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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Franschhoek Literary Festival as a Satire

The Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) is not a book fest, it’s a tribute to the old style Writer, a celebration of the ancient Analogue world. It’s an event that offers the Men and Women of Letters, those who’ve swayed and sweated for years, a revitalising bath, some wholesome food and a heartfelt pat on the back. For a few days they are fêted and allowed to bask in the glow of admiring readers in a beautiful town, surrounded by blue mountains and endless vineyards. After that it’s back to the harsh reality of a life behind a desk, with the odd teaching or editing job to supplement a meager income, waiting for the inevitably disappointing royalty cheque. Franschhoek Literary Festival is a lament to a rapidly disappearing form of art. FLF is a pleasant, comforting bubble.

That was more or less what went through my mind as I strolled along the tree lined streets, past all the faux-French (and occasionally misspelled) culinary delights and saw the glowing faces of the Authors and the stiffly excited crowd of mainly middle-aged white women who were happy to meet heroes such as Barbara Trapido, Michiel Heyns, Etienne van Heerden, Mike Nicol, Tim Couzens and of course Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin and Scottish author Janice Galloway.

It’s not yet in the same league as juskei, but somehow FLF conjured images of gents and ladies playing croquet, dignified yet archaic. Sure, there were attempts at something more hip and trendy. I saw Zapiro walking around, which usually means there is something about cartoons. One of the forums discussed our new mishmash language, labelled ‘lekker English’. And I attended a discussion loosely based around the question why young blacks don’t read (although the organisers were hesitant to phrase it like that and called it ‘Young, Black and Reading’), a hot topic that was fortified by the fact that there were no eager black kids in attendance. The participants talked excitedly about ‘R50 romances’ for the townships and short stories you can download through Mxit onto your cell phone. And if you comment on the story you will get free airtime. Wow. But will it promote a culture of reading? Somehow it sounded like that cunning theory that Sun readers will eventually pick up the Mail&Guardian.

There were sincere worries about a lowering of quality and standards. Whatever happened to the serious book review? The Sunday Independent doesn’t pay its reviewers anymore, so they’ve lost respected critics like Michiel Heyns, while Tymon Smith of The Times admitted that his paper prefers the ‘re-interview’ (a journalistic monstrosity that lives somewhere between uncritical review and shallow interview) to a thorough review. The virus also seems to be affecting the higher echelons of learning. As Stellenbosch University academic Leon de Kock wryly observed: ‘The UCT creative writing course has produced a lot of not so great books.’

Later I spoke with one of the ‘new black voices’ Sifiso Mzobe, who hails from Umlazi, quotes Salman Rushdie as his hero and has written Young Blood, a novel about car hijackers, which has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. So dire is the book situation in the townships that he sometimes stands on an Umlazi street corner to sell his books. So far he has sold about 150.

Hijackers, skop skiet en donner, romance, urban blight, science fiction, fantasy and horror, those seem to be the subgenres that might get young readers interested in books. But will they? And will they subsequently make the jump to the more demanding ‘literary’ works? ‘Kids don’t read’, said Mzobe. ‘Maybe they don’t have time, maybe it’s not cool.’

No time, not cool… In a recent interview with The Guardian English author Martin Amis noted that ‘the long read is a dying art’, because ‘there are so many claims on our attention. Very literate people admit they can’t read books any more. And just as the literate brain is physically different to the illiterate brain, the digitally savvy brain is different again. It’s a physiological change, not just a moral one.’

The digital age has given us excess of access, where the ‘desire’ to find anything tangible (a record, a book, a magazine) has been replaced with ‘drive’ to just keep going, to keep tweeting, blogging, uploading, surfing, downloading, facebooking, to keep on keeping on – a kind of addictive kill-time that has replaced the time consuming proper digestion of culture. As cultural theorist Simon Reynolds put it in June issue of Wire magazine: ‘More primal and basic than desire, drive is associated with repetition and regression: it’s not the quest for the (impossible) object that will fill lack, but a kind of enactment of loss itself.’

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Payment, Now!

