Politics and pandemics

2009-07-22 00:00

IMRAAN Coovadia’s third novel, High Low In-between (reviewed on this page) has just been published. The author spoke to Margaret von Klemperer.


MvK: I found an extraordinary change of tone from you in this book. I suppose I was expecting something more like Green Eyed Thieves but this is much darker. I even had to put it aside after I started so that I could clear my mind of preconceptions, and then start again.

IC: You’re right. There is a change of tone. These crazy things were happening to people around me when I was writing it. People were getting sick, some even seemed to be dying. But it’s not a stylistic change, more a change of feelings. It was disconcerting. My emotions were much weirder, maybe not properly controlled even. Looking back, I’m not sure I knew what I was doing when I wrote it.

MvK: I found the character of Nafisa a very moving study of bereavement. Where did she come from — was it a personal experience?

IC: I read Joan Didion’s wonderful The Year of Magical Thinking, and that influenced Nafisa: that situation of feeling she was just around the corner from her husband after his death. She is also sort of based on a character in a short story I published five years ago. Someone I knew, the father of someone close to me had died, and that experience of watching someone die came into it.

MvK: Politics play a large part in the book: the politics of Aids; the internal politics of the University of KZN, even though it’s never named, although to anyone living here it’s very recognisable; the politics of contemporary South Africa. Are these things you feel strongly about?

IC: To start with the university — well, at UCT I’m on the academic e-mail, and there’s a lot of stuff there. And there has been a lot in the newspapers. I had all this material, and I was trying to group it as neatly as possible — the UKZN stuff, Aids denialism, ideas about African nationalism.

I grew up as a child in that university community, and it was a very strong institution. Maybe it will be strong again, but it’s the meaninglessness of what has gone on, with nobody profiting from it. That’s what I wanted to get across. In South Africa, politics and institutions are more unpredictable than they were five years ago. That’s what I was thinking during the (Thabo) Mbeki era. The meaningless destructiveness.

When it comes to the political situation in the country, maybe it was a risk to write what I did. It lost me my squash partner because he got angry. He felt my take was wrong and reductive. But what I’m saying is that characters, like Nafisa, are nostalgic for the life they had in the past, not for the past itself.

It was the way the South African left worked in the apartheid past. People were very idealistic, emotionally involved, and that gave them a sense of security, a togetherness. It made them feel much better, even in terrible times. Now, without that, surviving something much more minor makes you feel much worse. It’s inevitable: the political process never works out the way you think it will.

MvK: There is certainly humour in High Low In-between, but it is much less funny than your earlier books. Will you be taking a lighter tone in future writing?

IC: I’m working on something now that will be more humorous, not dealing with such dark subjects. But I suppose my sense of humour isn’t the same as it was when I was 25.

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