Tell Tale by Helge Janssen
Pine Slopes Publications
My mind is on fire. It is half past ten on a Saturday morning and I am lying in bed. I have just finished reading Tell Tale by Helge Janssen, the revolutionary DJ and a pioneer of the alternative club scene in South Africa through the height of the country's anti-apartheid period. I began reading the 215-page book last night.
Fifteen minutes later, I still feel as if I have been struck by lightning. I walk across the room to my CD player and put on The Cure's Staring at the Sea, The Singles and turn up the volume. Then I begin dancing around in my flat like a crazy person. There is nothing to do but dance. I dance to "Jumping Someone Else's Train", "Play for Today", "Charlotte Sometimes", "Let's Go to Bed", "The Walk", "Close to Me", and "A Night like This". Especially "A Night like This". I am overwhelmed that a man such as Janssen exists, that he has survived to tell his tale against the odds.
When I sit down to type the review of this highly autobiographical debut novel, I am at a loss in terms of where to start trying to describe the journey of this extraordinary man's life. How do I process this cornucopia of creative endeavour, this flamboyant sense of style that has always transcended mainstream fashion dictates, and the idiosyncratic performer at the centre of it all? Although I have so many thoughts and questions - things to say - I feel I cannot possibly do this book justice in a review. It is too big for that, too encompassing. Tell Tale defies categorisation and description. It is a book that has to be read. It is the soundtrack of a life.
Ambleby Trump, Janssen's protagonist and alter ego, is a remarkably sensitive child prodigy born in Durban - "the Last Outpost" - during the apartheid era. His mother has to resort to prostitution to support herself and her children, and his father is a sailor who mentally and physically abuses the family on his rare visits home. Ambleby is easy to fall in love with and I fall in love with him on the second page when, at the age of three, I read about how he spies on the birth of his baby sister.
The South Africa Ambleby Trump grows up in is repressive, conformist, and judgmental, a country in need of a lot more than a twelve-step programme. Janssen chronicles the talented Trump's growth into confused, scarred adolescence, and then into adulthood. We move with him through military call-up, marriage, discovering Europe, rediscovering South Africa as a white African, homosexuality, celibacy, heartache, early Grahamstown Festivals, altercations with the security police, and the opening and closing of night-clubs the like of which South Africa has not seen since. The author deftly sketches a series of word-pictures illustrating the alternative and gay underground scene in apartheid-stricken South Africa and into the post-1994 era.
Whether he is living in Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg or the small dorpie of Camperdown in KwaZulu-Natal, this energetic, avant-garde artist with the made-up white mime mask, his Red Bull creation (symbolising the blindness of apartheid), and cast of glamorous, mesmerising supporting characters, is reminiscent of Andy Warhol and the King of Pop Art's beautiful, self-immolating satellites.
Trump's disc-jockeying heyday is the era of Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, the Cure, U2, Simple Minds, New Order, The Smiths, The The, Sisters of Mercy, Nick Cave, REM, B52's, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Blondie, LKJ, Bob Marley, Talking Heads, Lloyd Cole, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed - to name but a few stars in the '80s alternative club scene constellation. If you happen to be a fan of alternative music, Janssen is your man. He knows his stuff.
Ambleby Trump cannot be put in a box. He is a seeker, a deep thinker, a phenomenon driven by the need to discover and express his truth and the truth of the world around him through his art. In his life, he experiences numerous clashes with authority figures because he refuses to be subservient and kowtow to society's expectations. He knows absolute power corrupts absolutely. His refusal to buy into the system, to become a conditioned pawn in a game without conscience, comes at great personal cost to him in terms of career prospects and professional advancement. Trump, however, is a true artist and understands ultimately that for him to be any other way would be akin to selling his soul.
Anyone who has experienced standing on the fringes of society watching the power games and psychological intrigues that human beings embroil themselves in will find a measure of relief and understanding from reading Tell Tale. Whilst reading the book I experienced the odd sensation of feeling as if I was sitting and listening to an older, wiser friend discussing his life experiences and hard-won philosophies. Janssen's writing is immediate, accessible, and entertaining. He talks to his readers, not at them, and skilfully draws them into the story of his life with his openness and candour.
Tell Tale's front cover is colourful and eye-catching. The book contains some typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors, but these do not detract from a fascinating and compelling debut novel. I know one thing for sure: I want another book from Janssen. His creative spirit, insight into human nature, celebration of diversity, and relentless honesty make the world a better place.
Lines from one of Cher's latter-day popular successes, "The Music's No Good without You"*, filter through my thoughts: "Everyone was watching/ You were the freakiest thing on show/ Dazzling the crystal ball/ They all loved to watch it glow/ You were the centre of attention/ The eye of the storm/ A whirlwind from outer space/ Like a twister on the sea …/ The music's no good without you, baby/ The music's no good at all …
Tell Tale (ISBN: 0-9584874-1-3) is available from better bookstores, such as Exclusive Books, at a cost of R120 plus VAT.
* "The Music's No Good without You"
LitNet: 11 May 2005
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