Monthly Archives: March 2018

Beware hubris – and keep your secrets to yourself

anatomy of a scandalReview: Vivien Horler

Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughn (Simon  Schuster/ Jonathan Ball)

The advice most parents would like to give their children is: don’t do anything that could spoil your life. But it’s in the specifics that things become tricky.

Don’t drive drunk. Beware of drugs. Condomise. And you can just see them rolling their eyes: “Ja, ma,” they say, and all you can hope is that something from all those years of bringing them up has stuck.

And another thing. Never expect anyone to keep your secrets for you. Not even your best friend. Not even your spouse. Continue reading

Cops, a sangoma – this thriller could only have been written in Africa

Review: Vivien Horler

Knucklebone, by NR Brodie (Picador Africa)

Knucklebone takes the SA-based detective thriller to a whole new level.

Set in a vibrant and rather sinister Johannesburg, we have a burglary, a company that helps foreign big game hunters, and the butchering of poached animals.

Then there are also a coven of witches, a sangoma, and a tokoloshe.

Ian Jack is a former cop known to his friends as Cousin – I suspect you need Cornish links to get Continue reading

Man Booker International: Some great novels – but none from Africa

man booker int 2018Article: Vivien Horler

Africa did not make the cut on the longlist of the Man Booker International Prize this year.

The Man Booker Prize is awarded for the best fiction written in English; the Man Booker International Prize celebrates the best novels – or collections of short stories – from around the world that have been translated into English and published in the UK. Continue reading

The knock on the door that led to terror

knock on the doorReview: Vivien Horler

The Knock on the Door – The story of the  Detainees Parents Support Committee, by Terry Shakinovsky and Sharon Cort (Picador Africa)

It all began with Barbara Hogan. In the late 1970s she had been recruited by the ANC in exile to give information about what was going on politically inside the country and to mobilise the white left. Four years later she was Wits Masters student who had built up contacts within many trade unions. Continue reading

The key to being an aspiring Englishman

rosenblums listReview: Vivien Horler

Mr Rosenblum’s List – Or friendly guidance for the aspiring Englishman, by Natasha Solomons (Sceptre)

You sometimes make delightful finds on the shelves of beach cottages. One I found on holiday this week is Mr Rosenblum’s List, published in 2010, and described on the cover as an international bestseller.

The Times shout says the book is “Hilarious and touching… prepare to be seriously charmed”. Continue reading

So who was the guy who tattooed the Auschwitz numbers?

tattooist of auschwitzReview: Vivien Horler

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris (Zaffre/ Jonathan Ball)

I was having a meal at Spier a few years ago when a family settled near me. The party included an elderly woman, who reached out for something on the table.

As her sleeve slid up, I saw a set of numbers tattooed on her wrist. I stared, appalled. Could that really be a Holocaust tattoo? The woman was nicely dressed, a touch of gold jewellery, surrounded by her family – she could have been any pleasant middle-class grandma. And yet, as we sat on that green terrace restaurant in the sunshine, those numbers hinted at a ghastly past.

Now I know that the man who engraved those numbers on her wrist might have been Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was one of the earliest inmates of Auschwitz, having arrived there in April 1942.

For nearly 50 years Sokolov kept silent about his wartime experiences. Even his son Gary, born in Australia in 1961, didn’t know the whole story.

Ironically, Sokolov had volunteered to work for the Germans, hoping his sacrifice would help protect the rest of his family. But it wasn’t long, travelling to Poland crammed into a cattle truck, before he began to realise the horror of what he had let himself in for.

When people arrived at Auschwitz they faced “selection” – the weak or sick or old were killed, and the young, healthy and strong were kept to work. On arrival they gave their names and addresses to clerks, and in turn were handed a slip of paper with a number.

They then moved to another table where these numbers were tattooed on to their arms. Sokolov was 32407.

In his first months at Auschwitz Sokolov was set to work in construction, building new camp huts. But shortly afterwards he came down with typhus, and was nursed back to health by Pepan, a French intellectual and the original Tätowierer or tattooist of Auschwitz. With the news that many more people were expected in the camp, Pepan persuaded the authorities that he needed an assistant, and Sokolov got the job. It had distinct benefits: he was given extra rations, his own room, and an official appointment as a member of the political wing of the SS. As noted in a BBC programme about Sokolov, he “lived a step further away from death than the other prisoners”.

He did not like his job – Jewish tradition disapproves of tattoos, and Sokolov felt he was defiling people’s bodies. But Pepan persuaded him that whatever he did for the Nazis, building huts or tattooing wrists, he was going to do some of their dirty work. At least he could try to be gentle. But a month or so later he was horrified when a group of young girls had to be tattooed.

Sokolov had already seen enough casual murder in the camp to know that he had to do as he was told or face death. A girl approached and handed him her slip, and he pressed the needle into her skin. Blood oozed.

But when he had done the deed, he looked into her eyes. Later, he would say in an interview, that as he tattooed her number on to her wrist, she tattooed that same number on to his heart.

And so began an extraordinary love story between Sokolov and Gita, also Slovakian. Sokolov believed he had a responsibility to survive, and with Gita, he was now determined they would both go on to have a life together after the war. Because he got extra rations, he was able to share food, some with his former hut mates, some with Gita and her friends, and later with a large group of Roma who were sent into his new block.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is described as a novel, but it is based on the true story of Sokolov and Gita, and is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews Heather Morris had with Sokolov after Gita’s death. Morris then got Sokolov’s account fact-checked against the available documentary evidence, and corroborated by the couple’s son Gary.

It is an extraordinary tale of quiet defiance, luck, determination and love.

  • This review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on March 4, 2018.

Why local food, honestly grown, is good for us

animal vegetable miracleReview: Vivien Horler

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Our year of seasonal eating, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber and faber)

We’re descended from a long line of Cornish tin miners, with not a farmer among us, so the fact my nephew Shaun is now living and working on an ostrich farm near Oudtshoorn is something of a novelty.

We were talking about sustainable farming and good practice and I mentioned Barbara Kingsolver’s book, first published in 2007. Best known for her bestseller novel, The Poisonwood Bible, she has written a non-fiction account of a year in the life of her family on a small farm in Virginia in the US. Continue reading