Limping towards Gillian Slovo
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Ice Road by Gillian Slovo
Published by Little, Brown, 2004
560 pages, hardcover
One foot in my neat Nina Roche journalistic boot, the other in my authors Oskava slipper, I hobble to the Gillian Slovo interview in the colonial Vineyard Hotel, Upper Claremont. Metaphorically speaking, that is. As a journalist my sole task is to question. Anything else is limited to polite smooth-overs. As an author, when Im in Ms Slovos seat being interviewed, my single duty is to speak.
Inappropriately and unexpectedly this interviewer now badly needs to speak to her interviewee. She wants to say: Your parents were political heroes, mine absolutely not. Still, both sets of parenting, the one the negative of the other, produced watchful, stand-offish girls who tried to grasp the emotional deprivation first by burying themselves in a world of books, later by writing books. I realised this when I read your memoir. Thats all.
But I dont breathe a word. Im not here to ask Ms Slovo about her memoir Every secret thing (Little, Brown, 1997). And she is not on the autumn veranda of the Vineyard to hear the confessions of an African author. Shes here to promote her new novel, Ice Road, a firm and most deserving favourite on the Orange Prize Fiction shortlist. Being on the shortlist is prize enough, she says her publisher says and in literary circles some believe the Orange shortlist is stronger than the Whitbread or the Booker. Be that as it may, the £30 000 will be a most pleasant summer surprise if she did receive it next week.
Within seconds in her presence Im utterly surefooted in my Nina Roches. There will be no authors heart-to-heart. Ms Slovo is reserved, or even aloof. Which, I dont know. What I do know is that she is the spitting image of her late father, Joe Slovo, Umkhonto weSizwe chief of staff until 1994. But dont go there," warns a colleague who interviewed her a few days earlier. Dont refer to her past. Shell clam shut.
Gillian Slovo has indeed, at least publicly, out-flown the albatross of her famous parents. Joe Slovo died of cancer after only a short spell as housing minister in the first ANC government. His glamorous political activist wife, Ruth First, died much earlier, her life tragically ended by a letter bomb in Mozambique in 1984 by the apartheid regime. Now it is the middle Slovo daughter who makes headlines as person in her own, writing, right. Though I do imagine the legacy of a mother and fathers national presence and familial absence will forever ebb and flow in her work. Maybe one should not even attempt an escape from these primordial currents it reminds you of who you are. Even in the new novel, far removed from the Slovos and South Africa, the reader finds it: Maybe he, like most men, thinks parenthood is just a matter of saying yes (said of historian Anton Antonovich who rescues a young orphan he finds on a Moscow train).
Ice Road is a filmic, historical epic. It unfolds at a steady, leisurely pace in the tradition of the Russian novel painted on a large canvas. Many characters beautifully crafted and controlled by a seasoned, serious writer inhabit it. The book begins on the sinking ice-ship, Chelyuskin, in the Artic. A scientific expedition that went seriously wrong is, of course, an apparent, but nevertheless deft extended metaphor, as the rest of the novel is set primarily in Leningrad in the 1930s during the festival of death, the Stalin purges. It ends in even bleaker circumstances: Leningrad cut off from the outside world, starving, freezing and with war with Germany looming.
Slovos experience as a writer of thrillers serves her well. She harnesses you to every sentence and will not let you go until the bitter end. There is neither word nor phrase superfluous. Turning the final pages I was helplessly trapped in a sense of overwhelming doom. Until the voice of Irina Davydovna, survivor of much more than only the sinking ice-ship, snapped me from the desolate landscape: One of the things we know is this: we will survive, or that enough of us will.
Irinas sardonic, practical, sober voice spans the novel like a lifeline from beginning to end. She is illiterate when we meet her on the ice-ship, but learns to read and changes radically in the process. Amongst other things she dumps her brutish, abusive husband. But that is only the beginning. Reading creeps up on you and takes you over. Once you learn what it is to read, you also learn to think. To speak. To act," she says.
Even as a child, Slovo, the middle sister of three, was a ferocious reader. Now I read more with my mind. Then I read with my heart, read to escape, I think. As a teenager she waded through all the Russians greats, undoubtedly also inspired by her close Russian grandmother who taught that the Bolshoi was the only ballet and War and Peace the only cinematic masterpiece.
She and her teenage friends were sitting ducks for Dostoevsky. Now he seems a little hysterical.
She fell in love with Anna Karenina. When she researched Ice Road she revisited the Russians. Rereading Anna Karenina, I found myself not only grown up, but also looking at Russia with different eyes.
Working on Ice Road also continued her thoughts on memory. Can love be preserved by memory alone? wonders Polina Konstantinovna in the middle of the night. Says the author seventy years later: There is nothing like collective memory. Memory of a time is reflected by the personal circumstances of people. You interpret your past through the present and the future. The Leningrad siege survivors who I met in Russia underlined this … Fiction is so much harder and more complex to write than non-fiction where you can steer by, for instance, the facts. But fiction takes you anywhere. You can, for instance, go equally inside the head of the perpetrator and the victim.
I leave Ms Slovo pecking at a plump focaccia on the Vineyard veranda nestled against Table Mountains flank. She seems untouchable, wrapped in opaque courtesy. North London intelligentsia wear their civility lightly, like travel coats. She sits quietly, between memory and fiction.
The pale Penguin guardian (I still dont know his name) of her precious media minutes waits silently opposite her. He seemed uncertain, but his author certainly didnt know about LitNet. As she would never know of my initial Oskava urge. Slovo is only a traveller in Africa, with distant memories.
A snippet of what she wrote last year for the New Humanist around the TRC sittings where she came face to face with and even closer to her mothers murderers, comes to mind: The whole truth cannot be faced. And therefore it cannot be told.
Even her merely travelling towards the whole truth is sufficient for her readers. Ice Road proves it. It is a magnificent book.
LitNet: 3 June 2004
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