It has become something of a regular feature: a mail in the in-box with a request for a free contribution for some kind of publication, presentation, talk or website. Usually I ignore them, except when I know the sender of the request well, and his or her idea truly appeals.

This time was different. The request came from Boekehuis, that cosy little book shop in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. The sender explained that the ten year anniversary of Boekehuis would be celebrated with the publication of a book about Johannesburg. ‘Readers, dreamers, gold diggers and Joburgers’, we were all invited to submit a story, poem, essay or whatever that captivates our passion for the city. A panel of ‘experts’ would then choose whose contribution would qualify for publication.

Now apart from the question if the world is waiting for yet another work on Johannesburg, there were some bits in this request that made me raise my eyebrows. There was, for example, no mention of who these ‘experts’ are. There was no mention of who would publish this work. And there was no mention of any remuneration.

Since Boekehuis is part and parcel of Naspers, one would assume that Naspers will supply/appoint the experts and publish the book through one of its imprints. So far so good. But if this is indeed the case, why is there no indication of any kind of the fee for those lucky enough to have been selected for the end product, which, one assumes, will not be given away for free. Or does this mean that there’ll be no payment whatsoever? That the chosen ones must go on their knees and whisper ‘we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy’ and count themselves truly lucky to have been selected by this elusive panel of experts and to be part of this Joburg book?

Naspers, as we all know, is not some struggling independent publisher, but a gigantic commercial enterprise that owns numerous newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, on-line companies and has huge international interests – in China, Brazil and Russia to name but a few. So if they will indeed publish this ‘Ten Years Boekehuis’ book, why on earth would they not pay the contributors a decent fee?

And this raises some other pertinent matters – because Naspers/Boekehuis aren’t the only chancers. Half the world seems to think that writers and journalists do their trade as a hobby, that they all fall for the idea that ‘it is good for your name’ to be seen in this or that publication. Immortality guaranteed. Or as the editor of an academic book that used one of my pieces replied, when I asked about payment: ‘No, but you’ll be invited for international conferences.’ Yeah, right. Still waiting.

The writer, it seems, is seen as a friendly, generous and/or vain person with a well-paid job, who is happy to spend a few hours racking his/her brains and then typing it out, simply to hold the hard copy that contains his effort as a trophy. Either that, or he’s seen as a struggling loser who is so satisfied with his ‘bohemian’ (read: poor) lifestyle that he doesn’t care about money. So naturally he must do things for free.

Truth is that it’s this kind of attitude that is busy knocking writing back to the old days when it was a gentlemanly profession, with only the rich having the wherewithal to do it full-time; or a pleasant past-time for talented housewives with well-to-do husbands. A self-fulfilling prophecy if we, writers, poets, essayists, journalists, don’t learn to say ‘NO’, or ‘YES, BUT…’

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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.”

Book details

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Breytenbach Turns Seventy

Breyten Breytenbach… For three generations of young South Africans even the shadow of a whisper of the name felt like a forbidden fruit. Writer Fanie de Villiers (1956) remembers discovering Breytenbach’s poetry when he was a student at the University of Pretoria. “It was like a blow in the stomach … radically different to anything I had ever read! He wrote from another world, about another world, and yet he was steeped in his mother tongue. He used it so powerfully!”

Wits academic Michael Titlestad (1964) grew up in Verwoerdburg. His Afrikaans teacher, meester Grobbelaar, did something unusual: he made the boys read Breytenbach’s poetry. “The shock of those surreal texts in Verwoerdburg with its military base! It had an enormous impact.”

Young Breyten grew up in rural Western Cape. In 1960, he packed his bags and boarded a Portuguese ship that took him as a fourth class passenger to Europe, where he ended up in bohemian Paris. Life there, I suggest, must have been an epiphany for a young artist whose encounters with la vie bohème had been restricted to Cape Town.

South Africa’s most important living poet started his artistic life fifty years ago –as a painter. “Painting taught me about the physical importance of texture, colours, silences, resonance, patterns, structure and perspective, synchronism and dissonance… of words. It made me aware of the materiality of the medium. On top of that, many of my poems are just little pictures. Painting continues to inform my approach,” explains Breytenbach in an email.

