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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Focus on Dave Chislett

A Body RememberedMusic journalist Dave Chislett has written a book. Or: the doyen of Joburg alternative culture has assembled over a dozen of short stories he has written over the last fifteen years and with the help of Ge’ko publishers has turned them into a collection.

Chislett himself would prefer the second depiction, because one of the reasons for him to publish this anthology, he stresses repeatedly, is that he’s eager to move away from the limiting label ‘music writer’.

“I do a lot more than that and always have’, he says in a coffee shop in Linden, not far from his flat. “I far rather have people know me as a writer who does music and other things as well. I’m interested in so many other crazy things that I don’t wanna get stuck as a music writer.”

Despite the typos and self-published look, the fifteen stories from A Body Remembered make for a riveting, if dark read. Chislett writes about desperate housewives and erotic fantasies with fatal endings; he describes Kafka-esque nightmares; he reworks myths and revels in twilight scenes and shady joints where anything can happen and nothing is strange.

Most of it is written from the point of view of various dispassionate characters whose interior monologues and streams of consciousness Chislett tries to capture in words. And although there’s very little music in the book, most of the stories do have a rock & roll feel, with lots of late night/early morning fatigue and emptiness. The overriding theme is that of people feeling trapped – in their body, in their mind, in their place of work, in their existence -, which makes it a rather bleak book for someone who comes across as jovial and gregarious and who goes out of his way to help others.

He laughs and emphasizes that the stories are not autobiographical. “But that disengagement is a function of me, as someone who grew up in a place and time where I’d never thought I’d fit. I grew up as a privileged white South African being told to fuck off and go home by Afrikaans kids because I wasn’t wanted. And I was exposed to that same mindset by black people when I went to university. Then I travelled back to England, where my family comes from, and realised that I didn’t fit there either because of me growing up here. So I came back to South Africa and tried to find a way of making myself belong.”

The waitress arrives with our coffee. Chislett takes a sip. “There’s a psycho-emotional component to this as well,” he continues. “I’m the youngest of five children, so I’ve always been on the fringes when I was growing up. As a social being I’m what I call a ‘satellite friend’. I don’t have one great group of mates that I’m the middle of. I have lots of groups that I rotate between. That disengagement is part of that.”

Some stories work better than others. The vacuous housewife in Maid of Honour is too clichéd to be gripping. As a reader you’re waiting for the twist, but it never comes. Chislett shrugs. “It’s about the role available to women, but also about the fuck up of living in the northern suburbs behind high walls. Her husband is as much a cliché as she is, working all the time, doesn’t give a shit about the kids. As you drive through those northern parts of Joburg, you wonder if these people who live there have an idea what complex to drive into, because they all look so identical. They are battery farms for yuppies. It’s disgusting architecture, not suited to our climatic conditions, poorly built on areas with no infrastructure. This is the ideal world that’s being sold to us. It’s what you must aspire to. That scares me a lot, because it’s turning our rainbow nation into a nation of grey people.’

Two stories are very different. Cerebus and Waiting for the God-Boat both have surprising religious overtones. One is about a priest who “acts as the guardian of a hell hole”, in this case a shopping mall. The other is about a priest waiting to die. These sacrosanct references sound strange coming from someone who is a self-confessed anarchist.

“I grew up in a fairly religious household”, explains Chislett. “My mother is still a firm church goer and I became a server. I got confirmed, Anglican. Then I went to high school and discovered rock and roll and walked away form all of that and never looked back. I spent three years studying philosophy at university and got very interested in counter culture and literary anti-social activities and thoughts. But one of the things I do like to do is play with myth and meaning. There’s a lot of mythology that I rework, but I don’t always use mythological identifiers. In those two cases I’ve used Christian religious ones instead.’

So he lost his religion. And a couple of years ago Chislett also lost his belief in the irreverent alternative lifestyle as an engine for change. “I no longer believe in the rock and roll dream or that being a anti-social outcast is having any kind of effect and would change anything for the better,” says the man whose occasional leather jacket and huge tattoos serve as signifiers of his punky past. “Commercial culture has way too efficiently subsumed and absorbed youth culture for that to ever be the case. The revolution did never happen. The hippies never took over the world, the punks never did.”

He admits that ‘the underground man’ is actually just as boring and stuck in his ways as your average office clerk or suburban housewife. All of whom feature in his stories, and all of whom seem equally unhappy. It’s all about living the lie, says Chislett. “Being a punk or a yuppie or whatever, is fundamentally underpinned by a series of lies that suit other people and not you. And by adhering strictly to a punk or alternative lifestyle you’re buying a series of stories that are no more true than any other story. So yes, there is a lot of disillusionment in there, even in the ones that do resonate with my lifestyle, because I no longer belief in those things.”

So what does he believe in? He orders another coffee, thinks for a while and harks back to the interbellum when French authors Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were the rage and wrote masterpieces such as The Plague and Nausea. “I guess if you’d call me anything, you’d call me an existentialist. I don’t believe there is an inherent meaning out there. And if one’s actions are not designed to give meaning, existence can be completely meaningless. Look at modern life: if they’re not drugging yourself with tv, drugs, alcohol or extreme sex most people live lives that are very mundane. A lot of stories toy with those ideas. It’s about western civilisation. We’ve divorced out intellect from our spirituality and physicality to such an extend that many people seem to inhabit either one or other of those things and are bad at reconciling the three.”

Reading those dystopian stories and hearing Chislett talk leaves you with slightly weary feeling. Here’s this relatively young writer, someone who once believed in alternative rock as a unifying force, someone who still has a lot of belief in the country, someone who is always full of ideas, energy and plans for the future. And yet he comes out with a collection that paints a decidedly detached, pessimistic picture of human kind.

He nods. ‘My message is not about belonging to anything like this at all, but much more about the pursuit of personal meaning.’

“Sjoe,” I say.

“Yeah, hahaha,” he laughs.


1970 Born in Johannesburg

1991 Plays bass guitar for punk band The General Woodheads

1994 Freelance journalist for print, tv and radio

1994 Moves to the UK

1997 Client liaison officer for ESPN Legends

1998 Moves to Cape Town

1998 Wins Ernst Van Heerden Creative Writing Award for short story: Pinstripe Punk

1999 Web editor for iafrica

2000 Web editor M-Web

2001 Launches Urban 1, short stories by unpublished SA writers

2002 Marketing communications manager New Africa Books

2002 Launches Urban 2

2003 Project manager The Cake Group in London

2003 Launches Urban 3

2004 Senior accounts manager Adele Lucas Promotions

2005 Senior manager for PR bureau DCPM

2009 Publishes A Body Remembered (Ge’ko)


Henry Rollins: “Never gave up, never sold out. Changed his game to go with the times. What energy and power!”; David Bowie: “The ultimate chameleon and trend setter.” Ian Banks: “The man is a writing machine!” Philip K Dick: “Sci fi of the interior!” Martin Amis: “Who said post modern literature couldn’t be popular?” TS Elliot: “A master of words and deeper meanings.”

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