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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #81: “The past is another country ...” – Clive Algar on writing about the past in fiction


Clive Algar - 2011-10-06

It was a bizarre but enjoyable experience for me to see my first novel, Journeys to the End of the World, on display in the bookshops in 2007, a few days after my 65th birthday. And when the reviews started coming in, with critics calling it “spellbinding”, “haunting”, and “riveting”, I decided that the experiment had been worthwhile, and that I would start work on my second one right away.

Although creative writing had always been my ambition, a busy career in the financial and mining industries left me with no time to write – and hardly any time to read for pleasure. During the latter part of my career I was based in London and my office was only a couple of blocks from the famous Hatchard’s bookshop. I bought wonderful books there and took them home, where they slowly gathered dust.

When I retired and returned to South Africa my wife and I settled on our small farm in the Western Cape, where for the first time in many years I could read what I wanted to, when I wanted to.

One of the subjects that I read was the history of World War I. My late father had served in the trenches of the Western Front and as a child I had asked him about the war, but apart from telling me a few amusing anecdotes he had always changed the subject. Later I realised that dredging up submerged memories of the horrors he had experienced there was extremely painful for him, even after the passage of so many years. He preferred not to look back.

I was also reading South African history, and I came across a remark by the missionary Dr John Philip about the behaviour of certain Khoi during the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799. The symptoms he described sounded similar to those of World War I shell shock. Around that time I noticed a newspaper article about post-traumatic stress disorder among present-day victims of crime, and suddenly I saw a link between South Africans of 1799, 1916 and the present time.

The opening line of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-between reads: “The past is another country – they do things differently there.” I believe in the wisdom of that line: it encapsulates a truth that any writer of historical fiction must acknowledge. The actions and motivations of characters set in the distant past cannot be fully comprehended by us today, because they are filtered through our experience of life as it is now. To attempt to interpret the lives and beliefs and motives of people from the past, the novelist must write about universal themes, about the human condition. As Isaiah Berlin said, “Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes people human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.” I saw post-traumatic stress as a common factor, and from that grew the plot and characters of Journeys to the End of the World.

My second novel, Flowers in the Sand, published earlier this year, is set during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, mainly during the closing months of the conflict. It is early days yet, but so far the critics have been kind enough to find it “completely engrossing”, “superbly written” and “a great adventure story”. Whatever other critics may say, I hope that my readers will understand and empathise with the troubled protagonist Emma, who, more than a century ago, struggled with moral dilemmas which threatened to overwhelm her.

Well, I am 69 now and my third novel (not set during a war this time) is currently being considered by a publisher. What can I hope to achieve in a writing career that started so late? There are two late bloomers that I admire: Giuseppe di Lampedusa because his only novel, The Leopard, was a great one, unfortunately published posthumously; and Mary Wesley, who was not a great novelist but was a great success. Mary’s first book was published when she was 70 and she went on to write many more, some of which had been made into films by the time she died at 90.

There’s not much satisfaction in being published posthumously, I would think, so if I may choose I’d like to do a Mary Wesley. Wouldn’t that be fun!

 

Journeys to the End of the World (ISBN 978-0-620-38334-9) and Flowers in the Sand (ISBN 978-0-620-47695-9) by Clive Algar are published by Penkelly Books, Cape Town (penkellybooks@yahoo.com) and are distributed by Helco (helen@helco.co.za). They are currently stocked by about 40 bookshops in South Africa and Namibia, and are available overseas via the website www.clivealgar.co.za or via Amazon.