Jacket Notes: Deon Maas on writing Witboy in Berlin

"I guess it has finally taught me how African I really am. And this is what forms the nucleus of the thinking behind the book. Too white for Africa, too African for Berlin"

24 February 2019 - 00:00 By Deon Maas

The only thing that stands between you and a funny story about Germany is usually a German who will continuously chip away at your argument, interrupt your story to correct it and then have a few questions. In the end the story is not funny anymore. It's only then, realising that your story is falling flat on its face in this new cultural set-up that you find yourself in, that the enormity of moving to Berlin strikes you.

I've never been dragged kicking and screaming to a new destination. Moving to a new city means a new book, or a chapter in a book. It's new adventures, new sights and new sites. Nigeria, Madagascar, New York all came painless. Not effortlessly and not always smoothly, but painless enough. 

Words come easy when you write. It's structure and rhythm that is the true challenge to the writer. This structure and rhythm morphs when you move between cultures. An extra beat here, a lengthened paragraph there, changing the word order in a translation. Striking the correct balance between what comes easy to the reader, but still reflecting the spirit of where you are. 

Not that Berlin needs another book to stroke its ego. Never have I encountered a city so in love with itself. Books, art exhibitions, plays, films and television have been done and lain at the feet of the great narcissist. And we all know what happens when you fall in love with a narcissist. The narcissist is never the loser. 

The city is filled with writers. The biggest challenge was to come up with a new angle; approached from an African point of view. So, Witboy in Berlin is not a frolicking ride through the techno clubs, gobbling drugs and dancing for days on end. It's not about the hipsters or the hippies. It's about adjusting to a new environment, a tale of alienation and finding your feet on a shaky boat. Struggling with the language and customs of a culture that is further removed from what you ever imagined it to be. Trying to find a connection with people who do not know who Rabobi or Fokofpolisiekar are. It's about dealing with people who think Die Antwoord is great and naturally assume that being a white South African means you are a racist. 

I guess it has finally taught me how African I really am. And this is what forms the nucleus of the thinking behind the book. Too white for Africa, too African for Berlin. Wondering what George and Katherine Maas were thinking when they left Berlin in 1860 to settle in Malmesbury. 

Witboy in Berlin completes the circle of the family's wanderings to strange places, even though the place where it ends up is as strange for those involved as the place where it started. 

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