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Limping towards Gillian Slovo

Rachelle Greeff

Click on the book jacket to purchase your copy of Ice Road from now!

Ice Road Ice Road by Gillian Slovo
Published by Little, Brown, 2004
ISBN: 0316727482
560 pages, hardcover

One foot in my neat Nina Roche journalistic boot, the other in my author’s 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 I’m in Ms Slovo’s 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. That’s all.”

But I don’t breathe a word. I’m 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. She’s 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 I’m utterly surefooted in my Nina Roche’s. There will be no authors’ heart-to-heart. Ms Slovo is reserved, or even aloof. Which, I don’t 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 don’t go there," warns a colleague who interviewed her a few days earlier. “Don’t refer to her past. She’ll 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 father’s 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.

Slovo’s 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.”

Irina’s 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 Mountain’s 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 don’t know his name) of her precious media minutes waits silently opposite her. He seemed uncertain, but his author certainly didn’t 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 mother’s 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.

Ice Road Gillian Slovo was born in South Africa in 1952. As the daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists, she witnessed the colossal upheaval that transformed her native South Africa. In her internationally bestselling memoir, Every Secret Thing, she recalls the extraordinary events that surrounded her family’s persecution and exile, and reconstructs the truth of her parents’ relationship and her own turbulent childhood.
In 1964 she came to England, where she still lives. She is the author of the saga, Ties of Blood, a political thriller, The Betrayal, and the novels, Façade and Red Dust. She has also written a series of thrillers featuring the detective Kate Baeier: Morbid Symptoms, Death by Analysis, Death Comes Staccato, Catnap and Close Call. She lives in London with her partner and her daughter.
Rachelle Greeff is an experienced and versatile author of several novels, short story collections and illustrated children's books. Her debut novel, Al die windrigtings van my wêreld (Queillerie, 1996), was translated into Dutch and German, and her first collection of short stories, Die rugkant van die bruid (Tafelberg, 1990) was awarded a CNA Debut Prize. She received the RAU Creative Writing Prize in 2001 for her third short story collection, Merke van die nag (Tafelberg, 2000), and the Sanlam Literary Award in 1999. One of her short stories, “Tell him it is never too late”, was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Literature, 2003. Her most recent novel is Hanna (Tafelberg, 2002). Several of her short stories have been anthologised, not only in South African collections but also in collections in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and the USA. Rachelle has worked as a journalist for publications including Die Burger, Cape Times, This Day, Huisgenoot, Sarie, Insig and True Love, and her formal qualifications include degrees in drama, journalism (postgraduate, cum laude, University of Stellenbosch) and creative writing (Masters, cum laude, University of Cape Town). Ice Road

LitNet: 3 June 2004

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