A pair with PMB interest

2010-11-03 00:00


Writing for Salvation, and Private Excavations

David Robbins

Porcupine Press

THESE two paperbacks, written and published as a pair, are described by the author as “the closest I’ll ever come to writing autobiography”.

For that reason, they will be of especial interest to Maritzburgers who knew Robbins when he lived here.

However, this “closeness to autobiography” is a little disturbing, especially in Writing, as much of the book consists of a short novel written in the past by the narrator (= author?) and presented in sporadic excerpts within the more openly autobiographical framework of the book.

The tormented protagonist of the “inner” novel, Oliver, is labelled as the narrator’s alter ego; and the task of separating — or reconciling — Oliver­ from/with the narrator is not easy.

Doubtless it is not meant to be.

Both Oliver’s and the narrator’s experiences are deeply embedded in South African places and events: Oliver’s in Durban and Bloemfontein in the highly troubled Sixties, the narrator’s in the Eighties. The book thus provides a graphic portrait of the country in the throes of its various convulsions.

Oliver also becomes involved with two very different women — Lynette in Durban, intense, mysterious, with an interracial affair in her background and a deadly illness hanging over her, and Hester in Bloemfontein, a young Afrikaans woman who represents all those uprooted from rural homes and landed in dreary peri-urban squalor. Hester proves to be “grounded” in a way that neither Oliver nor Lynette are. And around their stories lies the narrator’s more recent but partly similar experiences, forming a sort of pilgrimage as he tracks the fates of his fictitious characters.

Excavations appears to be actual autobiography, and describes Robbins’s quest to track down his ancestral roots in Lutheran Pietism, first in Germany then in Sweden and Norway.

The book is partially a travel-book, and takes the reader on a memorable journey through Berlin, then Stockholm and rural Sweden, and finally the west coast of Norway. Along the way are probing discussions of historical events (Nazism, the German occupation of Norway) and of artists, notably Strindberg in Sweden and Munch in Norway, and Robbins’ examinations of some of their works is of great artistic interest.

I found this second book far more satisfying than the first: it is challenging, deeply felt and culturally rich, with a cohesiveness that is not easily found in Writing.

Both books, it must be said, are not easy: they are deadly earnest and utterly humourless. But Robbins is dealing with matters of intense personal concern to him, writes eloquently, and clearly does not favour a light touch.

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