiction, and it’s about a bloke who had his legs amputated at eleven months old and at 25 runs in the Olympic Games against the fastest people in the world and then at the peak of his fame, six months later, shoots dead his beautiful blonde, model girlfriend’ they would say ‘Go away, that’s stupid, no one’s going to believe that.’ I didn’t set out to do a book that set out to discover what really, really happened that night but I did find the character of Pistorius really intriguing. You know he’s sort of the classical tragic hero – imbued with a character flaw that precipitates his downfall. So it fits into the classic narrative pattern. This is probably, in terms of writing, my best book.

CP: The way you describe the doctor cutting off the young Pistorius’ leg was properly gruesome

JC: I’m sorry about that. It’s just unbelievable. You can just imagine a tiny little baby, gurgling and innocent as could be with its tiny little legs. Jesus, it’s just tremendous to think about.

CP: The trial made a kind of arena of the court room, what did you think of the coverage in the media?

JC: I was in court most of the time. It was covered by all the big TV networks exactly the way they would cover a big sporting event. You had the spectators rooting for one team or for another. Every time Barry Roux said something you had one side going ‘ooooh’ as though one side had scored a goal against the other. On the TV you had the pundits in the studio who would offer their analysis during the lunch break. It was exactly like watching a sporting match and that’s the way it was viewed. It was only for a very small core of people for whom it was a really harrowing event. For most people it was just another TV show.

CP: With so many people having made their minds up before the verdict do you think the outcome even really mattered?

JC: It’s a question that’s ultimately unanswerable. If you had to ask judge Thokozile (Masipa) now what she thinks really happened I bet she’d say ‘I don’t know’. She’d say on the evidence that was put forward, and she was right on the evidence, a judge couldn’t possibly conclude that he potentially killed her. Maybe he did? There’s still that doubt, but I think for people to have such hard and fast positions is just ridiculous. Even if his version is true, which the court found it was, then you know the appeal is going to turn on the question of whether he intended to kill that person, that he knowingly wanted to kill a human being, or if he was in a kind of blind, crazy state? That sort of question will have to ultimately be decided by an appeal court and how can they answer a question like that? It will never be the godlike truth. What this trial has really shown is the limitations of the law.

CP: Yes. You’ve spoken in the past about the ‘truth-truth’ and the real truth.

JC: I attempt in my book to make an approximation of the truth-truth but humbly aware that neither I nor anybody else will be able to find out the truth-truth. I doubt even Oscar Pistorius himself knows the truth-truth. We’re all a mystery. Toward the end of the book I quote Joseph Conrad who says, “One’s own personality is a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown.” Which is true, I think.

CP: You mention the Bees Roux case in the book. Do you think sportsmen benefit from a certain amount of leeway when it comes to the law?

JC: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve read some unbelievable things that Judge Thokozile was biased? People said some unbelievably stupid things that there was some element of racial bias? What the fuck are people talking about? She’s a black woman with a track record as a judge of putting people behind bars regardless of their skin colour. Look, what’s clearly true is that when you’re a sportsman with lots of money you’re going to get the best legal team in town. Definitely Barry Roux is an ace lawyer but on the other hand the state spent a lot of money too, much more than they would’ve spent on an ordinary Joe. So there is some inequality there. There’s a quote by this judge from the 1920’s who said, “The doors of the law are open to everybody like the doors of the Ritz hotel.” Which might apply?

CP: Did you feel a lot of pressure writing a book like this?

JC: For a start I have publishers in various countries and I could feel each of them just whipping me on. Finish the bloody thing! But also the great difficulty of breaching the great wall of distrust that Pistorius and his family and friends built around themselves. Breaching the Steenkamp wall was impossible because I didn’t have the money to pay for the interviews.

Oscar Pistorius in court. Picture: Werner Beukes/Sapa

CP: What was it like interviewing Oscar?

JC: I met him a number of times before the trial and after the verdict briefly. He was OK after the verdict, he was mightily relieved. The fact is that that verdict was the biggest win of his career because that was as good a verdict as he could conceivably have hoped to get. That was the greatest victory of his life, even if it meant going to jail. The judge believed his story and then it was proven. So when I saw him the night of the verdict he was visibly relieved. He said he was going to have the most peaceful night’s sleep after 18 months of practically no sleep at all. The first half hour I spent with him before the trial he looked like a sort of bereft child, just devastated, then he sort of lightened up a bit. We went to a restaurant and for a while he forgot his predicament and we just started chatting like a pair of guys. We spoke about his trip to Spain and football and food and, using the most perennial word in the English language, ‘fucking’ was sprinkled throughout the conversation quite liberally. But then suddenly a dark shadow would come over him and it felt like he came back into the room.

CP: Do you feel sorry for him?

JC: Yes I do. But I’m capable of feeling sorry for lots of people. I feel sorrier for the Steenkamps. I think that Mrs. Steenkamp behaved in court with great dignity. If I had been her I don’t know if I would’ve been able to resist the urge to hurl vicious insults at Pistorius across the courtroom or try and throttle him or something. I even feel sympathy for Eugene de Kock who, I was told, seriously contemplated killing me at one point. I feel some sympathy for him for the simple fact that so many other people should have gone to jail too who are living in splendid retirement in the Western Cape who have at least as much blood on their hands as he does because they ordered the stuff, you know. People like Magnus Malan, who was in charge of the death squads. I mean God knows how many horrors he committed, and they were premeditated. There’s a great line from George Orwell who says that if you have a political motive for killing then it makes murder respectable.

CP: Have you read Reeva’s mother’s book?

JC: No I haven’t. I just finished the monumentally difficult task of finishing my own Pistorius book Garreth, give me a chance mate.

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