BOOK OF THE WEEK: A collection of insightful short stories

2008-07-30 00:00

The Garden of Bad Dreams is a collection of short stories by prolific South African writer, Christopher Hope. Cumulatively — with their casts of variously disturbed, damaged, dislocated and dispensable individuals — the stories, intelligent and finely crafted as they are, are deeply troubling, offering a bleak view of humanity, a view by no means SAfrocentric, since only four of the stories have South African locations.

The title story, “The Garden of Bad Dreams”, is set in Budapest, where a man, dubbed the Collector, is attempting to resurrect the Hungarian Dwarf Theatre which flourished in the 1930’s before the vertically challenged were perceived as subhuman and essentially eliminated by the Nazis and their successors, the Soviet “Liberators”. The Collector spends his time bent on locating midgets whom he intends to reintroduce as the performers they once were, before intolerant supermen arrived with their ideologies and statuary, the latter now safely herded and huddled into a theme park, the “garden of bad dreams.”

If the Collector, in this story, feels he has a mission, so too, in “St Francis in the Veld”, does the farmer, Tookie De Tromp, who becomes obsessive about supplying and maintaining toilet facilities for itinerant sheep-shearers. To a lesser extent, Nathan Swirsky, in “Veterans”, is of the opinion that World War 2 ex-servicemen in South Africa, whatever their hue, are entitled to wear remnants of their tunics and to engage in marching and saluting activities.

Two powerful pieces involve zoos. In the discomforting “Whose Zoo”, set in an unnamed city, the question of the value of life — both animal and human — is raised; and in “Gus”, an iconic gorilla in the Johannesburg zoo defies death and wins public adulation and the devotion of a former priest in a world where the worshipful are in short supply.

Insightful — and not without a teasing quality — Hope’s are stories one will want to return to.

Moira Lovell

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