“Epiphany? Maybe,” muses Breytenbach. “Youth is always the high point of ecstasy, no? Yes, I certainly bathed in the general atmosphere of Paris as movable feast and laboratory of inventiveness, experimentalism, transgression, new thinking (with Camus probably finally more influential than Sartre) – and all of these linked to avant-guard political internationalism and to theories of transformation. We were poor but happy (to quote Hemingway.) It was a true privilege to walk the same streets and drink in the same bars as Beckett and Giacometti and Ionesco, to count among one’s friends artists and writers and runaways from Russia and Argentina and Mexico and Cuba and Morocco and Mali and Holland and Denmark and Brazil and, and…”

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Johannesburg; The Elusive Metropolis

The Elusive MetropolisA whole flurry of books on Joburg has recently been published, trying to quell the impression that The City of Gold is a shit town, full of violence, poverty, crime and anger. Bit of a vain project, because of course it is a shit city full of violence, poverty crime and anger. And of course many areas that used to be great and exciting (think Yeoville, Berea, Hillbrow, even Melville) have changed so much that it’s pretty hard to still like them. Same goes for downtown, despite the efforts of the JDA and others to change the image.

But nonetheless, it is an exciting city, built from a mineworkers camp a little more than 100 years ago. It’s never dull, always changing, eternally edgy. And, as artist William Kentridge recently remarked: it may not have impressive churches or palaces (or even a great, accessible museum), it does have its summer cathedrals of huge storm clouds and spectacular lightning.

Anyway, one of the books that came out recently is Johannesburg; The Elusive Metropolis (Wits University Press), edited by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe. A lot of it is quite theoretical and academic. But fortunately it also contains chapters that are lively reportage, written by local luminaries such as the late John Matshikiza, Mark Gevisser and yours truly.

My contribution is about that ghastly phenomenon that has all but killed street life: the shopping mall. Get lost in Sandton City and get disgusted by all the new developments in Honeydew.

Anyway, read it, and ask yourself the question: how is Joburg going to deal with the influx of thousands and thousands of football fans when fifteen World Cup matches will be held here in June/July 2010, including the opening ceremony and the final?

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Interview with Koos Kombuis

Koos Kombuis, Wimbledon Walkabout


Last year Koos Kombuis recorded an album of furious protest songs called Bloedrivier. It contained fist-in-the-air rock anthems such as Die Fokol Song and Reconciliation Day about the murder of his friend Taliep Pietersen.

The album was conceived during those gloomy pre-Polokwane days. As Kombuis recalls: “The songs were written when Mbeki started propping up Mugabe and going for third term of leadership of ANC. I was starting to think: oooh, this is looking very dark. I began to feel quite racist. Every time I saw blacks on the street I thought: why can’t you vote for someone else, dammit.”

He touched a raw nerve; Bloedrivier with its loud guitars and thundering choruses became the best selling album of his career, which spans more than twenty years. “I got pretty big cheques and we paid off our house loan, almost all of it,” he says, grinning at the paradox of turning rebellion into money.

This house, where he lives with his wife, two kids and dog Griet, stands on the outskirts of Sommerset West. Or as he explains in an email with directions: “The very last street of the very last suburb where the very last Voëlvry survivor lives…” He goes on to describe the house as “a mock Tuscan double-storey, and you might get barked at by a very stupid but perfectly pedigreed Boxer dog who sometimes responds to the name of Griet.” The mail ends with: “Welcome to my world!”

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Top 11 for 2008

Is it still really worth it to make end of year lists of favorite albums? Given the confusing state of the music industry one would be tempted to say no. The industry is in a mess. The CD-format is rapidly becoming obsolete, while downloads and sharity blogs flourish. Moreover, despite an overdose of good music, there wasn’t a single album that really stood out; 2008 didn’t bring us a new Closer or Entertainment! or Village Green or Damaged. Despite what the music critics try to make us believe (forget about the retro stuff of Fleet Foxes and the whine of Bon Iver) there were no classics.

