Sven Axelrad on writing about all of life — including sex and death — in 'Buried Treasure'

This magic realist novel set in the strange town of Vivo was born from tenacity and a story about purpose, belonging and what our names mean to us, writes Sanet Oberholzer

30 July 2023 - 00:00
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Sven Axelrad, author of 'Buried Treasure'.
Sven Axelrad, author of 'Buried Treasure'.
Image: Misha Lee Tame

Buried Treasure

Sven Axelrad, Umuzi

4 stars

A younger Sven Axelrad wanted to be a musician. I spy an electric guitar in the frame of our Zoom call and imagine it would’ve been a fine endeavour, but the wall-to-wall collection of books behind him tells me things have worked out as they were meant to. The titles have been artistically — and painstakingly — grouped according to colour, possibly speaking to the part of his brain that neatly sorts information.

Buried Treasure is his debut novel but it’s not the first he’s written — or even his second. It’s his fifth. By his own admission, the first three were really bad but he had high hopes for the fourth. “I was convinced that it was going to get published. I had an agent in the UK, things were looking really good, [but] it didn’t work out,” Axelrad tells me in his easy-going manner. 

“I’d imagine myself as a character in one of my own novels. Then I thought, you know what, I’d really like this guy if he doesn’t give up and that’s pretty much what kept me going. I know it sounds silly but I’m really proud of myself that I didn’t give up in all those years.”

The result of Axelrad’s tenacity is a story written in the magic realism style about the strange town of Vivo and the inhabitants — dead and alive — who call it home.

Inspired by Lisbon, Durban (Axelrad’s hometown) and a number of other places, it's a town where a pigeon messaging service was only recently replaced by a cellphone app and the denizens receive their last names from their professions: names like Novo Beggars.

'Buried Treasure' by Sven Axelrad.
'Buried Treasure' by Sven Axelrad.
Image: Supplied

After a series of unfortunate events, young Novo finds herself living on the streets of Vivo, in increasing danger from a menacing presence lurking in the shadows. But when Mateus, who runs the town’s cemetery, takes her in as his apprentice, life takes a different turn. A seemingly insurmountable responsibility is thrust on her when Mateus suddenly dies, joining a small population of ghosts roaming the cemetery.

Some grave mistakes (in more ways than one) by Mateus have led to the ghosts' bodies not corresponding with their headstones, leaving them in limbo between the lives they’ve left behind and the ones they seek in the hereafter — wherever that may be.

It will require a collective effort to figure out who the ghosts are — most of them having forgotten their names — and Novo elicits the help of the ghosts, the town’s curious flower seller and Mateus’s loyal but vicious dog, God (Mateus, it turns out, was dyslexic).

“I wanted to talk about all of life and that’s why this book has got young friendships, old friendships, death, sex, confusion, as well as hope and all these lovely things.”

Along the way, Axelrad explores themes of identity, purpose, names and belonging — asking questions but not attempting answers.

He has even managed to marry his love for music and books. Using quotes from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to introduce his chapters, he employs Bob Dylan as a sort of troubadour to walk the reader through the novel. “I didn’t have a plan for the book. I just wrote and I would use the lyrics as a scaffolding. I would read through the lyrics and think: ‘You know what, this part sounds interesting,’ and that would help direct where the story was going. It felt like I was working with Bob at some point.”

Sex and death aren’t easy things to talk about
Sven Axelrad

At first, parts of the book seem unexpectedly explicit — there’s the sordid telephone booth used for the townspeople’s carnal pleasures and even the defiling of Mateus’s dead body.

“Sex and death aren’t easy things to talk about but I hope that I spoke about them with enough good humour and kindness that we stop thinking about them as taboo and start thinking about it as ‘we’ve all been there’,” Axelrad says.

Vivo is described on the book cover as “magical and quirky” and Axelrad is not done with it. “In my head I’ve always wanted to write three Vivo novels,” he says, and the second one is already done. “It’s going to have the same kind of feel, same kind of narration style but obviously a new cast of characters and I feel like it’s a lot more fun than Buried Treasure.”

For now, he’s working on getting through his annual list of 65 books across vastly different genres — a feat he admits he may not manage this year — and focusing on his day job as an accountant which he’s not quite ready to quit.

Click here to buy the book

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