For the fan of the short story form, this African Pens 2011 anthology may well be the continent’s bible of the genre. The short story is no longer the forte of dead writers like Can Themba, Herman Charles Bosman, RRR Dhlomo, Bertha Goudvis and their contemporaries.
African Pens 2011 brings the short story back to life, if there ever were doubts about the prognosis of the genre. The collection published by Jacana Media, brings together the winning stories and finalists from the 2011 PEN/Studzinski Literary Awards, which were announced in May 2011. Renowned author, J.M. Coetzee selected the winners.
I read the first story last. It is titled, well, yes, The Story! I found it to be just a story, really; a story about a pending story. It won because the inimitable JM Coetzee said so. It won because it was penned by the magical James Whyle.
In my book, though, William Oosthuizen’s The Ticket comes out trumps. It is a touching story of a virtually destitute pair of Cape Flats, Cape Town, brothers who live with an indifferent aunt whose only interest in them is sparked by their holding a winning lottery ticket in their grubby under-aged hands.
Once everybody in the neighborhoods gets to hear about the brothers’ fortune – the younger one is wheelchair-bound, they become like hunted prey. The cat-and-mouse chase that ensues ends badly at the end of a gangster’s bullet and shreds of the winning ticket torn to shreds by the grieving older brother and falling like confetti over the dying younger sibling.
Kyne Nislev Bernstoff contributes a beautiful piece called Parking the Guilt. What do we really know about the car guards at the shopping malls, the men who smile endlessly at us, almost obsequiously, even as we glance past them?
Many of them, like the characters in Bernstoff’s contribution, are good old humble folk with a painful past they wish to forget. If we took just a little time off our hectic shopping schedule to chat, we’d find they are not the ogres our xenophobic myopia makes them out to be.
The Sunday Paper by Rosamund Kendal, one of the five stories that Coetzee said they “deserve honourable mention” is another literary beauty. Once or twice I have suffered the degradation of wishing to pinch a newspaper from the bundle left outside the corner café in the early morning. Well, I have banished that evil thought from my head! Kendal has given me a picture of the identity of the man whose duty it is to leave those newspapers there and after understanding his plight, thanks to Kendal’s pen, I plan to guard those papers with my life, from now on.
As with the car guards in the above-mentioned short story, Michael, the bookshop owner in Man Dies Alone, has a past, albeit wretched. He’s killed people in a war he claims he was forced into and has come into this little town to an equally claustrophobic book store, to escape this very past.
If it is indeed true that children go berserk inside a toy store; if you are a lover of good writing, your excitement over these 22 works of literary art is likely to overshadow your child’s antics around Barbie and Ben 10.
Editor’s Note: African Pens 2011 is run by South African Pen, the local chapter of PEN , a non-political organisation representing writers of the world, defending free-expression and encouraging literature.
© makatilemedia 07/2011