When I was about ten years old, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was one of my very favourite books. Besides the fact that I was very proud of the fact that I had read the whole thing (it was one of the first proper English books I ever read), I was captivated by the world created in that book. I ran outside to build a raft, complete with a Jolly Roger made out of a black trash bag and some white paper stapled to it. This story is probably not that funny – until I tell you that I grew up in the Little Karoo and that the raft was built to sail on a sheet of that grey-blue rock we call nabank.
When was the last time a book made you do something? And I don’t mean non-fiction, even though I love telling the story of how Barbara Sher’s I could do Anything got me onto a plane. No, today I’m talking story books. I’m talking about the time a scene in a Mills&Boon made you want to try cold potatoes with roast chicken and a jug of milk. Die keer toe Trompie en die Boksombende jou geleer kettie skiet het. Oupa Landman se Viool made me build a bit of stone wall when I was about eleven, because of a glorious scene in it describing exactly how to build a stone wall. Here’s a bit I translated from the conversation between the young Johan, who wants to be a farmer, and his father, teaching him how his grandfather, Oupa Landman, used to build with stone:
Johan, if you want to be a farmer, nothing on this earth should be able to throw you. I also struggled back in the day to find my direction with a stone, but once you have the knack and the feel for a stone inside of you, it becomes real easy. The place where you want to lay a stone, you must fix properly in your mind first, and then you pick out the right stone from among all the others with your eyes. That stone there, in front of your left foot, give it to me for a bit.
But, Dad, I already had that one!
Just give it, lemme see. See, you must always remember: a stone has a face; and if he does not have one, then you hit one onto him with a hammer. Yes, and then he also has a backside and a belly side. Look at this stone: if he lies this way, he won’t lie right out of pure embarrassment, because his face is facing inside. Now turn him like thís and then he says: ‘No, I don’t want to lie on my back, turn me over onto my belly.’ And… see, there he lies now and he laughs with pure glee!
– (Oupa Landman se Viool – GG Joubert)
More recently The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels pulled me into the worlds of postwar Poland, gardening and words so sharply, that I could feel myself stuffing sentences in my pocket like a collector. Candace Bushnell’s Summer in the City got me to say “I’m a writer!” and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian shoved a map of Eastern Europe into my hands. Dan Sleigh’s Wals met Mathilda made me sing and Dalene Matthee’s forest books let me hear Benjamin call “Meisiekind!” in the Knysna Forest. Will Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop get me onto a river boat? Will John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent make me talk to the canned food in my kitchen? Who knows. But if you go down that dusty road in the Little Karoo, my stone wall is still standing there. The one you see in the picture up there is a different story and a different builder altogether, I’ll tell you another time.
So tell me, what did that novel make you do?