Therefore this year a Top 11 that doesn’t just include albums, but also single tracks, ex aequo’s, books and blogs. And some are certainly not form 2008, but are somehow linked to the year, with ample space for women and psychedelica.

Here it is – in no particular order – my top 11 for 2008 – for what it’s worth…

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Supremely cosmopolitan, Nuruddin Farah

The story of Nuruddin Farah, one of Africa’s most celebrated authors, begins, inevitably, with a story. Nuruddin was ten years old and lived in the Somali town of Kallafo, in the Ogaden, which was had come under Ethiopian rule. Since the Ethiopians weren’t interested in educating those backward Somalis, illiteracy was high.

But Nuruddin’s father, a merchant, was a stubborn fellow. He invited teachers from other parts of Somalia to set up schools in Kallafo. Hence, for a while young Nuruddin visited an American mission school in the morning and an Arabic school in the afternoon.

Because Nuruddin spoke Somali, English and Arabic he was often asked for wordy assistance. “At the age of ten, eleven I started a business in writing, where I would charge people to write letters for them,” says Farah in his Cape Town apartment.

“One day a man came and told me his wife had run away, and he was threatening her that if she did not come back in three months he would go to the town where she was, beat her up and then drag her all the way to Kallafo.” Cheeky Nuruddin changed that threat into: “If you don’t come back in three months you may see yourself divorced.”

The woman received the letter and showed it to her brothers. They took it to the local judge, who declared them divorced.

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Profile: Willemien Brümmer

Halfway the interview we have an argument. I tell Willemien Brümmer that my least favourite story of her acclaimed debut Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het is the last one. It’s about impending madness and someone dying. It’s full of grating intermezzos, meant to give the narrative more drama. But since you already know what’s coming, it doesn’t work. Get on with it! Moreover, compared to the other eleven spooky stories, it’s quite schmaltzy

“The last one?! Really? Why?” she exclaims. And when I tell her why, she shakes her head in disbelief and argues: “You’re the first who says he doesn’t like the story. My two favourites are the title story and that one! For me that story was necessary, and one of the hardest to write. It has a character dying and a character based on somebody I know very well. It can be read at many different levels.”

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interview/review boekeinsig

Please read the interview/review/essay that Andries Bezuidenhout wrote following the publication of ‘the fred de vries interviews’

Or, if you don’t want to click, see below

Die Fred de Vries-onderhoude: tussen die mark en integriteit
Uittreksels | September 2008

Newtown is die hart van Johannesburg. Dis hier waar die Markteater is. Net om die hoek was die Vrye Weekblad se kantore. Deesdae dien die gebou as die hoofkantoor van die National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. In die oudae het ’n mens ’n bier by die Yard of Ale kom drink. As die partytjie rof geraak het, het jy om die hoek geloop na ’n hotel toe waarvan ek die naam nou vergeet het. Die hotel se kroeg het meer soos ’n sjebien gevoel. Op die een balkon kon ’n mens deur die gapings tussen geboue kyk hoe die son in Fordsburg se rigting ondergaan.

Ek onthou nou nog vaagweg ’n oomblik, dit moes in 1990 gewees het; ek staan op hierdie balkon met die soveelste bier in my vuis, ’n oomblik van stilte, alhoewel die musiek deur die betonvloer dreun. Soms is daar sulke oomblikke in jou lewe wanneer niks eintlik gebeur nie, maar ’n mens het ’n gewaarwording van iets – ’n gevoel, ’n atmosfeer, ’n keerpunt wat nie met bulderende trompette of wapperende vlae aangekondig word nie.

Ek is pas uit die weermag en Nelson Mandela is pas uit die tronk. Die Voëlvrytoer is pas verby. Sal dit heeltemal te melodramaties klink as ek sê dit was ’n duiselingwekkende gevoel van vryheid? Dalk was ek net ’n bietjie aangeklam. Tog is dit vreemd hoe ’n mens jou identiteit aan plekke kan koppel. Vir my het Newtown dus ’n sekere gevoelswaarde.
En hier sit ek nou, amper twintig jaar later, weer in Newtown. “So, wat is jou geheim?” wil ek by die Nederlandse joernalis en skrywer Fred de Vries weet. Ons sit in die restaurant Gramadoelas en praat oor sy jongste boek The Fred de Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille. Fred se veronderstelling is dat elke mens ’n geheim het; iets wat jou ’n sleutel tot die persoon se benadering tot die lewe gee. Die doel van ’n onderhoud is om daardie geheim te ontbloot.

