by SRB

Edinburgh International Book Festival – Friday, 27 August 2010

August 30, 2010 | by SRB

Reviewer: Alan Taylor

Kopano Matlwa and Marlene van Niekerk
Joanne Harris
Alexander McCall Smith

SOUTH Africa’s travails, submerged somewhat following its successful hosting earlier this year of the World Cup, resurfaced yesterday at the Book Festival. Kopan Matlwa and Marlene van Niekerk, who have each written a brace of novels, may be genetically representative of opposite ends of the rainbow nation  the former is black, the latter an Afrikaner  but they were united in their anxiety over their government’s attempts introduce censorship via the Protection of Information Board.
Apartheid, said Niekerk, may officially have been declared dead in 1994 but there is life in it yet. “It did not start one day and end another,” added Matlwa, an urgent reader of her own work, which sounded forcefully poetic.
Niekerk, meanwhile, read from The Way of the Women, which concerns a white woman who adopts a coloured child who is later made to live in the backyard when she  has a baby of her own. “Unfortunately that happened in South Africa,” she said, “and may still happen in South Africa.”
But what was potentially an enlightening session was marred by vapid chairing, an all too common complaint, and it petered out frustratingly.

The same might be said of Joanne Harris’s appearance. Best known for her novel Chocolat, Harris, a former French teacher, did not lack authority or confidence. The problem was she had very little of interest to say. Her latest book is called blueeyedboy [nb: correct] which, she said,
unfolds through posts on an internet site. She read a swathe which had overtones of The Archers. “Who would have thought a little white lie could snowball into  murder?” The male chairperson was especially happy when Harris mentioned cakes and confectionery, which may account  for her appeal among ladies of a certain age. Harris herself acknowledged the help of
Microsoft Word by which means she may move around text at the click of a switch. Thus
international bestsellers are manufactured.

Few writers are as productive as Alexander McCall Smith. This year alone he has produced four novels. That very morning, he said, he’d dashed off a chapter for his series called Corduroy Mansions, which runs on the Daily Telegraph’s website before it appears between boards. In order to cover the gamut of his output he was awarded no fewer than five slots in the Book
Festival’s hectic programme. 
An instinctive performer, with a droll manner and an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, he regaled the audience with updates on the development of his many characters. Some of them, he said, show no sign of getting any older while  others, it would appear, are actually getting younger. Such is the power of  fiction.
One for whom he has a special fondness is Bertie, the six-year-old who features in 44 Scotland Street, and who longs to be eighteen because he knows he will then be free of his mother’s iron grip and, who knows, his author’s. Bertie, said McCall Smith, dreams of going to Paris… or Glasgow.For inexplicable reasons the Edinburghers found this terribly funny.

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