How My Father’s Death Led to a Book
My father’s death, after almost a lifetime of absence, seems to close the yawning chasm between us. I feel him closer in death than when he was alive. The seed of an “inclination to look back on history” was planted the day I heard he had died.
The beginnings of this century found me in the clasp of the spirit of Mephistopheles. It felt, in Bob Dylan poetic song language, like “a time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need”.
I don’t know why in my mind the Dylan song “Every Grain of Sand”, with its explicitly Christian lyrics, particularly is associated with the events of that epoch in my life, but it fits well with what the philosopher Immanuel Kant said about music being the “quickening art” of the soul.
The Master’s Hand in My Life
Looking back now, at a remove of a decade and a half, I can see that my spirit was finding its way into the depths of things. Like Dylan in his song, I can even see the “master’s hand” in the events of my life then and in what was happening within me — including how they also led to my conversion to Catholicism.
In retrospect, I now understand that the “dying voice within me”, the void that brought St Augustine’s restlessness, is what the Catholic spiritual tradition terms “the dark-night of the soul”.
My father’s life didn’t trigger that condition but it sure put a cherry on its top, so to say. His death, after almost a lifetime of absence, seems to close the yawning chasm between us. I feel him closer in death than when he was alive. Didn’t Christ also tell his apostles that he would be closer to them when he returns to his Father?
The Yoruba culture of Nigeria, though matriarchal, believes a child inherits its mother’s biological body but gets its spirit from the father.
Death Planted a Seed
I inherited my father’s melancholic disposition and stoic tendencies, even took them to the edge of depression. I didn’t know him enough to judge if he was a depressive, but if the solitary life he led after he was divorced from our family is anything to go by, then yes, he too had a tendency of, to return to Dylan, “toiling in the danger and the morals of despair”. He was a natural solitary.
I was in the grips of a depression that morning as I stood next to Fort Frederick, at Prospect Hill in Port Elizabeth, when my sister called to inform me our father had died in the early hours.
The contrast between the sheer magnificence of overlooking the shimmering silence of Algoa Bay’s Baakens river mouth and my internal emotions at that moment is something that will take a lifetime to mine from my spirit. I am often troubled by nature’s indifference to our concerns.
Characteristically, my mind avoided collision with the reality of the news by concentrating on the expanse of the ocean down below, the self-surrendering ease by which Baakens waters silently collapse into the arms of the shimmering bay; the industry of the harbour… I kept imagining how it must have been for the first Xhosas as they watched what they thought to be “floating houses” at sea land, since this is the scene which British settlers arrived on.
The seed of an “inclination to look back on history” was planted that day.
This month I am harvesting that seed with the publication of my book. Titled The Broken River Tent, it’s the first in a trilogy I call “The River People”.
The Xhosas like to refer to themselves as “the river people”. They associated river mouths in particular with clairvoyance, a door to what they called “shadowland”, where ancestors live.
The title of my book alludes to TS Elliot’s poem “The Fire Sermon”.
Sitting at the banks of River Thames — perhaps with emotions similar to mine at the Baakens’ river mouth, since, as the preacher says, there’s nothing new in the world — the poet laments the departure of nymphs, the breaking of the clairvoyant grip of mythical powers in the nature of things.
The Epic Struggle for Land
The Broken River Tent, which is published by Black Bird Books (a subsidiary of Jacana Media) is a novel of inner dialogues and stream of consciousness, of trying to tarry one’s life, paretic eccentricities, through the eye of history.
And it is a retelling, with the purchase of imagination, of the epic struggle for land between the Xhosas and the British in the 19th century that took more than a hundred years to resolve — if indeed it is resolved.
It is told through the eyes of a contemporary young man, Phila, who enters into the analeptic memory of his people.
Fresh from his studies in German he hears “the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea”. Sometimes when he turns there’s Maqoma, the chief at the centre of Xhosa resistance, whose mind he mines.
Other times it’s only him who must engage the chronicle of historical interrogation, of Xhosa culture encountering Christendom.
It all ends as the kaleidoscopic view of South African lives, both past and present.
Phila, like Cain in Dylan’s song, and not so different to the biblical one, must follow “this chain of events…to ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay”.
As I wrote the book, I sometimes shared the realisation of the ancient Roman poet Livy: “While I write down these ancient events, I do not know through what connection my mind grows old and some religion holds me.”