Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Prose style and a South African pro's style

I like Deon Meyer's sentences. I'm barely fifteen pages into his 1996 South African police procedural Dead Before Dying, and there's been much to enjoy so far, notably the laying of ground for an intra-police-force rivalry that crackles with potential for action, violence and all kinds of tension. But mostly I like the way Meyer and his translator, Madeleine van Biljon, put their words together.

Here, protagonist Mat Joubert has walked into a squad meeting where he and his colleagues are to meet their new supervisor:

"Benny Griessel greeted Mat Joubert. Captain Gerbrand Vos greeted Mat Joubert. The rest carried on with their speculations. Joubert went to sit in a corner."
Meetings are a routine part of police life, or at least of police procedurals, and Meyer echoes that routine in the repetition of Joubert's full name and in the identical syntax of the first two sentences. Eleven words. That's a pretty economical way of showing what other authors might have taken many more words to tell.

And now, a bit more on Deon Meyer from an expert: Mike Nicol of Crime Beat (South Africa):

In his latest novel Blood Safari – due out in the US next year – Deon Meyer takes some pot shots at the Afrikaners (effectively, the apartheid government was drawn almost solely from their ranks). As Meyer’s an insider, the criticism is particularly trenchant. His first-person narrator is a man known simply as Lemmer, and Lemmer has various laws. Thus:

"Lemmer’s Law of Rich Afrikaners: If a Rich Afrikaner can show off he will.

‘The first thing a Rich Afrikaner buys is bigger boobs for his wife. The second thing a Rich Afrikaner buys is an expensive pair of dark glasses (with brand name prominently displayed), which he only removes when it is totally dark. It serves to create the first barrier between himself and the poor. “I can see you, but you can’t see me any more.” The third thing the Rich Afrikaner buys is a double-storey house in the Tuscan style. (And the fourth is a vanity number plate for his car, with his name or the number of his rugby jersey.) How much longer will it be before we outgrow our inherent feeling of inferiority? Why can’t we be subtle when Mammon smiles on us? Like our rich English-speaking compatriots whose nose-in-te-air snootiness so offends me, but who at least bear their wealth in style. I stood in the dark and speculated about Carel-the-owner. […]

"The Rich Afrikaner does not use bodyguards, only home security – high fences, expensive alarms, panic buttons, and neighbourhood security companies with armed response."

[Watch and hear Krimi-Couch's interview with Deon Meyer here. Among other things, Meyer has interesting thing to say about the newness of South African crime writing, and: "Crime fiction only works, I think, in a normal,stable sociey, and that is what happened in South Africa."]

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger seana graham said...

Peter, this sounds really good. I just found a copy of a Meyer that I had floating around here, but it's apparently floated off again, perhaps on that see of gin to Byzantium. Ah, well. It will turn up. Probably not even waterlogged.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It has grabbed me right from the beginning. I'd picked up one of his novels in a bookstore once, but it didn't get hold of me the way this one did; maybe I wasn't paying attention. I think I'll have much to say about this book, about some interesting spins that Meyer puts on the damaged protagonist and, of course, the political background (the new police chief is an ex-ANC member, for instance).

Speaking of waterlogged novels, did I ever tell you that an irresponsible college classmate once dropped my copy of On the Road in Walden Pond? True story.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger seana graham said...

Personally, I feel that Jack Kerouac might have benefited from a quasi-baptism in Walden Pond, but that's just me.

I've been drawn to Meyer and not read him, but when I see these specifics I can see that he's right up my alley.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I'm glad you brought up Thoreau, for years I've been itching to ask someone why Americans pronounce buoy as boo-ey. In Thoreau's Journey Down the Merrimack he sees a man shooting things in the river. Why are shooting at, Thoreau asks. Buoys, the man replies. Thoreau is struck with terror for a moment, before realizing he meant buoys not boys. Now if Americans pronounced it boo-ey back then the joke doesnt work. So what happened? And what happened to herb while you're at it?

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seanag, what's your alley? The take-no-prisoners tone of the Blood Safari gives me clue.

After reading a few chapters of one novel and a short excerpt from another, I'd say Deon Meyer is capable of some of the more mordant humor a reader is liable to come across. But I have much to discover about his writing, and that's an exciting prospect.

By the way, he writes in Afrikaans, so the Dutch that serves me so well when it comes to wiseass blog posts might help me read at least short comments or excerpts from Meyer in his original language.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'm with you as a fellow citizen of the British Commonwealth on that one. This boo-ey pronunciation has driven me nuts ever since I got to this country.

Don't know about herbs. I've always had 'erbs and spices with me steaks and salads, mate.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think my initial impression was that I 'should' read Meyer because of his information aboout South African politics, culture, etc. But when I see his witty dissection of the South African human being, I feel less of a 'should' and more of a 'shall'.

As far as buoys are concerned, I can only add my own experience as a sample. I know you should say 'boo-ey' but I always mentally think of them as 'boys'. Whether I'm tapping into some earlier American pronunciation or, more likely, guessed when reading it as a kid and guessed wrong and have had to patch it over with the correct version subsequently, I don't know.

It's 'erbs. Only reason is that's how we were taught it, despite that commonsense glaring h in front. We haren't cockneys, after all.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"I always mentally think of them as 'boys'."

Isn't that the first line of Death in Venice?

I suppose I also had an idea that I "should" read Deon Meyer. Happily, he seems to write with enough wit to make the information not just palatable but exciting.

Them's that's no better than they ought to to be don't pronounce their aitches.

December 03, 2008  

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