A man's life through a small prism of light
Published in the Sunday Times (14/06/2020)
Due South of Copenhagen *****
Mark Winkler's Due South of Copenhagen slipped into town during lockdown without so much as a raised glass in your local bookstore, but don't let it slip under your radar. It's an excellent read. Maximilian Fritz, editor of The Lowveld Mirror, happens upon an Instamatic photograph of himself at 19 years old, "hanging off the prow of a boat and blowjobbing the great big machine gun mounted there. We were on our way to kill people that February day 33 years ago, me and the rest of Platoon One, Charlie Company. On our way to the last piece of dry land on the Caprivi Strip ."
Winkler received just such a decades-old photograph from an old army buddy who tracked him down on Facebook. Winkler was the teenage conscript blowjobbing the gun - an incident he had forgotten.
"It was a spark that brought this rush of memories back - that day, the boat, the ghetto blaster blaring the Talking Heads' song Psycho Killer, everything," he says. What began as jotted recollections became increasingly fictionalised, and morphed into something different - this powerful and gratifying novel.
The army stint is one of a number of dramatic and chronological threads, starting with Max's boyhood. One of the pleasures of the book is the unsentimental and vivid portrayal of a small town and its inhabitants. The son of the local garage owner, Max knows everyone and many of their secrets, sliding the telephone from its cradle to listen guiltily to grown-ups gossiping on the party line.
At school he befriends Karl Udengaard, the son of smart and wealthy landowners from "overseas". The brief friendship began "when Hulk Vermaak was beating me up, again, for being a stinking Kraut, the new boy Udengaard came up and brained him with a hockey stick", earning the two boys six of the best.
The tight chain of violence in just that sentence - the bullying, the braining, the six of the best - is indicative of the kind of pervasive, unconscious violence that underpins the world Max grew up in. From childhood bullying to a farm murder, to army "opfoks" (group punishment sets of extreme exercise), to South Africa's Border War and troops in the townships.
"Everything that generation of white boys was exposed to, in the family, at school, in church, by the state, was all geared to support the indoctrination, to enforce social compliance," says Winkler. It worked to bring those scared teenagers onto that boat in Caprivi, to bring violence to the people around them, with repercussions that echoed through decades.
Grown up, Max himself emerges quietly damaged, oddly passive and emotionally disconnected, while remaining outwardly perfectly functional.
Questions of guilt, shame and complicity are integral to any examination of that era, whether in fiction or in history, however tempting it is to look away. While the book's concerns are big and broad - culpability, memory, white privilege, masculinity - the author's focus is precise. The small prism of one man's life throws light on a slice of history, with devastating effect.
In Winkler's spare prose, every word, image and sentence earns its place and there's nothing superfluous. It's a pleasure to read. @KateSidley