High Low In-betweenby Kavish Chetty / 09.09.2010
Political drama is best undertaken in the theatre of personal consciousness. That’s why High Low In-between is (much like its author I should add) so elegant and thoughtful – it spares us the agonies of the analytic; the tortures of the literal. It is so aware of how personal identity is the aggregate of the histories and politics that have gracelessly lurched us out into the “darkness of mere being” (I borrow that from Jung, don’t accuse me of high drama!). But rather than feed at the already sapped-out vein of “apartheid fiction proper”, it re-imagines the inescapable conflict of South African life in fresh terms; in modern terms.
For all the ambitious accolades I lavish it with above, the novel is now the recipient of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Literary Award.
It benefits you, the audience, for me to reveal the plot in cryptic terms – and urge you not to read the jacket cover. The opening chapter of High Low In-between climaxes beautifully, unexpectedly; and the second chapter subverts the climax of the first. Coovadia’s language is restrained in the best possible way. His writing is lucid and expository, but it holds you in a sensual grip mid-sentence; he is perfectly versed in the tropes of the comic (see his earlier works, The Green-Eyed Thieves and The Wedding), but the novel has an unmistakable tone of the elegiac.
Our scene is laid in middle-class Durban. Doctor Nafisa is busying about preparing for her husband’s retirement party and the arrival of her son Shakeer. But (and here is me being delightlessly cryptic) there is a change in the order of things, and suddenly all thoughts are consumed by conspiracies, by the whispers of the past. Now the novel is narrated alternately by Nafisa and by Shakeer – both are coming to terms with personal changes which have given them cause to revaluate their lives. Nafisa must confront the underbelly of organ donation, AIDS denialism and threats by the SARS against her, shall we say, less-than-perfect financial affairs.
The domestic drama allows our protagonists to navigate identity in post-apartheid South Africa, more complex a social backdrop for the middle-class than perhaps we might perceive. The commentary is disillusioned and critical – it’s easy to see a left-handed smack at Mbeki’s policies and the throbs of guilt and anxiety that have become part of our personalities. The flux of the disposition within Nafisa’s household brings out a study of perception, that is at once political and existential, but always told in vibrant and heady prose.
“Shakeer had aspirations to be a photographer in his own right, but his choice of subjects was curious, and even outdated. When she visited him in California he had an exhibition in a Santa Monica gallery comprised of portraits of holy men in Benares, Varanasi. She had seen something similar in a gallery in Knightsbridge when Harold Wilson was still in office. But you really could never tell with Shakeer. Nafisa sometimes identified something irrelevant in his character. It caused her pain to see it, to see anything imperfect in her son or husband or brother. Shakeer had been talking about writing a novel for years. Yet, like her, he couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time without developing a headache. To the best of her knowledge he had never actually set down a word of his proposed novel on an actual piece of paper … Nafisa’s mind contained several casements. One looked out on her husband, another upon her brother Nawaz, one on Shakeer. Whatever else was occupying her attention on the outside she continued to watch them in her imagination. Indeed it was a defining fact of her consciousness. This glow, this subtle stony light from magic windows, pervaded her experience. On certain nights Nafisa woke to recall that, in her dream, she had been gazing at her son. It wasn’t necessary to speak a word to him. Nor was it necessary, in the dream, that he acknowledge her presence. Weeks went by without her chatting to Sharky, particularly when he was on assignment in places like Papua New Guinea and Antananarivo, but she was as close to him as if he were sleeping downstairs in his room. So it didn’t make that great a difference if Sharky was physically present in the house. He had never really been gone. Nothing was lost. Nothing had changed.”