Só maklik gaan Fred my egter nie laat wegkom nie. Die restaurant, wat gewoonlik op ’n weeksaand nogal stil is, is vanaand besonder rumoerig. ’n Groot groep Amerikaners sit skuins agter ons en praat terwyl hulle kou. Dis nie ideale omstandighede vir ’n onderhoud met ’n gesoute onderhoudvoerder nie.
Die bundel bevat 39 onderhoude met mense soos die jazz-maestro Abdullah Ibrahim tot Helen Zille. Maar benewens ’n aantal bekende name word die boek eintlik gekenmerk deur ’n seleksie van mense wat gewoonlik onder die radars van die hoofstroommedia beweeg. Jy ontmoet musikante, skrywers, beeldende kunstenaars en allerlei kulturele aktiviste. Die meerderheid van die onderhoude is voorheen in The Weekender gepubliseer.

Die feit dat Fred Afrikaans verstaan maak dat Afrikaanssprekende persoonlikhede nogal prominent in die bundel is. Hulle oordonder egter nie die landskap, soos die geval in soveel Afrikaanse publikasies is nie. Hulle is oorwegend mense wat tuis is in ’n konteks waar die taal nou staatsbeskerming verloor het en neffens ander tale vir ruimte en hulpbronne moet meeding. Vir my is dit besonder positief dat die bundel onderhoude ’n Engelssprekende gehoor bekendstel aan ’n hele aantal mense wat nie in die stereotiepe beeld van “Afrikaner” inpas nie.
Liefhebbers van Afrikaanse letterkunde sal eweneens die boek insiggewend vind vir die onderhoude met mense soos Marlene van Niekerk, Ingrid Winterbach, Danie Marais, Kleinboer, Toast Coetzer en Ronelda Kamfer. Dan word daar gepraat met die manne van Fokofpolisiekar, die vroue van Rokkeloos, asook Steve Hofmeyr en Bok van Blerk.

Dis die onderhoude met die skrywers wat ek die meeste geniet het. Is dit dan nie moeilik om onderhoude met mense te voer wat self vaardig met woorde is nie? Fred sê sommige van die onderhoude was meer geslaagd as ander. Sommige mense is baie versigtig oor wat hulle sê. Hy praat oor sy onderhoud met Ingrid Winterbach. Dit het by haar huis plaasgevind. Op ’n vreemde manier maak dit die onderhoud juis moeilik, sê Fred. Soms is dit juis beter om die onderhoud op neutrale grond te doen. Fred dink nie hy het ooit by Ingrid Winterbach se geheim uitgekom nie. Hy wonder hardop oor ’n gesprek wat hy later met iemand gehad het wat haar goed ken. Hulle het gepraat oor die feit dat sy mediteer. Dis iets wat sy nooit genoem het nie. Tog, as ’n mens Die boek van toeval en toeverlaat lees, is daar elemente wat sterk op Zen-Boeddhisme trek.
Hy praat oor die onderhoud met Ronelda Kamfer. Fred voel hy ken die konteks in die Wes-Kaap nie baie goed nie. Sekere kere het sy byvoorbeeld na woonbuurtes verwys wat hy weet ’n spesifieke kulturele betekenis het, maar wat hy nie noodwendig die diepte van kon snap en dus in die onderhoud weergee nie. ’n Mens besef keer op keer dat plekke vir mense ’n diepere betekenis het – dat iets soos Newtown, Distrik Ses, of Manenberg, nie net ’n plek op die landkaart is nie, maar dat daar ’n hele geskiedenis is wat mense se persoonlikhede en identiteite vorm en brei.

