Review: Beryl Eichenberger
The Third Reel by SJ Naude (Umuzi)
Recently I had the privilege of moderating a panel of writers at the Open Book Festival. The theme was boundaries, which posed an interesting angle on the books I had to read and also opened up a number of questions about what we perceive as boundaries and how we push them ourselves (but that’s another story.)
SJ (Fanie) Naude was one of my authors with his debut novel The Third Reel.
A work that definitely pushes the boundaries of convention, hope and desire, it is written in an eminently readable and beautiful style. Part serious, part thriller, the novel explores obsession in an era of cold war.
Set in the 1980s, the story concerns Etienne, a young South African studying film in London after escaping conscription and a homophobic father. Thatcher’s London, anti- apartheid demonstrations, AIDS, sex, refugee status, post-modern art and squats form the background. Etienne falls in love with a German artist whose bizarre installations include collecting hair from child patients at the hospital where he works, a fresh flask of semen daily as well as photographs of dead Victorian children.
When Etienne finds the first reel of a film made by a group of German filmmakers in the 1930s he is determined to find the missing reels. His lover Axel disappears to Berlin and so the search begins. His quest becomes an obsession and takes him to a Europe that is still heavily divided.
Crossing from the west into the east brings Etienne into a world of suspicion, dark histories, and the brutality and heartbreak of Axel’s truth. Naudé takes us from the dark tunnels of the Berlin border post back to the light of South Africa and South America, confronting family secrets and finally showing Etienne what his future could hold.
The story is intricate, ambitious and haunting. Reflective of the cities in which the book is set, you’ll relive the sights and smells of an era that was fraught with sex, music, illness, loss and love. The construction is that of a fine piece of architecture, brilliantly fashioned and held together, taking us on a step-by-step journey through all the rooms of the psyche.
The characters are sharply drawn and the fine attention to detail allows Naudé’s use of the English language to blossom and flow. While many of his scenes are graphic and sometimes brutal, there are softer moments where empathy is dominant. Without doubt a book of great literary standing and one that holds the reader in its thrall, never losing its grip on you.
Uncovering the complex layers of the story is a rewarding journey.
Naudé is an award-winning author who now lives in Johannesburg after decades as a corporate lawyer in London and New York. He holds master’s degrees from Cambridge and Columbia. He returned to South Africa to read for a creative writing master’s degree with Marlene van Niekerk in Stellenbosch and his first collection of short stories The Alphabet of Birds/Alfabet van die Voëls, was roundly applauded and won several prizes, including the UJ Debut Prize.