Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Self-reference from South Africa

For this post, I revisit my old friend self-reference. My guide is Richard Kunzmann's story "If Nothing Else," from the Bad Company anthology of South African crime stories.

Kunzmann is a youngish author, born in 1976. I don't know how much death and violence he has seen, but his story confronts a difficulty that must plague many serious crime writers: How does one write about death without having seen it up close?

"Rarely are we treated to the spectacle of what is guaranteed to one day happen to all of us," muses the first-person narrator, a crime writer named Sam Engels excited to be joining police at a murder scene. "Modern society robs us of a unique experience on a daily basis, and this is why I wanted to relish the moment."

The story is a bit talkier than I'd have liked, but I like Kunzmann's sly use of the difficulty mentioned above. And I like the rhythm of the story's opening even more: "It was a desperate death to look at."
***
Fiction from Africa is bound to have a bit of the allure of the strange and new for North American readers, and that can be a good thing. One Bad Company story's passing reference to an officer's being the only Xhosa on the force is a reminder that the possibility of ethnic tension need not be limited to black vs. white – an especially salutary thought for those of us who live in the United States. (A similar light goes on above my head when Helene Tursten writes about tension between Swedes and ethnic Finns in her Göteborg-based Swedish crime novels.)

Now, let's bring back that other old friend, the question to readers: What kinds of unexpected racial, ethnic or other tensions have you found in crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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29 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Dennis Lehane's A Drink Before the War is basically fueled by racial tension. Though it gets a little heavy-handed at times, the racial angle leads to an unexpected (for me, at least) climax.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be interesting to learn how that climax is unexpected. I suppose that will have to wait until I read the book.

In the case of Richard Kunzmann's story and Helene Tursten's novels, I always find it interesting to read about the sorts of tensions that exist outside the U.S. (and Canada). In neither Tursten not Kunzmann do these tensions boil over or even become a major plot element. They're just part of the fabric of the characters' daily lives, and I presume they realistically reflect something of their setting. I imagine I have learned something about a country when I read about such tensions.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Ok slightly OT, however the film District 9 which I saw last week has a nice allegory about apartheid SA running through it.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps not so far off topic. The movie came up during Leighton Gage BlogTalk Radio version of the "Murder at the Edge of the Map" panel.

I took part in the discussion via BlogTalk Radio's chat function. I relayed to Yrsa your question about Icelanders and elves. Go here for instructions on how to hear the program.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Its a pretty good film BTW, but not as good as Moon which I saw as a kind of scifi double bill.

Interesting radio show. Stuart's getting around isn't he?

I also want to know why so many Icelanders are accomplished musicians and how they're coping with the traumatic news that McDonalds is pulling out of the country.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know that McDonald's was pulling out, but Iceland's banking system collapsed during Bouchercon 2008, so I suspect that Yrsa and company have coped with worse.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My post about the radio show alluded to Yrsa's assessment of the challenges facing crime writers in a country as small as Iceland. She said, among other things, that she can never write sex scenes for her protagonist because readers would assume the scenes are autobiographical. For the same reason, she said, she went out of her way to write a character who does not look like the author: tall and blonde, vs. Yrsa's slight build and brunette coloring.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

It looks like the main reason McDonalds failed in Iceland was that the company insisted they bring in all the supplies from Germany, which seems a bit silly.

October 29, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

What kinds of unexpected racial, ethnic or other tensions have you found in crime stories?

As Gerard noted, your pal Brian L. has recently posted his list of Top 50 Favorite Novels of the Decade.
Alongside popular favourites round here like McKinty and Lakhous (whose novels already are answer your question) and repeatedly discarded recommendations like Jeffrey Ford and Elizabeth Hand, there is a forthcoming novel which presents a peculiar kind of ethnic tension.
You'll find a more detailed description of the same novel, and some other unusual crime fiction in Jeffrey Ford's November recommended reading, whose theme is The Detective & The Boundary

October 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I wonder why McDonald's would insist on such a condition, and I wonder what the Icelanders offered as an alternative. And I wonder whether some Icelandic author sees the seeds of a mystery with a comic touch in all this.

October 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, Brian has recently sent me a copy of Generation Loss, which there is a good chance I will read after I extricate myself from some looming deadlines.

One novel on that list, which arguably presents a peculiar sort of ethnic tension, is already on my TBR list.

October 29, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Hmmm... in both lists (Brian and Jeff) there's a novel with a peculiar "inter-cities" tension, and another one with what seems an even more peculiar "inter-species" tension...

October 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The inter-cities novel is on my list. I don't know about the inter-species one.

October 29, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Read Ford's (shorter) list, I think you'll recognize it by the description...

October 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, that bit about the double murder of a human and a fungus? I plan to visit Brian next month, and I may even be crashing at his house at the same time as the author of the human-fungus book.

Brian is more responsible for my third go-round with comics, so he could well get me reading Elizabeth Hand, Jeff VanderMeer and so on.

