30 May 2021

The Madonna of Excelsior

The Madonna Of Excelsior

The Madonna Of Excelsior by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel that has a little bit of everything, almost -- a sex scandal, sibling rivalry, political chicanery, and believable characters. And so much of it is true, I read it in the newspaper 50 years ago.

It is set in a real small town in the Free State province of South Africa, and is based on real events, so the usual disclaimer about the characters not resembling any real persons, living or dead, is somewhat differently worded. Though the events are a matter of public record, the characters are fictitious. I've written a few books set in a small South African town, but having lived in a small town myself, I didn't dare to use a  real town as the setting, but Zakes Mda boldly does so, and his book is all the more realistic as a result.

But the fictitious characters do resemble real people. And the book gives a microcosm of South Africa in the last three decades of the 20th century. Excelsior is a real town, and it really was rocked by a sex scandal in the early 1970s. The neighbouring towns, mentioned in the book, are real and I have been to, or through some of them.

And at least one of the characters is real, Father Frans Claerhout, a Roman Catholic and artist who lived at Tweespruit just south of Excelsior, and descriptions of whose paintings at the beginning of each chapter form a linking motif for the story.

Popi Pule has two half-brothers; one, Viliki Pule, is black, and the other, Tjaart Cronje, is white, and all three were born in apartheid South Africa, much of whose legislation was calculated to prevent precisely those kinds of relationships. Viliki and Puke's mother Niki had been Tjaart's nanny when he was small, and she is the eponymous Madonna of Excelsior, and had been a model for some of Father Frans Claerhout's paintings.

People sometimes ask, what was South Africa like during apartheid, and during and after the end of apartheid, and in this book Zakes Mda nails it. He tells it like it is, and was. He has written several books set in South Africa, and each of the ones I've read gives an accurate picture of some or other aspect of South African life. There are links to some of my reviews of them here,

If but someone from another country was coming to South Africa from another country, and wanted an introduction to South African life, and history, and social relations, this is the book I would recommend to them. Since it is fiction, it doesn't have all the facts, but it does tell the truth about South Africa, the unvarnished truth. If you want to know what South Africa is really like, read this book!

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26 May 2021

The Quiet American

The Quiet American

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is one of Graham Greene's best books. I find Graham Greene a bit like Stephen Kind -- I like some of his books a lot, and others I don't like much at all. This is definitely one that I liked.

Thomas Fowler is a reporter for a British newspaper, reporting on the French colonial war in Vietnam when the Americans are just beginning to get involved. One of the new people at the American embassy, Pyle, tries to befriend Fowler, and falls in love with his girlfriend, Phuong, whom he steals, ever so politely. 

Fowler tries to be neutral in his reporting, and to remain uninvolved, but Pyle's role causes him to reexamine his approach, and but he is never sure whether his actions are due to Pyle's political role or his own jealousy. 

Perhaps one reason that the book appealed to me so much is that it reminded me of my time in Namibia in the early 1970s. Namibia was then in a colonial situation, under South African rule, as Vietnam had been under France 15 years earlier, and I was, like the protagonist in The Quiet American, a journalist. And something Greene wrote illuminated a difference that I was aware of, but fund difficult to describe.

In December 1971 there was a big strike of Ovambo contract workers in what was then known as South West Africa. One of the interesting differences in the approach to journalism came on the second day of the strike, Tuesday 14th December 1971. My friend David de Beer and I worked for the local Anglican Church, and I also worked on the local paper, and we were also stringers ("correspondents") for the Argus Africa News service, which supplied most of the South African evening newspapers. But the strike was big news, so some of the newspapers sent their own in-house reporters to cover it, and one of them was Alan Hardy of The Star of Johannesburg.

Pastor Maasdorp of the Lutheran Church had said that one of their evangelists had been arrested in the Ovambo compound, and that Pastor Haufiku was busy trying to bail him out. Alan Hardy immediately phoned Brigadier Brandt, the local police chief, who denied that there had been any arrests. Dave and I went out to see Pastor Haufiku to check up, and he confirmed it, and said he would take us to see the evangelist, Thomas Nalupi. And Thomas Nalupi showed us his admission of guilt receipt.

This ties up with an interesting passage in The Quiet American, where the protagonist, the journalist Thomas Fowler says:

It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.

Alan Hardy was a reporter, Dave de Beer and I were correspondents. And that describes the difference between us. To confirm a report that there had been arrests, the reporter asked the chief of police. That would never have occurred to us correspondents. For us the convincing evidence was the admission of guilt receipt.

There was more, perhaps. Alan Hardy was a bit older than us, but not by much. But he belonged to a different generation. We belonged to the 1968 generation. It had been, for both Dave and me, our last year as full-time students, and that was the year of student power, which had been immediately preceded by the year of flower power. But both hippie flower power and student power shared a distrust of authority. I had even developed a theological rationale for it. One of the slogans was "Don't trust anyone over 30," and I had just passed my 30th birthday, though I thought the least trustworthy age was between 40 and 60, when people were at the most powerful stages of their careers and were most likely to be embedded in and thus wedded to the System.

