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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

How H-rating really works (plus a reading update)

cuddleHow exactly does the Helenometer operate? What constitutes H-rated reading, and what doesn’t? I feel the need to try and clarify this in my sometimes bumpy quest to read local writing, the krimi brigrade in particular. I must confess I myself find the criteria very confusing. The only clear, absolute rule: in non-fiction, the suffering of animals may not be described; in fiction, no animals may suffer. I’ll close the book (or any other medium) the minute an author expects me to engage with a narrator who deliberately hurts an animal, even if it’s “just” kicking the dog. (I remember the flashpoint of rage that made me chuck that awful Tuscan Sun woman’s book across the room: sitting in a piazza, she revels in the authentic sights and sounds of Italian life going on around her — including a pack of picturesque children “tormenting a kitten”.) The reasons for this go back to childhood traumas, which I am not going to get into at this point, although I strongly recommend that you do not allow your six-year-old to read Steinbeck’s The Red Pony.

I can also pretty much guarantee that I’ll loathe any “hero” who pants to get into the pants of children or teenage girls half his age (Lolita, which I couldn’t finish, made my skin crawl). And I can’t see the point of novels about heroes/anti-heroes who sexually harass their students/colleagues/servants/slaves, commit statutory or any other kind of rape, or resort to prostitutes.

For the rest, it gets very blurry. I can’t take too much gore, and I’m squeamish about excessive descriptions of body fluids. I don’t like any kind of writing with an undertone of misogyny (more common in the “great” 20th-century writers than you might think), and fictional accounts or memoirs of child abuse don’t go down very well either — the research I’ve done in this field has annihilated my ability to read anything other than the driest statistical, legal and medical reports.

I’ve said before that I’m shamelessly prelapsarian; what I need when reading about great trauma or evil is a narrative of redemption, or failing that, transcendence. This was considered terribly infra dig when I was a graduate student; I was first suspected of being a Leavisite, but thanks to my feminist rants, I was soon left alone (rather the way a herd will shun the rabid animal in its midst).

Years later, I sat listening to Susan Sontag give a lecture at UCT shortly before her death. She made no bones about it: for her, the only point to art of any kind was its potential to address imaginatively questions of moral action and redemption. I almost rushed forward to prostrate myself at her feet.

So no misery for the sake of closely observed misery. But this doesn’t mean that I can handle only writing that promises rainbows after the storm. The wonder of books is that I keep finding authors that describe the most appalling suffering, but enthrall me nonetheless. For them, I might even tolerate a few animals being caught up in the general maelstrom, although I’ve learnt how to spot such passages and skip them.

In this category, I’ve recently read two exceptional books about cataclysmic suffering, and the regeneration that creeps out of the ruins left by human violence, greed and stupidity. They are The Poisonwood Bible (by Barbara Kingsolver) and The Book Thief (by Markus Zusak).

Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible is worth a hundred academic studies on the colonial and post-colonial history of Africa, the Congo in particular. I get exasperated with Kingsolver when she starts moralising (as she does towards the end), but the extraordinary thing she does in this book is show — with incredible beauty and power — how those who come to Africa from elsewhere are utterly and permanently altered by their interaction with our continent. The more determined her characters are to make some kind of “impact” on Africa, the more profoundly Africa claims and shapes them. It’s a narrative that runs deliberately counter to Heart of Darkness. As her characters are woven inextricably into the turbulence of the Congo in the 1960s and beyond, they find light and humanity and love — and even a sense of belonging — rather than Conrad’s “horror”.

The Book Thief is gorgeous, even though it deals with the fate of ordinary working-class Germans during World War II, in particular, one apparently unremarkable family which risks everything to shelter a Jew. Not a new story, you may think, especially as the heroine of the title is a little girl — but this no fictional version of Anne Frank’s story. It’s original and even funny, with an unusual narrator, a contrary love story or two (the tenderness between the book thief and her foster-father will make you weep), and through it all, an obsession with books and reading. (According to Wikipedia, it’s being sold as a “young adult” book in the US. I smell a marketing ploy.)

But there are other books to which my responses are far more complicated. I am trying to read When A Crocodile Eats The Sun by Peter Godwin (his harrowing and tautly written account of his family’s efforts to survive as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe implodes around them), and it’s agonising. I’m reading it because a recurring (real) character in the book is my darling friend Keith, who appears on the first page, who helps the Godwins find a resting-place for the ashes of Peter’s sister Jain, who has told me many of the same stories that appear on Godwin’s pages.

When I got to the part where Keith tells Peter he’ll never leave Zimbabwe (where a long line of ancestors and his twin brother are buried), I cried so hard, tears flew out of my nose. Keith had no choice in the end; love renders us all vulnerable. Just as the Godwin’s domestic worker, generously pensioned off, returned with local goons, forced to demand a bribe, so did Keith’s housekeeper. In her case, the threat was blackmail; Keith and his partner could be arrested for homosexuality. So they were forced to pack up and move to Cape Town (where, incidentally, they were at last able to marry — pause to be proudly South African for a moment). Keith is homesick every day of his life.

For Keith’s sake, I have managed to get three-quarters of the way through this book (skipping everything that looked even remotely animal-related). Godwin is a superb writer — you have to admire someone who describes summer cicadas as “Nature’s tinnitus”. But I’m not sure I can go on, partly because there can be no possible redemption, either in the book or on the immediate horizon for Zimbabwe.

