Jonathan Amid - 2011-12-15
Triumph of the Pennywhistle
Publisher: Frog Books
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While I was reading Sofi Adelbrand’s debut novel Triumph of the Pennywhistle(the author’s real name is Runa Prinsloo) a few questions relentlessly battered against the hinges of my reading experience: Is there a limit to the ways that certain stories can be told? Do we, and should we, forgive authors certain limitations and flaws due to the merit of their literary ambitions? Finally, is the grand narrative of apartheid well and truly buried?
Adelbrand is a South African author and poet who struggled to find a local publisher for this work, and eventually she found a haven for her creative output at an Indian publisher, Frog Books, who recently released this novel. Having not yet heard of Triumph of the Pennywhistle upon being commissioned to do this review, I read the blurb of the novel (which fails to mention the setting of Sophiatown and South Africa at all, but speaks of an “edge-of-your-seat” experience) with much interest, and prepared myself for what is sold as a weighty experience of “emotional travel through the lives of a group of people, all connected in on (sic) way or another”, that would “bring the reality of tyranny to [my] doorstep”.
Unfortunately, the novel is an unwieldy, poorly proofread sermon on the injustices of apartheid and the “emotional and moral death” that for Adelbrand characterised the experience of blacks under white minority rule. Instead of presenting the reader with some kind of fresh angle – a novel take on our country’s history, metafictional or historiographical nuances that speak to the difficulty of writing trauma or writing the past, or indeed even populating the text with a cast of characters that eschew stereotypical or one-dimensional representation – Triumph of the Pennywhistle sells itself as a meditation on the effects of violence and alienation, one that is largely bereft of subtlety or restraint.
To summarise the plot would go a long way to reducing the pleasures to be had from the novel, and so I will say only the following: we are (yet again) confronted with a diverse group of characters that must contend with police brutality, gang violence, emotional and physical upheaval and forced removal and forms of cultural conflict. Tradition clashes with modernity, the young and the old engage in lengthy debates as to what the “right things” are in uncertain circumstances, and along the way a variety of lessons pertaining to tolerance, dignity, acceptance and power are learnt.
This thematic well is certainly not dry or necessarily dreary, but the novel falls squarely into the trap of “telling”, very rarely showing the brutal march of history into deeply personal territory without excessive authorial intrusion. For every lovely, lyrical description of a young girl looking at a face and its reflection on a tin can or the untouched beauty of a flower, the narrative voice feels compelled to project every ounce of interiority into the stratosphere. Time and time again we are bludgeoned by a barrage of rhetorical questions woven into the thread of character thoughts, and after a while the tedium of unanswered questions and largely unqualified statements is all but intolerable.
One aspect of the novel that is well handled and affecting is its view of the liberating and empowering appeal of music. Through the characterisation of the pennywhistle as an instrument of hope, of youthful playfulness and spirited interaction, Adelbrand hints at a greater project of giving a voice to those silenced or pushed to the margins of history. The most striking passages in the novel offer the kind of supple, energetic prose that is lacking in large parts of the work as a whole, and present a stark contrast to the moralising and somewhat sanctimonious tone of Triumph of the Pennywhistle on the whole.
After the legacy of the cultural work done by the Drum writers, Coetzee, Gordimer, Jacobsen, Mpe and many others, it is hard to see what Adelbrand’s well-intentioned but unsatisfying novel adds to an already voluminous corpus of writing, one that seems to demand that authors find new ways of describing and inscribing the past, and the “now”.