October 29, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

It seems like a stupid move. You could easily have done mutton burgers cheaply in Iceland. Its a big PR disaster for McDonalds as gleeful editorials appear in the Guardian etc. stating that this is the thin end of the wedge.

In India McDonalds is vegetarian. They do spicy bean burgers and do not cook with animal fat. They are very popular. One wonders why they couldnt adapt to local conditions in Iceland too.

Maybe they had problems with the elf inspector.

(That pun only works if you read the sentence with a cockney accent).

October 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

'Arf a minute, guv'nor, 'aven't got an accent, 'ave I?

Good pun.

I know nothing about the Iceland-McDonald's situation other than what you tell me, but I do know that McDonald's in other countries alter the menu around the edges to conform with local eating habits. They might have beer or offer mayonnaise with french fries, for instance.

There must be some deeper, darker or more mercenary reason for McDonald's decision.

October 30, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Oh, and by the way, the "sequel" to Generation Loss, Available Dark, will be partly set in Iceland (also in Finland). I think she had the idea even before the crisis, and she has also said she's fan of Indridason.

October 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elizabeth Hand set "Generation Loss" amid the aftermath of an era that introduced "Blank Generation" and "I Wanna Be Sedated" to the world. Maybe cold, isolated lands play into that desire to embrace bleakness, I don't know. In any case, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is hardly a bleak song, so so much for my pop psychology.

Arnaldur embraces that isolation in some intimate ways. It would be interesting to ask Elizabeth Hand to talk about Arnaldur.

October 30, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Apparently there's little to no agriculture in Iceland, so McDonalds had to import its fries and beef. The krona's value has dropped by half, so the cost of importing essentially doubled, making a Big Mac's price noncompetitive ($6.36!!!).

Link

October 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I'd have thought McDonald's could sell filets-o-fish made from local products or lava burgers instead. I wonder what this, er, saga says about the dangers of interdependence that result from a global economy.

October 30, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know how this random fact fits in the whole McDonaldss theme, but I was taking the bus home tonight, when a bunch of cheers rose up from the back of the bus. It turned out that we were passing a protest at McDonalds. I looked over to see signs like "Their beaks are cut off!" and the like.

I haven't given up meat yet myself, but some of the industry practices do make me wonder if I should just jump over to the other camp. I doubt that vegan Santa Cruz gives McDonald's much pause, but it frequently makes me wonder about my whole carnivorous stance. I don't actually think eating animals is wrong, but I do think plenty of the practices that get them to our tables are.

October 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The last part of your last sentence is the key, I think. It may be large-scale capitalism rather than animal cruelty that leads to those objectionable practices.

I may have mentioned some time ago that I have wondered how much of the soy milk that vegans use instead of regular milk comes from soy farms in what was once part of the Brazilian rain forest. Virtue can be complicated.

October 30, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I haven't been quite same in my committed carnivorism after reading an article in the local paper about how the standard practice of chicken raisers is to simply pulverise the male chicks alive. It is apparently the 'most humane solution'. I have always thought that eating eggs was relatively benign, but this whole way of thinking is actually horrifying to me.

October 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Criminy, how does pulverizing lead to anything usable?

I would never belittle anyone who worried about cruelty to animals, but I still say that's not where the root of the problems lies. But, since the entire edifice of industrial and post-industrial capitalism in unlikely to collapse any time soon, we have to do the best we can.

Give up animal products, and you wind up eating soy grown on stripped rain-forest land. And how long will it be, if it hasn't happened already, before some large-scale criminal enterprise starts trafficking in phony fair-trade or organically grown products?

The old laughing man of T'ang Dynasty lore had the right idea. Or Groucho Marx, when he sang "No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it."

October 30, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, but I also think you have to begin with what moves you.

I guess there just isn't any real use for most male chicks in a farm factory culture. It isn't really all that much different from all the animals that are euthanized because they have no place in our lives.

I agree with you that it is the system itself that has no place for life that isn't 'useful'.

October 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, but I also think you have to begin with what moves you.

Trouble is, in an economic system so vast, it's awfully easy to be far, far removed from the possibility of such a reaction.

That treatment of male chicks puts me in mind of the commonplace about how Indians/native Americans would use all parts the buffalo they killed. I have no idea of the truth of this, but the sentiment is certainly worthy of consideration.

October 31, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I sometimes think the ideas of my vegan friends are slightly romantic. I can't quite get around the fact that we live by consuming other life, and that that is kind of the setup, here on earth, one way and another. But the rationalization for the sheer massive waste of and dismissal of living beings is quite another.

Frankly though, I have never had an easy time with the thought of just crushing another creature out of existence, even if it's 'just' an ant. I don't like the thought of just extinguishing consciousness like that, however merciful it might be. I guess what I mean is that I don't like the idea of being cavalier about that moment.

October 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think you're quite right to distinguish between waste and dismissal on the one hand, and the possibility on the other that we live by consuming life. What's the proper attitude to adopt in the face of such a possibility? Caution, humility and reverence seem like good places to start.

I wonder what the more philosphically inclined among today's Jains would say about the suggestion that we live by consuming life.

October 31, 2009  

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