Old age is not for sissies

Review: Vivien Horler

Cul-de-Sac– a memoir, by Elsa Joubert (Tafelberg)

cul-de-sacThis poignant memoir, first published in Afrikaans when Elsa Joubert was 95, is an exploration of extreme old age.

It is a time of life, she writes, which almost represents “the laying down of dreams”, where the only road that can be ventured on “with a minimum of anxiety is the road to the past”.

The Afrikaans version, published under the title Spertyd, came out two years ago. Spertyd means deadline; the English term for cul-de-sac is dead end; and the Afrikaans version that we grew up with was “straat loop dood”. Of the various alternatives, cul de sac seems gentlest translation.

Yet old age is not gentle. As the title suggests, you’re not going anywhere. At one point Joubert describes old people as being members of the “last shift”. Life’s options progressively close down.

And yet in the hands of a a writer as accomplished and reflective as Elsa Joubert, her memoir is not discouraging; it is rather a glimpse of another stage of life, if we live long enough to get there. Or as someone once said: old age is what happens if nothing else does.

Joubert has been a prolific writer all her life; Cul-de-Sac, beautifully translated by Michiel Heyns, is the third in an autobiographical trilogy. But the book most South Africans will remember her for is the best-selling The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena (Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena) which became an international theatre production and a film. It tells of the travails of a black domestic worker living during apartheid, and her developing relationship with the white woman who employs her.

It was voted one of the hundred most important books published in Africa in the last millennium, and won three major South African literary awards – the W A Hofmeyr Prize, the CNA Literary Award and the Louis Luyt Prize.

After the death of her husband, Klaas Steytler, Joubert moves into an upmarket retirement home in Cape Town’s City Bowl. There are garages for the residents’ cars, “because we all came here, cheerfully, with our cars”. But by the time this memoir begins, in Joubert’s 95th year, she no longer drives.

However she can walk, and if she takes a shortcut through the hospital across the road, she can easily get herself to De Waal Park. But Cul-de-Sac is a tale of loss, not just of people but abilities and independence, and after she is mugged in the park and her gold chain ripped from her neck she tends not to walk there again.

A friend suggests they go on a train trip to Namibia offered to retirees, but this is not a success, and becomes Joubert’s last proper journey. She notes that trips should not be advertised for “retirees” but for people who are under-80 and over-80, because there is a big difference in what they can handle.

So the anxiety-free road to the past becomes Joubert’s journey of choice, and in this memoir she describes childhood holidays at the Strand, life at home in Paarl, her sister’s early death, her battles with her mop of hair.

Her children and grandchildren are a source of joy and support, and there are also friendships, both old and new to brighten her days. Life in a retirement home can present moments of dark humour.

In a shout on the cover JM Coetzee says of Cul-de-Sac: “Seldom has childhood been relived with such clarity, seldom have the humiliations of old age been so nakedly laid open. A moving farewell from one of our great writers.”

Old age is not, as they say, for sissies. Elsa Joubert is no sissy – she is a brave woman and writer and this searingly honest memoir is well worth reading.

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