Sunday, April 10, 2011

". . . my shells have disappeared into a labyrinth, an underground maze. . ."

The Book of Happenstance
By Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from Afrikaans by Dick and Ingrid Winterbach
254 pages
Open Letter Press
June 14, 2011





They have become dispersed, entangled in a densely woven network, intertwined and enmeshed with the fate of Constable Modisane in Musina, with Jayckie and Patrick Steinmeier, with Sparrow and Fish and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and with the home-industry shop in Ladybrand - where they are subjected daily to multiple metamorphoses.

Ingrid Winterbach is a South African artist and award-winning novelist. Her previous book, To Hell with Cronjé, was released in English by Open Letter Press last year.

Helena Verbloem is a fiftysomething lexicographer and disillusioned writer. She is staying in Durban for the year to assist in the assembly of a dictionary of Afrikaans words that have fallen from use. Her boss is Theo Verwey, a married man with whom she is in love. Working at the Museum of Natural History also introduces her to experts who humor her interests in evolution and the origin of life. Meanwhile, the bulk of her prized shell collection has been burglarized from her apartment and she is getting strange calls from a Freek van As, who wishes to continue a conversation they apparently had about Plato some thirty years ago. She has no idea who he is.

The present events in Helena's life all have their roots in the dictionary project, which prompted her move to Durban where she met various people and her shells were stolen. Everything grows from there to their own undetermined conclusions. As with To Hell with Cronjé, the vastness of geological time is a strong undercurrent to the characters' various doings, although instead of a war, we have the day-to-day concerns of Helena Verbloem, who wonders at her place in the grand scheme of things. The network of occurrences over the course of a single year parallels the sequence of coincidences that result in such miracles as human consciousness, the mathematical beauty of the shell, and the ongoing development of language as it sheds words and grows new ones. At its very core, The Book of Happenstance is a novel about the phenomenon of life itself.

Unfortunately, I found myself with the same dilemma that Silence in October introduced: that of the limits of art in movement. Both books focus exclusively on well-to-do individuals with an intellectual bent that places their first-person narration in the context of bigger topics. The problem is how to sustain the reader's interest in a story about ordinary contemporary people (in cultures similar to your own). Helena's scientific outlook at least more grants her more awareness of her own triviality than Grøndahl's self-indulgent art historian. Despite the quirkiness of her voice and the contemplative themes, The Book of Happenstance drags itself out and may be a chore to finish. To Hell with Cronjé is a much better choice.





Review Copy




3 comments:

Richard said...

Not to second guess you but I don't quite understand your observation here: do you really think that the problem was the author not being able to engage you with a story about "ordinary contemporary people"? I think good authors do that all the time. Maybe it had something to do with the storytelling instead?

Geosi said...

I see you did not so much enjoy this one. However, I may want to read thins. Thanks.

E. L. Fay said...

Richard: That's an interesting thought. I think writing a story about ordinary people living ordinary lives is probably more difficult than writing about something extraordinary. The author has to work harder to sustain the reader's interest. So maybe it was Winterbach's storytelling. She had some great ideas and there were moments when I really did enjoy the book, but the overall plot was dull and the prose, while quite good, didn't have that poetic pull that carried Silence in October for a good while (although in the end, it was just too long as well). Does that make sense?

Geosi: Well, I hope you like it better than I did. But like I said, To Hell with Cronjé is the far better of the two.

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