Of course the trouble with us was that we seldom adhered to the "audi alteram partem" rule, but then neither did the establishment reporters. They put the point of view of the establishment, businessmen, employers, government officials, whereas we reported what we heard from the underside -- the strikers and ordinary workers and those who ministered to them. And Graham Greene in this book illustrated the difference very clearly. 

And perhaps even more clearly he showed the shallowness and folly of much American foreign policy. Pyle, the eponymous "quiet American", was a fan or a particular (fictional) foreign policy wonk called York Harding. And at one point Dave de Beer met just such an American foreign policy wonk by the name of George Kennan, who struck Dave as incredibly naive. Kennan talked as though all he had to do was press some magic button in the depths of the Pentagon and all Namibia's problems would be instantly solved. 

I have sometimes wondered since then whether George Kennan was playing some devious game, and trying to appear more naive than he actually was, but since reading Graham Greene's book I wonder if he wasn't the model for York Harding.

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25 May 2021

Missiology and the colour of fish

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss

I haven't read this, but GoodReads recommended it to me, based on the books in my Missiology shelf. That intrigued me. I see most of my GoodReads friends who have rated it gave it a high rating, -- perhaps they can tell me what it has to say about missiology. 

Here are some of the books on my missiology shelf, and I'm not sure how the Dr Seuss book fits in with these:

  • Allen, Roland 1962 [1912]. Missionary methods: St Paul's or ours.
  • Allen, Roland 1960. The spontaneous expansion of the church and the causes which hinder it.
  • Bosch, D.J 1991. Transforming mission.
  • Davies, John D. 1983. The faith abroad.
  • Kaplan, Steven 1984. The monastic holy man and the Christianization of early Solomonic Ethiopia.
  • Stamoolis, James 1986. Eastern Orthodox mission theology today.
  • Bosch, David 1980. Witness to the world: the Christian mission in theological perspective.
  • Veronis, Luke 2009. Go forth: stories of mission and resurrection in Albania.
  • Griffiths, Michael 1980. Shaking the sleeping beauty: arousing the church to its mission.
  • Ajayi, J.F. Ade 1965. Christian missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: the making of a new elite.
  • Anderson, Gerald; Stransky, Thomas F. 1976. Mission Trends No 3: Third-World Theologies.
  • Becken, Hans-Jurgen (ed) 1973. Relevant theology for Africa.
  • Beeching, Jack 1979. An open path: Christian missionaries, 1515 - 1914.
  • Beidelman, T.O 1982. Colonial evangelism.
  • Bevans, Stephen B. & Schroeder, Roger P 2004. Constants in context: a theology of mission for today.
  • Bhebe, Ngwabi 1979. Christianity and traditional religion in western Zimbabwe 1859-1923.
  • Bonk, Jonathan 1989. The theory and practice of missionary identification 1860-1920.
  • Burridge, Kenelm 1991. In the Way: a study of Christian missionary endeavours.
  • Carter, John 1963. Methods of mission in Southern Africa.
  • Cnattingius, Hans 1952. Bishops and societies: a study of Anglican colonial and missionary expansion 1698-1850.
  • Dvornik, Francis 1970. Byzantine missions among the Slavs.
  • Ellanna, Linda J. & Balluta, Andrew 1992. Nuvendaltin Quht'ana: the people of Nondalton.
  • Farmer, Edwin 1900. The Transvaal as a mission field.
  • Fraser, Donald 1970 (1914). Winning a primitive people.
  • Gerber, Vergil 1979 [1974]. God's way to keep a church going and growing.
  • Hesselgrave, David J 1988. Today's choices for tomorrow's mission.
  • Jarrett-Kerr, Martin 1961. African pulse: scenes from an African hospital window.
  • Kraemer, Hendrik 1956. Religion and the Christian faith.
  • Linney, Barry W. 2000. 21st Century Faith: Radical Living in a new Millennium.
  • Luzbetak, Louis 1988. The church and cultures: new perspectives in missiological anthropology.
  • McGavran, Donald A 1979. Ethnic realities and the church: lessons from India.
  • Milner, Clyde A. & McNeil, Floyd A 1985. Churchmen and the Western Indians.
  • Nemer, Lawrence 1981. Anglican and Roman Catholic attitudes on missions.
  • Niles, D.T. 1963. Upon the Earth.
  • Oleksa, Michael (ed.) 1987. Alaskan missionary spirituality.
  • Oswalt, Wendell H 1990. Bashful no longer: an Alaskan Eskimo ethnohistory, 1778-1988.

