Love and violence leave reader torn

Review: Vivien Horler

The Heart is the Size of a Fist, by PP Fourie (Kwela)

It was only when I sat down to write this review that I noticed below the title on the cover the works: “A novel”.

I had assumed the entire book was a truthful memoir of growing up in a home of violence and addiction. I then googled the book and found an interview Professor PP Fourie gave the SABC about the work, in which he described it as “auto-fiction” and confirmed it was semi-autobiographical.

It certainly is a searing depiction of the life of an Afrikaans child, Paul, whose father is abusive, a drunk, violent to his mother and also emotionally cruel. He says his father mostly ignored him, but would use him as a way of getting at his mother.

Paul loves his father, but also fears him, with good reason. The father is a writer who has had one successful play published, and who is trying to recreate this success. But his dream proves elusive, and he seeks refuge in alcohol and drugs,, taking out his frustrations on his wife.

His mother’s parents have died and her family took against the father as he was more verlig than they. The paternal grandparents are around, but cold and unloving. This means that apart from his warm and affectionate relationship with his mother, Paul grows up in an isolated family which has at its heart the terrible secret of violence and huis moles. The drugs, the drink and the violence are huis dinge, and never to be talked about.

The father acquires a revolver, and young as he is, Paul knows that opiates, alcohol and firearms are not a good combination. So Paul, about 10, hides the gun, along with the car keys. When the father realises the gun is missing, he is already drunk and is now infuriated. He hits Paul, knocking him down, and instructs him to fetch it.

Paul muses: “I know that my mother faces either vicious physical attack – inevitably, imminently – if I do not collect the weapon, or possible death, by shooting, if I fetch it.”

No child should ever be in that position.

Eventually Paul and his mother flee the family home in Bloemfontein and settle in Oudtshoorn, a long way away.

The couple divorce, for the second time, and the father remarries and has another son, Ben, who is about 14 years younger than Paul.

Many years later, when Paul is teaching at Stellenbosch University, he and Ben reconnect. By this time Paul is entirely estranged from his father. He realises he and Ben have had two very different fathers. He thinks he perhaps had the better part of his father, when the man was young and enthusiastic, whereas Ben’s father, while less violent, is a poor old drunk who needs looking after.

In the SABC interview Fourie says he understands that nothing in life is truly black or truly white, and he has tried to explore the shades of grey, loving his father while hating him.

Memory is a key theme. At the beginning of the book are a couple of quotes, one by the American writer David Shields, which is: “Anything processed by memory is fiction.”

Another comes from Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: “[Memory] selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimises, glorifies and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…”

Fourie told the SABC: “To move beyond description enabled me to think more freely.”

I usually avoid books like these, but The Heart is the Size of a Fist is reflective, thoughtful and well-written. It leaves you grieving for that little boy.

 

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