~The Cricket Bat and the Porcupine~
A Story in Three Parts
...which began life as a short blog on my book tour to South Africa in Spring 2012 and became a kind of blogelogue of a homecoming...
Part Two: Cape Town
En route to O. R. Thambo airport, we stop in to do an interview for a Jewish radio station. A glimpse of a bright, curious, sub-culture tucked behind a kosher butchery in the Northern suburbs of Jo'burg. I'd like to switch places and interview them.
Landing in Cape Town I am reminded, once again, of the city's intense beauty. On the approach I see the dry ridges of the Limietberge where my family has retreated every Christmas for as long as I can remember. It remains my favourite place on earth. It is where we go to be quiet.
This time I have a different purpose.
The Cape Town launch of RHUMBA takes place in a wonderful independent bookshop called The Book Lounge. In my humble opinion it is one of the great bookshops of the world. A place to browse, learn, buy...to sit and read downstairs with tea and coffee on hand. It is the hub of the reading community in this city and this time the interviewer is indeed there, along with friends family and curious others.
I once had dinner with a Harvard intellectual and author of a seminal book on culture, during which he and his friend, an eminent fine artist, discussed the artist's newest work. It was a riveting, tough, conversation and although it was very clear the Harvard Academic was ambivalent about the work, every phrase that came out of his mouth advanced the thinking of the artist in a lucid way. It was not HIS own brilliance that was on display, it was his understanding of the work and how it could grow. Granted, this may not have been the case had the conversation been in a more public forum, but it certainly remained for me, a model of genuine discourse.
It did not prepare me for what was to follow in this beautiful bookshop in Cape Town. The interviewer (who I know to be a lovely person) now sat beside me in front of the very full room and whispered something somewhat gladiatorial along the lines of, push back as much as you like...she said...Cape Town book launches are dull, dull, dull. And she then launched into a bewildering series of questions, or were they questions? Hard to know with the buzzing in my ears, they seemed more like a stream of consciousness critique. In the peculiarity of the moment all I could think was, Why would she want me to push her? Is the heel of her shoe stuck between the floorboards?
Later, she told me her training in England had instilled in her this adversarial style. I wanted to tell her I had just had the most tender, celebratory night of my life at my book launch amongst the literary establishment in that same country very probably educated at her alma mater.
It seems equitable, in this modest context, that both the writer and the critic be held to some sort of account. A book launch is a celebration, a bar mitzvah, a birth. There can and must be content but literary jousting is better reserved for a more adversarial platform. To conflate the two serves neither.
I do finally fight my way through the ringing in my ears until I can at least comprehend what she is asking me and when I read the opening chapter I am myself reminded of its value.
When I get home to my hotel I wipe the tear streams of mascara off my cheeks and I email my very brilliant editor Shomit Mitter. I tell him that I'm kind of shaky from the absent academic experience followed quickly on by the encounter with the gladiator and he writes the following life-saving email in his beautiful Indian English.
'When you buy a new cricket bat, you have to hit it with a wooden hammer. In fact they sell you the hammer with the bat, so necessary is it to "break the bat in". The harder you hit the bat, the stronger it gets, the more easily the ball flies to the boundary when you hit it...
By the time the Cape Town hadedah's (less raucous than the Jo'burg variety but then Jo'burg is altogether more Darwinian) have shrieked their shriek the following morning I write to tell him that not only am I armed with my cricket bat. I AM the cricket bat, and he says...
But more: you are the player and the bat! You are in this for the long haul - you are training to go into a bigger league with your new book. Know that.
I hold onto that idea as if my life depends on it. And, who knows, maybe it does?
The interview with the Independent on Sunday takes place over breakfast and it begins with the reporter's confession that she hated Knight (my main man and sort of redemptive hero of the book who just about everybody loves) so I don't anticipate an easy ride in those pages either. She also tells me she is presenting a paper at an academic conference that weekend on the subject of sapeurs (of which Knight is one) and just doesn't see the verity of my characterization. Cricket bat...cricket bat...cricket bat.
I wonder if academics and novelists are the same species, really, for the first time in my life I wonder that. Perhaps it is only the great ones from either camp that have elevated one another?
Part 3 to follow next week...