I’ve also just finished The Worst Date Ever, by Jane Bussmann. At first glance, definitely not H-rated. Lots of bodily fluids, a good sprinkling of rape and torture, child soldiers, one breathtakingly un-PC observation after another. But the story of how Jane went from being a celebrity journalist to tracking down war criminals in Northern Uganda, if not uplifting in any conventional sense, is ultimately a cheering read, not least because of the glorious savagery with which the author rips into both the Hollywood schleb culture and the African aid racket. Imagine a piranha who never stops taking the piss. Plus it’s a most original (if weird and one-sided) love story, and the hero is the Real Deal (I googled him — he is not made up, something I first wondered about).

While taking breaks from Godwin’s book:

For light relief, I gobbled up Zukiswa Wanner’s The Madams. Worth it for the “Siz, get your gun” scene alone (where one of the characters finds her man in flagrante). Pure lekker local chick lit, like eating chakalaka chips. Also, courtesy of Karina, I’ve read the first two books in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (she who writes with a thesaurus one hand) and Wishful Drinking (Carrie Fisher). The latter is a very good warm-up for the Jane Bussmann book, an irreverent memoir-cum-stand-up routine that’s required reading for Star Wars fans (the real Star Wars flicks, not those messy expensive prequels).

Karina is mesmerized by the Twilight books; Sarah L read the first one, and said it was so bad, it made her eyes bleed. I think both are right. First of all, Ms Meyer is Desperately In Need of an Editor (does she care? She does not. She and her publishers have made enough money to be invulnerable). She throws words at the page in the most approximate fashion, with every other idiom mangled. She never uses a simple verb if she can find a synonym: her characters don’t laugh, they “snicker”, “chuckle”, “snort”, and so on. Repetition? Chuck it on with a trowel.

twilightBut I think I understand her astonishing appeal. She gets just how intensely, desperately serious the feelings of teenagers are. For those who remember the agonies and ecstasies of first love, the life-or-death seriousness of it all, how we raged at patronizing parents who said we would “get over” our heartbreak, the mantra “You don’t understand!” — here’s a writer who really DOES understand. She earnestly likens her rather soggy heroine’s boy troubles (do I go with the vampire or the werewolf? Like I really really really love the vampire, but the werewolf is my buddy, and he’s cute too) to the travails of Romeo and Juliet. At length. She has not an ironic or satiric cell in her body. Anyone at the mercy of their emotions can read this safe in the knowledge that they Will Not Be Mocked. Meyer understands that for teenagers, to love is to be heroic, star-crossed, deathless and at risk of dying for love all at once.

Aluta continua: Daddy’s Girl

To loop back to the local scene, I am also trying to read Margie Orford‘s latest Clare Hart thriller, Daddy’s Girl. This is NOT H-rated. It deals with child abduction (which makes the Helenometer jangle in alarm), and after a few pages, I had to stop and have a stiff drink. Then I braced myself and started again. Margie and I care passionately about the same causes; we both support Rape Crisis in our professional and personal capacities. So I almost feel I owe it to the Dame, who has always tried to give the disappeared and the silenced a voice, to pay attention to how she does this in her fiction writing. As an editor and reader, I can tell you this: the lady can do plot. And how. From an H-rating perspective, however, this is a bumpy ride. It’s literally too close to home. For instance, when Margie describes Dr Ruth Lyndall in the morgue, I flash straight to Lorna Martin (quite simply the most heroic woman I know). Too many of the characters, the victims, are all too real to me. But this is obviously a personal issue, not a literary one. Margie, I think I’m going to trust you to make things right in the end, and carry on reading.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    October 16th, 2009 @08:22 #
     
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    Helen, Daddy's Girl all comes right in the end. It is very often the kindness of strangers that prevails. There is very little gore - lots of fear - but little gore. So keep going. I will buy you a drink if you get to the end. Which I think you will like...I am very impressed that you are diving in there.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    October 16th, 2009 @09:12 #
     
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    Compelling exegesis of your methods, Helen - thanks.

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  • Sven
    Sven
    October 16th, 2009 @10:43 #
     
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    Helen, you left out the special role lobsters play in your H-rating. I'd be interested to see your reaction to Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    October 16th, 2009 @12:24 #
     
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    Dear Sven, I forgot the lobsters! They (along with their spiny sea-brethren) count as animals for purposes of H-rating. The chances of me reading Palahniuk in this lifetime: zero.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    October 16th, 2009 @12:32 #
     
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    Sven, you should have gone to Helen's hospital bedside and read her Haunted. She would have known what she was missing.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    October 16th, 2009 @16:04 #
     
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    Waiting in the queue (car license) at the appropriately named Gallow's Hill, I read another 80 pages of Daddy's Girl and the time just FLEW. I think Sarah over at the other comment thread is right: by now, all I want to know is What Happens Next. Salome Ndluvu is eeeeeevil. Margie, I think you're going to have to buy me that drink!

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    October 17th, 2009 @09:49 #
     
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    Woo hoo! Make mine a double!! I finished Daddy's Girl! and Colleen (co-owner of the book, this is what happens when you earn a living through books, you can't afford to buy the product), I really think you'll enjoy it. The tension positively HUMS. Now I think I'm ready for Jassy...

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    October 17th, 2009 @10:13 #
     
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    A triple if you read all three:) I am glad to have dragged you down amongst the crime novelists...but I owe you a drink - and I am glad to have got past your fear factor. You have to admit - there is a lot of fear but very little gore. In fact no gore, that I can remember...just fear

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