A lively literary delight

2012-04-18 00:00

SOMETIMES when you read a book, you know the author had fun writing it. The tone, the humour and the sheer exuberance all shout it out. Jenny Hobbs wrote The Miracle of Crocodile Flats (reviewed below) before Kitchen Boy , which was published first, coming out last year. This year’s novel was written at a time when Hobbs’s life was difficult and she wanted to cheer herself up.

“I had been thinking about it since the nineties — I had a huge file of clippings on religious visions and so on. After I had written it, I thought it was quite jolly and submitted it to a friend who is a publisher, and he passed it on to a writer I also know. He said to me: ‘It’s not your best work’. I went home with my tail between my legs, and started Kitchen Boy .”

But even after a reader for an overseas publisher had given The Miracle of Crocodile Flats another thumbs down, Hobbs felt sure there was something in it. “I worked hard on it, honed it and honed it, and I enjoyed it.” Now the effort has paid off, and the book is out there, entertaining reviewers and the public alike.

The satire, particularly at the expense of the outer fringes of the religious establishment as well as the media, is biting, but the final image the book leaves is a happy one. It may not be entirely probable, but we are in the world of make-believe here.

I ask Hobbs about her happy ending. “Yes, it started as a satire on religious excess, and a look at a sad South African village. But I got so fond of the characters that I felt they had to have a happy ending,” she says. And they deserve it.

Or at least some do. Hobbs cheerfully admits to her political incorrectness and fun at the expense of some of the more extreme manifestations of religious fervour, such as the Prophet Hallelujah (though his wife, Violet, is allowed to be a likeable character) and the nastier nuns. “Doris Lessing in her autobiography, wrote about the ‘cold, sweet, cruelty of the nuns’ at the convent she went to. I’ve never forgotten that,” says Hobbs. And she deliberately wrote a book with a lot of humour, something she feels South Africans need badly.

One question Hobbs has been asked several times is exactly where is Crocodile Flats, apart from being in the country of the imagination. It has no exact location — somewhere dry and dusty. “It’s in the middle of the country, somewhere between Johannesburg and Cape Town,” says Hobbs. And if the odd word of Zulu creeps in, well that reflects her own background in KwaZulu-Natal.

Hobbs shows no sign of retiring — there is more writing in the pipeline, and all she will say is that she wants to write a different book each time.

And there is also the Franschoek Literary Festival, coming up from May 11 to May 13. Hobbs has been deeply involved with the festival from its first inception — this is the sixth year it has run.

There is an enticing line-up of writers who will be in conversation with each other in seven venues, and in the week before the festival, the Franschoek area will host a book week for young readers, with 46 local children’s authors going into schools in the Franschoek Valley.

“Every child in the valley, and there are over 4 000, will hear a writer reading or talking,” says Hobbs. It is all part of a project to get South Africans reading, whether they are young or old, traditional festival goers or students. The Franschoek Literary Festival’s ongoing project is to build a community library, so it is fun for a good cause — both things that are close to Hobbs’s heart.

• For more information on the Franschoek Literary Festival, visit www.flf.co.za

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