Review: Vivien Horler
The Messiah’s Dream Machine, by Jennifer Friedman (Tafelberg)
Jennifer Friedman has a way with words. So much so that I may never look at a frikkadel in the same way again.
The Messiah’s Dream Machine is a sequel to her well received Queen of the Free State, about a little Jewish girl growing up in Philippolis, the sleepy Afrikaans town where Laurens van der Post was born.
As far as one can gather there aren’t many Jewish farmers in the Free State, but her family had farms in the Philippolis area, now run by her cousins, and it is clear these spaces are deep in her heart.
This has not however prevented her from emigrating to Australia, where she has acquired her pilot’s licence, bought a Grumman Tiger aircraft and now “flies to the small outback towns and stations around Australia, often just for a lunch date and where the sun is shining”.
This memoir starts off with a 13-something Jennifer being sent to boarding school in Cape Town, despite a promise her mother once made that she would never do anything of the sort.
There is something about Jennifer’s relationship with her parents that is cool and reserved, studied. Her father, seeing her and her mother off to Cape Town by train, says: “Have a good trip, Number One.” She muses: “Pa’s endearments are mechanical, carelessly applied…” He gives her a book to read on the train, with an inscription: “To darling Jennifer, with love from Daddy” and she wonders “why and for whom it’s meant”.
She describes the train compartment in detail, and I can identify with that. The little table that could be lifted up to reveal a cunning wash basin, the blue seats that became beds in first class (I travelled second class where the benches were green).
Much of this book is told by an outsider. Jennifer is an outsider in her own family – she names her childhood dog and the domestic worker and gardener who worked in the family home, but never her sisters. She marries Allan, and not long after they go to live in Israel, where once again they are outsiders, foreigners.
Later they head to Sydney where life can be difficult and is eventually tragic.
The core of this book though is descriptions of visits back to the Free State and to the farms, where she and her cousins spend long evenings reminiscing about their childhoods and the family stories, which she then relates in great detail.
There is no doubt this is where her heart lies, but sometimes I had the feeling she was trying just a touch too hard to describe the sights, the sounds and the smells. She’s no HC Bosman, so that even when her material is intrinsically amusing, her stories do not resonate with me. The tale of her grandfather and two friends catching a train to Port Elizabeth to watch a rugby match – which they missed because they were so babbelas – went on so long I began to wonder if anyone cared.
And then there were the descriptions of the funerals of various relatives which went disastrously wrong – I wasn’t sure I cared there either. (But I did like the story about Oom Piet, a famous marksman who despite being pissed as a newt, manages to shoot the cockerel off the NGK church spire.)
But back to the frikkadels. In Woolies I saw a man in the butchery section making meatballs. And my mind went straight to the scene where horrified new girl Jennifer watches as the perspiring school cook “slowly draws her palms through her sweating armpits” before she starts to mould the mincemeat.
Unforgettable image. But I’d really like to forget it.