I used quite a number of them for writing my doctoral thesis in missiology, but I seem to have missed the Dr Seusss one. Was my missiology thesis any the worse for that?

Actually one of my favourite missiology books doesn't seem to have made the list, so I'll give it a plug here -- it's Orthodox Alaska by Father Michael Oleksa, and you can read more about it here: Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission by Michael Oleksa | Goodreads.

It too seems to have a rather strange list of "readers also liked" books -- only one of those in the top ten seemed to have anything to do with missiology, but some of them nevertheless seemed quite interesting.

So here;s a challenge to fellow missiologists on GoodReeds. Look at the books on your missiology shelf, and share what the top one is, and how many missiology books appear in your top ten. Perhaps it will show how widely-read missiologists are.

And perhaps it ought to show that, because missiology is an interdisciplinary  field of study, covering theology, history, sociology, anthropology and several other things as well. But fish?

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14 May 2021

Over sea, under stone

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been on my "to read" list for about four years now, as has the whole The Dark is Rising series. because friends recommended it, or wrote good reviews of it.

My search became more urgent when a reviewer compared my children's books Of Wheels and Witches and The Enchanted Grove to the whole "The Dark is Rising" sequence, and suggested that it might have been an influence on my writing.

It couldn't have been an influence on me, because I hadn't read it yet, but there certainly are similar tropes in both my children's books -- children on a quest, getting separated and searching for each other, an older boy who is a bully, some getting captured by the villains and threatened by them. There is even a hair binding that comes undone causing one character to lose her pony tail. But my influence came more from Alan Garner and I wonder if Susan Cooper's did too. It seems that they did meet, and regarded each other as kindred spirits.

Anyway I found the book a very good read. I liked the characters, the children especially, since more than half the adult characters were evil. It is a story of three children, Simon, Jane and Barney Drew, who go with their parents and a great uncle (who is not really a relative, but rather a friend of the family) to spend a holiday in a house in Cornwall, whose owner has gone off for a holiday somewhere else. They find an abandoned document and map, which they use to play games of seeking treasure, and then find that it is really old, and some evil people are also looking for it. 

In the Good Reads page for the book there was a question about why the book was written in such an old-fashioned way, and so I watched out for that while reading it. As some people remarked, it could be because it was written over 50 years ago, and speech was different then. In the book the children wore "plimsolls", but by the time the Harry Potter books appeared, 30 years later, "plimsolls" had become "trainers", so that would probably have appeared old-fashioned even 25 years ago, when the Harry Potter books first appeared. I was particularly aware of that when I went to England in the 1960s, because I thought of "plimsolls" as marks on ships, and we called such footwear "tackies" (sometimes spelt "takkies"), both then and now -- the term is applied to any shoes with canvas uppers and rubber soles.

Some language would have appeared old-fashioned even in the 1960s -- I don't recall any children at that time referring to their male parent as "Father" with a capital F. But what really struck me as an anachronism was that one of the characters found two 50 pence pieces in his pocket, in a book published in 1965. Even in 1968, when the edition I read was alleged to have been published, though two of the new decimal coins were beginning to circulate, a 50p piece was not among them, they were still 10-bob notes. So if 10-bob notes miraculously changed into 50p coins, why did plimsolls not change into trainers? Or Father into Dad?

The edition of Over sea, under stone that I read was illustrated by pen and ink drawings by Margery Gill. The illustrations were appropriate to the text, but though the faces were drawn very well, the legs were not, and looked like those of children in pictures used to illustrate children freed from concentration camps suffering from malnutrition. Such legs could not have carried anyone fast enough to do all the running away they had to do from the villains. This particular picture, however, was one of the ones with more realistic legs. 

I recently re-read three of Alan Garner's children's books, and comparing his language to Susan Cooper's, I find his more terse and taut, which conveys a sense of urgency in the way it is written. 

I was inspired to write my children's (and other fiction) by a conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in which they said that if they wanted to see more of the kind of stories they liked, they should have to write them themselves. And I liked stories by Charles Williams and Alan Garner. But it seems that Susan Cooper has also written the kind of stories I like, and all but two of them are waiting for me to read therm.

Her writings are not entirely new to me, however. Back in the 1960s I did read Mandrake by Susan Cooper, which was adult science fiction rather than children's fantasy. I was reading it on the train from London to Bournemouth at the very time Dr Verwoerd was shot, and it was in fact about an English version of the Verwoerdian dream, where a British prime minister decided that everyone had to go back to their "homeland", and enacted laws to force them to do so. I never saw another book by Susan Cooper in a bookshop after that, though I see she has written quite a lot, and I'm putting more on my "want to read" list. 

I've spent some time commenting on the language in this review, but that's because I found little else to criticise, and because someone asked a question about it. And now I hope I'll be able to find the rest of the series and renew my acquaintance with the characters. 

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