Book review: Karoo and other stories

 In Reviews

Karoo and other stories by Athol Fugard. David Philip: 3rdImpression 2017.

It is not often that an author is prepared to unveil the creative process of his writing as the playwright Athol Fugard has done in Karoo and other stories– a book that is part short-fiction collection and part memoir.

In Part 1 – Karoo Directory – the stories, he tells us, have grown from ‘appointments’ with jottings in his notebook. The thread that binds them is the people, their lives often calamitous but filled with meaning and the harsh, arid beauty of the Karoo. An old white man unburdens himself to his young carer, Booitjie Barends, revealing his ‘sin’ of unfaithfulness during the long nights when they both lie wakeful. A young boy, Klonkie, finds the corpse of his runaway piglet at the mouth of a cave. In the red and yellow paintings of Bushmen on the walls of the cave, Klonkie recognises his own stick legs and arms, so discovering his place in the ‘mystery of time and its passing’.

In Part 2 – Fact and Fiction – Fugard tells how he was haunted by a cutting in his notebook: a newspaper report on the death of a young woman, Pumla Kolwana, who stepped with her three children into the path of an oncoming train. Desperation born of poverty in the lives of humble people is a theme that always grips Fugard’s imagination, but he is unable to build a picture of Pumla. He has her name but nothing more; he cannot enter her mind. When, finally, he starts to picture the event from the perspective of the train driver, who sees the disaster about to happen and is unable to stop the train, inspiration returns. The story begins to grow, sliding into a long monologue by the driver, who is given the name Roelf Visagie.

Reading this part of the book is a multi-levelled experience as the reader becomes as enmeshed in Visagie’s dilemma as in the writer’s creative journey. Fugard tells us that while his work reflects both the personal and political circumstances of his characters’ lives, writing is also self-discovery. Just as the train driver desperately searches for the name of the woman he has killed so that he ‘can move on’, so Fugard fruitlessly tries to find out details of her life as a way in to the story. His ‘fundamental act of faith’, he says, is that despite desperation and tragedy, ‘there will be a tomorrow worth living’. This belief is echoed as hope is rekindled for Visagie when he is permitted by an old black grave-digger to share his shack and his work. As in the play The Road to Mecca, the ultimate real-life tragedy does not dispel that moment of hope.

The book is as attractively produced as it is insightful, its cover photographs representing the places which Fugard’s life and work have spanned: the Californian coast where he now lives and the Karoo dwelling from which he draws inspiration. It is a gift for any aspiring writer.

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