Denis Hirson, The House Next Door to Africa

I went to bed early last night as a result of the email reminding me of my under-performance at school. Besides the lunch date with Rea in Melville, mulled over by a mixture of inane 90’s music, the day was pretty bland. I would go into how badly I did on my exam, but that would only serve to ratify Geff’s disapproval of indulgence in books, having spent the two hours before the exams with my head buried behind the chunky Indaba, My Children instead of practicing the code.

The chill kept creeping under my bones. “Mom… I’m hungry…” My motherly instincts would not let me go on dozing while he goes hungry. His hands were freezing, and he kept touching my worm self trying to stir me awake. First to switch the laptop on for him, then to help launch Skyrim – which he has figured out all on his own (took me three days).

Denis Hirson’s The House Next Door to Africa was on top of the seven book stack on my rusty-red up-done side table. I needed to read, I needed to forget about yesterday and mum over my decision to go into hiding once again. I bought the copy from a Pietermaritzburg book dealer for Moses Nzama Khaizen Mtileni and could not get of him to deliver, and then he couldn’t get hold of me to collect.

But sooner or later a god bursts out, or a lost soul starts pounding to be let in, or a band of angels arrive on a cloud. The doors slide open and the echo wakes up, restlessly wondering where it came from, and what all that noise is about outside.

The opening passage drew me in, more than anything because the god in me refuses to go back to sleep. Mbongeni Ngema’s Stimela Sam Sase Zola started playing on cue as I typed this sentence. Just as the only name mentioned in The First Sense, which I read yesterday morning when I awoke, was his. Here I am trying to let go of fate, to forget that last unanswered phone call I made.

Hirson, in the first book – Path, goes into the history of a family dating back to Great-grandmother Dvorah, who obviously was not South African. She must have suffered from a mental illness because she kept forgetting where she leaves her handbag and blaming the black maid. She also forgets about her homesick son and treats her daughter as a sibling.

From Grandfather Joe, who must have been older when the family left Palestine because he remembers so vividly his people, we get a sense of just how far back the culture of reading goes. If he is not in his workshop fixing, he is on his chair with his eyes looking down into a book – he could also be sleeping, who knows?

Many parts of this book I feel are told as one would expand on a photograph hanging on an otherwise dull wall. Finding Grandfather Zalman’s experience with the war, most intriguing. I’m still trying to figure out how Denis pieced it together, since Aunty Essie does not tell of that time. His Russia – Palestine experience, of ditch-living and men falling at every side from wound or hunger, reminds me much of the Biafra, perhaps because Beasts of No Nation is a fresh stain on my mind.

The books are laid out on the ground, opened in the middle, and set alight at all four corners. With sticks we turn the burning pages. The paper crisps and curves upwards, words shine in the spreading blot of darkness as flame licks them to cinder and lifts a few into the sky.

Not a single word must remain. When there are only red filaments crinkling at the edges of the pages, we batter the books softly into a heap of ash.

The ash is then mixed with earth and humus and carried off in a wheelbarrow to be fed to the plants and trees. Each Sunday we carry the ash to a different part of the garden, till it has nourished everything that grows there.

The above passage from the second book – Window, broke my heart. A year ago the NERDAFRICA Foundation was a just starting out and we had received a hundreds of book donations which we were to distribute to disadvantaged communities, and I had stored them in every nook and cranny of my small back room. One morning my mother came in, she had started a fire in the braai stand under the lapa and insisted I burn all the books that I had stored in the yard as they were eating up space. That was probably harder for me than having her snatch my diary and read it all those years ago. That was the last diary I kept.

You know how the coming of the missionaries (Sunday) was preceded by the burning of all that we were, all that we knew. How the tongues of our historians were cut out, their eyes speared through? How when we searched and longed for meaning came Jesus to nourish our souls.

The book goes into the coming of the Dutch, and the trek north. Of how “There [was] no one else on the land they cross[ed], though every now and then they c[a]me across a kraal with a black king in it who ha[d] a lot of wives lying on floors made of dung and ox-blood.” There is also the shimmering light of those who were shunned because they recognized South African artists in exile who longed for home and used their art to let the rest of the world know of the condition of their people.

Watcher is the title of the third book, which I found roused much emotion. Here Denis’ father, a lover of books, is detained for conspiring against the apartheid government. My best friend spent most of her school years seeing her father behind the cold walls of a prison, where she would go up to collect beautifully done birthday cards and share cake on her birthday, Denis could come home for brief visits on such days.

The book starts off with a scene from the Sharpville Massacre, only Denis – who is now in high school, encounters it from one of his father’s books. I can’t help wonder if the elections have prompted politician to finally open the Sharpville Human Rights Precinct to the public. He also experiences the toll of the system on the black man, when he while visiting his black woman in the backroom of his white master let’s her feel the wrath of his frustration. I’m probably a selective reader because there is so much to the book than remnants of my own experiences. Yet again, what is art if it not your own?

Sarafina! etv cinemas

I found a scene from the Fees Must Fall movement in the last book – Watched, except it was Sarafina. Before Denis goes to university he follows in the footsteps of his great-grandfather and undertakes military training. I think that was the fate of young men at the time, to take up the responsibility of protecting their country. Denis hated it though. He hated it so much that time in a prison cell would have been better.

Black university students had been detained at John Foster Square. Denis and other white students marched there to make a call that the students be charged or released. I don’t think he understood the relevance of the march. They arrived there and were brought into the prison and kept for a couple of hours before being released. The black students, as awkward as their presence at the university, were never the same.

The further back we go, the more certain were some people of our coming.

I utterly enjoyed the book, especially because it picked up bits and pieces and would jump in and out of eras. I loved it because it did not impose a story on me, but let me, in my amused confusion, find my way. I loved it most because it made me realise that as much as no one can ever take away from us what we have felt in our living, we it is always the tale that we pass on from generation to generation, never the emotion in the tale.

Why do our memories appear only as a backwash of the wave? Does the sea have only a single shore?


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