Translated from the Afrikaans by the author
(High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: And Other Stories, 2015)
First signs include sudden onset of fever, fatigue and muscle pain, a sore throat that can be easily confused with the flu. The virus, not living itself but consisting of proteins and DNA and described as an organism “on the edge of life,” worms its way through the blood. Vomiting and diarrhea come next, the body’s attempt at expelling a killer is that is by now already too strong. Yet the fight continues: secretions ooze from the gums, blood seeps from below, until at last the organs shut down and death arrives.
I’m speaking of Ebola here, but even as I write that description my words already seem antique. Across the wires comes an announcement that Dr. Michael Salia has died in an Omaha hospital; his death signals that the Ebola crisis has quietly come to an end in the United States. Active cases in this country now number zero. As Russell Berman puts it in The Atlantic, “For now, the borderline hysteria that began with the arrival, diagnosis, and subsequent death, of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas is resembling so many other crises of the moment, in with a bang and out with a whimper.”
Only time will tell how this era will be remembered (likely the Ebola crisis will not be) but it seems to me that the general uneasiness lurking beneath the surface is a reverberation of the old Victorian concerns. The evidence is there: a fear of germs, general xenophobia, a certain prudishness; and it’s worth considering that Dallas has grown by over a million people in the past ten years, Texas by five million, and the old maize fields and squat mesquite trees have been replaced by ribbons of concrete. The world simultaneously shrinks and expands, as it has since the days of Eden. It was a cause for neurosis in eighteenth century England; in 1960s California, Joan Didion called it atomization. Today, the rate of acceleration seems to be increasing the spaces between us, pulling us apart from every direction.
If I sound bleak, it’s because I have been feeling particularly unhinged, having recently given up on the frantic pace of New York for the perceived calm of Texas only to find myself in the middle of the Ebola hysteria. There must have been some cosmic inevitability to the fact that SJ Naudé’s short story collection, The Alphabet of Birds, landed in my mailbox. Set in Cape Town and London, Berlin and Milan – in essence, everywhere and nowhere – The Alphabet of Birds is a seemingly disparate collection of short stories whose unifying theme is not immediately apparent, but which reveals itself slowly over time to be a graceful musing on loss. Naudé is originally from South Africa but spent years studying and working in London; his prose is laced with that melancholy specific to the expatriate. His stories are consumed with corporeal decay, disintegrating relationships, and bleak loneliness. I found them oddly comforting, probably because misery loves company and because it captured so well the neuroses that were surrounding me.
In a lesser writer’s hand, stories consumed with disease could veer to the melodramatic, but a great strength of this collection is the absence of sentimentality. Naudé’s clean, stripped-back writing conveys emotion by what is not said as much as by what is. In the story “A Master from Germany“, he writes:
His eyes close while he is speaking, then open slowly when he forgets his words. Fog is approaching across the water, from below the bridge. It changes the air around the floats, brings a certain restlessness. He tries to look through it, at what is drifting behind it. Joschka’s fingers, he realizes, are no longer on his head.
“…like a pearl growing in an oyster.”
Joschka is not within hearing distance anymore.
The lean, athletic writing takes cues from Hemingway and Didion, always hinting at the pain underneath the surface but leaving the reader to their own imagination. Hemingway and Didion came out of a journalistic tradition; Naudé was an attorney before becoming a writer, and one can feel an analytical, logical mind at work in these pages. Characters almost never express what they really mean, and the protagonists are often gathering evidence before coming to a final judgment. Even then, much is unknowable. In the previously referenced story, “A Master from Germany”, the un-named narrator is told by his lover to get tested. For HIV, we assume, but we never know for sure, as the narrator never seeks the results of his test. We are left with no easy way to judge the situation.
Many of these stories deal with queer characters and take place in the modern world, but the author juxtaposes mundane details with almost mythical telling to wonderful effect. In “Loose”, a story about a dancer on sabbatical from New York told from the point of view of his lover, the character’s movements lend an otherworldly quality to the telling:
Sam stops. “Ok, let’s start with the hands,” he says.
They take their positions opposite each other, hands between them. They are looking each other in the eye. The hands start moving. First slowly, tentatively. Then faster, more naturally. The hands evade, search, play, lead each other, push and pull and bend and weave the air, turn around, flit and slip around each other, towards each other, mimicking each other. The knuckles click against each other, the nerves in the fingertips tingle, sending swift messages…
“The nerves in the fingertips tingle, sending swift messages.” Naudé uses this dance to describe the early attraction of the two men, but even as his descriptions seem fantastical, they still connect with larger themes of microscopic, uncontrollable forces at work in our lives.
In what I felt was the strongest story of the collection, “The Van”, we meet Sandiran, a white nurse working in a black part of South Africa, there to treat patients with HIV. Bureaucracy and corruption in the government health organization keeps her from getting access to the antivirals that could save her patients’ lives. She becomes obsessed with saving them, to the exclusion of all other parts of her life. At one point her husband says, “What sense does it make to surrender everything for the sake of a struggle within a system that despises you?” He continues:
“Do you remember,” he says, “how a hunter’s dog once got his paw stuck in a jackal fence here on the farm? When I got there, the leg was so infected that the dog would not allow me near it. I could let him suffer or could let myself be torn apart. I shot him through the head. In this way I brought relief. It affected me, but this was what I could do.”
She looks at his outline. The light glints on his eyebrows.
It is her turn. “Do you remember the time a dog made its way into the sheep-pen? How cruelly dogs play with trapped sheep? How we disinfected cotton thread and spent all night in the kitchen sewing up – no, weaving back together – shredded stomachs? How raw our hands were? How we didn’t stop until they were whole again?”
Naude’s cool, incisive prose acts as a scalpel, laying bare the sinews and tendons of the stories he is telling. The Alphabet of Birds, translated here from the original Afrikaans by Naudé himself, is not a collection for the faint of heart but it does not leave us entirely without hope. The protagonists are ever searching for more in the face of disaster. And sometimes in this accelerating world of cascading information, we need to cut through the noise to get at the heart of the matter. In Naudé, we have an able surgeon.
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Cassie Hay‘s reviews and essays have been published in New Letters, Electric Literature, The Literary Review, TLR Online, and This Great Society. Her essay about being a roller derby queen will be included in an upcoming book titled “Derby Life.” Hay earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University and lives in Austin, TX.