NOT TO BE MISSED
"D'une même voix" (One tongue singing), a novel by Susan MANN
Translated in French by Béatrice Roudet and Sylvie Schneiter.
Paris: Editions Jean-Claude Lattès, 2006. 288p.
ISBN : 2-7096-2648-9.
Ce compte rendu en français
One could be excused for believing that this novel was written by a French author with a good insight into South African society. Who else could have told so empathically the story of a French nurse lost in South Africa at the end of the apartheid era ? But as truth has it D'une même voix was not written by a French novelist. Rather, it was by a South African writer born in Durban and writing in English: literature in translation can be very good, transcending linguistic barriers and sweeping readers off their feet. That's the case with this novel.
Camille Pascal is a young French women who has left home after a heartbreaking separation from her lover. She went as far as she could in the hope of forgetting the past and ends up in Western Cape. There, she starts a new life on the outskirts of a very small country town; here she buys a small "rondavel" to accommodate her young daughter Zara and her elderly father. The place is run down, but Camille manages to transform this rather squalid hovel into a very simple yet homely dwelling decorated with the pictures drawn by her little girl who, very soon, makes the acquaintance of children of her own age.
The life and relationships of these children with Zara tell, in a nutshell, the sombre story of their country: Blom September, whose parents belong to the Smit winery next door, reveals the darkest aspects of Black African's exploitation. Abused by the local Afrikaner owner, her parents are living a hellish existence dominated by drunkenness, rape, domestic violence and prejudice. For his part, Pieter Smit, the owner's son, echoes the ills and self-destructive nature of racism, greed and arrogance. Keen to share Zara and Blom's games, young Pieter longs to join in; but his parents are of a different mind and forbid him to see the girls, whipping him harshly to emphasis their point and, unbeknown to them, thereby destroying the future of the family estate. Also, there is the ringleader of "a band of pigtailed conspirators who had circled Zara at school, waving tiny fingers at her in knowing reprehension, gathering up their accusations in an evil little clump. "You have no dad... " (p.47). Together with their teacher, Mrs Meijer, who finds it hard to tolerate things different, they illustrate bullying and clannishness at its worst, as Camille soon finds out :
"Mrs Meijer was clearly not in the habit of being questioned. Or disagreed with. And, Camille felt, took particular exception that the heathen woman doing so spoke with a foreign accent. Camille could tell that difference made her feel unsure and uncomfortable. She seemed quick to condemn anything she did not understand with the full force of her godly judgement" (p.50).
Difficult as it is for Zara to find her own space in that stifled environment, it is nothing compared to the harsh reality confronting Camille on a daily basis. Her French accent, a different outlook on life, youth, and a frivolous way to dress; all that and more has made her an immediate target for the sharp tongues of the neighbourhood. Few are those who do not share Mrs Meijer's mistrust and aversion to the values she embodies. That hostility, however, does not prevent Camille from remaining true to herself and to move on with her life. Taking things as they come, she is determined to do what ever she can to establish meaningful relationships with the people around her. Her experience as a nurse becomes handy, but local social interaction leaves her at a loss. What can she do for Blom's mother who is repeatedly bashed by her husband and left unconscious on the floor?; what can she do for the employees of the winery and for the population settled in wretched slums and confronted by a complete lack of health care?; what can she do to assist the local nurses who refuse her offer of help?; and what can she do to accommodate the needs of people coming to see her when local owners refuse to help her build a small first aid room? Many such questions she answers with an admirable simplicity: "I'll do what I can".
This unpresumptuous lack of grand design, ulterior motives, pre-defined objectives and preoccupation with profit, cloaks a pleasant approach to life. So too are the care-free and warm atmosphere of the family in the context of taxing living conditions. In the end, the reality of apartheid and social dislocation catches up with Camille in the most tragic of circumstances, but even that does not detract readers from the idea that Camille made the right choices: that freedom, love and empathy with others are what makes life worth living.
In contrast, the painter Jake Coleman does not see the world that way. Unlike Camille, he is a smooth and self-centred operator who has sold his soul for fame and fortune in order to become the darling of the art community. The students of the school of fine art that bears his name love him and nothing seems destined to dim his cushy existence. Yet, for reasons he will not admit, success begins to leave him with a sour taste as he comes to realise the futility of his life and the emptiness of his work. He loses his self-confidence, sleep and inspiration, but does not want to jeopardise his self-serving and exploitative relationships with others: his attitude towards women in general and his mistress/secretary Trudy in particular, offer a typical example of his spurious personality:
"Jake likes her. He really does ... Deep down, he believes that every man deserves a Trudy. Someone who organises the details of his life, while dressing for him, laughing at his jokes and generally relieving the tension. Trudy is a lady of many talents, no doubt about that. If only he could think of a tactful way to get her to stop calling his house. Shouldn't be too difficult. Jake has always prided himself on being particularly good at lying to women. Is that wrong? he wonders. After all, he only tells them what they want to hear... " (p.40).
This shallowness he can feel, even if others cannot. But years of escapism have left him ill-equipped to face up to reality. "There is a disturbing fear in him that his work lacks life and purpose. His expression is two dimensional. People may be buying because he is still fashionable: and well marketed. But if probed, nobody would really know why. Critics are silent and gallery owners know better than to amputate a sure source of income. But none of this fools the Doctor of Fine Art himself" (p.7).
Jake and Camille's respective stories run parallel, though asynchronously and they come together when Zara, who has grown up to become a promising and talented painter, full of purpose and energy, meets Jake and becomes his student and lover. But Jake's obsession with his own personae leads him to squander his relationship with her in the same way he has wasted the rest of his life. As Jake shows, in a society riddled with violence and obsessed with appearance and conformity, living according to one's conscience comes at a price that not everyone is prepared to pay. If Jake had something to say to the world, it was not what the intelligentsia of South Africa wanted to hear and thus it was never said in his paintings. Instead, true to his character, what he offered to his wealthy patrons was "what they wanted to see", even if that meant turning himself into a flunkey of investors and business tycoons. He despises them, but at the same time complies submissively with their expensive caprices. His description of the Bryants says it all:
"With his round, rosy cheeks and unruly hair, Bryant effuses a kind of babyish bonhomie that comes with never having suffered a day's worry in his life. There is nothing money has not bought him: status, friends, security and entertainment. He is both animated and laminated by wealth... . His wife, the manicured and sleek Cecily Charlston-Bryant ... has a passion for French champagne and travel. ... She reminds him of a Pekinese ... But the couple own several of his paintings, which they hang all over their marble-floored Camp Bay home. And they seem to treasure having a celebrated artist to garnish their dinner table" (p.34).
Coleman's paintings hanging on the walls of in the Bryant's mansion are cold artefacts that lack the true value of Zara's drawings decorating the family "rondavel": there are indeed things money cannot buy. The reiteration of this simple truth would alone justify recommending this book. But the pleasure of reading D'une même voix goes further because this very carefully crafted novel enthrals readers by its narrative style, passion and a well orchestrated symphony of literary characters who are so much like us.
(This review is based on the French translation of the novel)
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities