Start at the end: Wicomb uses the metaphor of leaping salmon returning to their spawning grounds
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Homing instinct: October by Zoë Wicomb

Wicomb was born in South Africa but has lived in Britain since the 1970s. Like previous work, her latest book revisits themes of homemaking, exile, return and race.

October: a Novel
Zoë Wicomb
New Press, 256pp, £17.99

Last year the South African writer Zoë Wicomb won the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for fiction, along with James Salter and Tom McCarthy, leaving her $150,000 better off – and confirming her status as a major, if often overlooked, pillar of international writing.

Wicomb, who is in her sixties, was born in Namaqualand (the erstwhile Cape Province) but has lived in the UK since the 1970s. She is the author of two crucial post-colonial novels, David’s Story (2000) and Playing in the Light (2006), that look at apartheid and its legacies and at racial identity in complex, rigorous, profound and unexpected ways. Her very position as a “coloured” (mixed-race) writer, inhabiting the middle rung of South Africa’s racial hierarchy of whites-coloureds-blacks, brings a welcome complication and truthfulness to a problem usually seen simplistically as black-and-white. October, her latest book, revisits similar themes of homemaking, exile, return and race with the kind of consistency and unity of vision that one finds in, say, the films of Eric Rohmer or Theo Angelopoulos – it is a vertical inquiry, exploring depths, rather than a horizontal spread of variety.

The story of October is slender but to venture into it for story would be a misreading: Wicomb has never written the kind of plot-driven storybook that seems to hold such sway in the anglophone world. Mercia Murray, a coloured South African academic in her fifties, living in Glasgow, is left by her Scottish partner, Craig, for a much younger woman. Partly in response to a despairing letter from her brother, Jake, and partly in an attempt to heal the wound of abandonment, Mercia returns to her childhood home in Kliprand in the Western Cape. She discovers Jake sunk deep in alcoholism, possibly beyond all help. He has a son, Nicky, who is five years old, with Sylvie, a young woman who is an intriguing combination of strength and subservience.

Mercia seems to think that she has been summoned by Jake to adopt the child and take him away to Glasgow, but days go by and Jake lies in a stupor in his dark, fetid room, refusing to emerge or talk. Mercia, alienated from the culture and people of her native country, her first home, makes strenuous efforts to build a bridge with the long-suffering Sylvie – class complicates matters here, because Sylvie is far down the social ladder from the Murrays – and, more easily and beguilingly, with the little boy.

In the sutures of the days (and of the narrative), Wicomb deftly inserts the past: the childhood of Mercia and Jake; of Sylvie; and the history of Nicholas Murray, Mercia and Jake’s martinet father. It is a feat of compression and layering. We learn of the physical abuse to which Jake was subjected by his father, a pastor-turned-schoolteacher, who cultivated a “necessary distance” from the “pitch-black Africans”, so that “the distant memory of European blood could be kept alive”. Jake is a man broken by childhood abuse and, in later life, by an even more heinous act on the part of his father.

The US Immigrant Experience, which dominates the anglophone literary world, seems to have marginalised all other kinds of stories of exile and homemaking. So it is cunning of Wicomb to deploy an American writer to open up a conversation about the concept and experience of home; the writer in question being Marilynne Robinson and the novel Home (2008), about siblings returning to the place of their birth. The use of Robinson is overt – Wicomb quotes a passage as an epigraph; Mercia reads Home, and meditates on the book, throughout this novel – but it also has another, perhaps unintended, consequence. By locating her inquiry on authenticity and belonging on a different continent, Wicomb makes readers confront much more complex and intran­sigent questions of home and alienation than offered by the American model.

To read October is to realise that novels can cohere through a set of glittering metaphorical underpinnings. The title provides a binding metaphor: a month of new beginnings and renewal in Mercia’s native South Africa, but one that spells a shutting down in her adoptive, exilic country. There is a brilliant section in which Mercia and Craig travel to the Pots of Gartness on the Endrick Water, north of Glasgow, to see salmon leaping, “a journey that must end where it started”. Another theme of nature v nurture/culture is woven through the beautifully evoked pastoral sections that intermittently mark the novel.

All these recurring metaphors deepen Wicomb’s great questions: where does anyone belong, the place where you started out, or a different one that you have chosen? What do you bequeath to the next generation? Reading this novel is an experience akin to listening to subtly and rigorously structured music. The book is dense with the details and textures of everyday life, not least in its attentiveness to nature and the seasons: Wicomb writes as stunningly about “the burnt-red summer bracken snuggling up to the purple haze of heather” in Scotland as she does about the purple explosion of vygies after the rains in the Western Cape. October confirms her as one of the most intelligent writers of our time.

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”, is newly published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era