Met die meeste van die onderhoude voel ek egter dat ek nogal iets nuuts leer, selfs oor van die persoonlikhede wat ek redelik goed ken. Fred sê as joernalis stel hy meer in mense belang as groot politieke gebeure. So gepraat van identiteite en plekke: Ons praat oor Fred se vorige boek Club Risiko: De jaren tachtig, toen en nu. Dit gaan oor ondergrondse bewegings in Johannesburg, New York, Berlyn, Amsterdam, Ljubljana en Parys. Die gedeelte oor Johannesburg gaan oor die musikale eksperimente van die kunstenaar Neil Goedhals in plekke soos Yeoville en Hillbrow. Sy projek (of band) se naam was Koos. Marcel van Heerden was deel daarvan en hulle het byvoorbeeld hul musiek deur middel van kassette in bruinpapiersakke versprei. Van hierdie opnames is in ’n CD agterin Club Risiko, wat ongelukkig nog nie in Suid-Afrika beskikbaar is nie.

Goedhals het later selfmoord gepleeg deur van ’n woonstelgebou in Yeoville af te spring.
Sy volgende boek – sy “labour of love” – gaan oor Sinclair Beiles, die Suid-Afrikaner wat deel van Ginsberg en Burroughs se beat-beweging was, maar wat ’n meer obskure dood in die Johannesburgse Algemene Hospitaal gesterf het.

Hoekom sulke tragiese figure? En vanwaar die obsessie met ondergrondse bewegings? Fred het as student in Nederland in ’n punk band gespeel – Zero-Zero. Die projek het gesneuwel, maar die ondervinding het hom geleer om waardering vir mense te kry wat daarin slaag om kuns te pleeg in ’n konteks waar kommersiële belange belangriker as integriteit is.
Fred noem sy benadering psycho-geography, wat ’n mens seker as psigo-geografie kan vertaal – ’n kombinasie van sielkunde en maniere om die belangrikheid van plekke te verstaan. In Club Risiko het hy gekyk hoe daardie laaste oomblik voor globalisering gewerk het in plekke soos Johannesburg en New York. Dis tye toe jy nie sommer die nuutste ondergrondse projek van die internet kon aflaai nie. Plate is met informele netwerke langs na obskure platewinkels toe aangegee. Mense het oor hul nuwe projekte in saamgeflanste tydskrifte – “little magazines” – geskryf en daaroor gedebatteer.

Suid-Afrika is júis interessant, omdat die mark vir kuns, boeke en musiek soveel kleiner is. Hy sê hy het respek vir mense wat, ten spyte van beperkte geleenthede, steeds maniere vind om ’n lewe te maak. Die briljante skrywer Ivan Vladislavic verdien byvoorbeeld sy brood as redakteur van ander mense se boeke. Die mense in The Fred de Vries Interviews is teenpole vir tragiese figure soos Goedhals en Beiles.
Ek is nie seker of ek daarin geslaag het om Fred se geheim te ontbloot nie. Ek dink ek verstaan beter hoekom hy soos ’n argeoloog tussen Suid-Afrikaanse kunsartefakte rondsnuffel. Dis die blik van ’n buitestander wat ’n mens soms anders na jou eie landskap laat kyk. Hierdie buitestaander skryf met ’n besonder sensitiewe pen oor die mense wat dit die moeite werd maak om in ’n onstuimige land soos Suid-Afrika te woon.

Ek ry huis toe – deur Newtown se donker strate, verby die nuwe social housing by Brickfields, al met Smitstraat langs tot deur Hillbrow, Yeoville, en dan deur die hekke van my gated community in Observatory. Ek wonder oor Fred se psigo-geografiese perspektief op mense en plekke. Ek wonder oor daardie oomblik van vryheid jare gelede op die balkon van die hotel in Newtown. Hoe moet ek nou daaroor nadink?
Tot nou toe het ek vryheid oorleef. Dis moeilik om enigiets met integriteit te doen in ’n land met soveel teenstellings. Gelukkig is daar ’n hele aantal interessante mense wat steeds probeer en darem oorleef in die proses. En nou is daar ’n bundel met onderhoude wat hierdie konstante proses van onderhandel op ’n besonder sensitiewe wyse weergee.
Andries Bezuidenhout

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