Caterpillars? Easy, thinks Katya. Even these, thick-clustered, obscuring a tree bole to crown and shivering their orange hairs. Caterpillars she can deal with.
Still, it’s a strange sight, this writhing tree: a tree in mortification. Particularly here, where the perfect lawn slopes down to the grand white house below, between clipped flowerbeds flecked with pink and blue. Off the side, just in the corner of her vision, a gardener is trimming the edge of the lawn, his eyes on Katya and the boy and not on his scissoring blades. Rising behind the scene is the Contantiaberg. It’s an autumn day, cool but bright. The mountains look their age, wrinkled and worn and shouted down by the boisterous sky. It’s a lovely afternoon for a garden party.
—the opening of Nineveh
A tree replaced by the writhing mass of caterpillars that is devouring it?
Henrietta Rose Innes’s Nineveh is one of three novels in a series (the others being Green Lion and the third still being written) about people and the natural Other—bugs, snakes, frogs, lions, plants.
She speaks slowly, carefully, and with great precision, in long rolling grammatically correct sentences, interspersed with laughter, perhaps at herself.
Henrietta: “I wrote Nineveh five going on six years ago now. I was inspired by living in Cape Town, a city where one is particularly aware of how wilderness impinges on urban environment, situated as it is with a big wild mountain in its centre and surrounded by two wild oceans. I am constantly alert to how non-human nature infiltrates the human world. I’ve often written about ambiguous spaces on the edges of the build environment.
“Various other things sparked the idea. There was a wetland area in Cape Town where I used to go walking and it’s been transformed into housing units, and that was a direct spur to writing a book set in a wetland zone that’s been transformed into a luxury housing estate called Nineveh.
“Having lived in Cape Town all my life, I was conscious of how the city was changing around me, physically and environmentally, all sorts of ways. I wanted to examine that unease, that sense of the world being unstable under feet.
“The book evolved into an investigation of how cities change—how they crumble and are built up and how these complex urban ecosystems consist of different kinds of people as well as different non-human beings, all of us coexisting in these complicated spaces, and how all of us have to compromise to get along and adjust to changing environment.
“Which is how I came to write about this little microscopic world, Nineveh ... and all its many many various inhabitants, welcome and unwelcome, including a whole parade of bugs and beetles and frogs as well as different humans laying claim to that space.
“No living space is totally abandoned or destroyed. It just shifts function. Nineveh, the grand gleaming housing estate for which the developers had these grandiose dreams, becomes inhabited by the swamp, infiltrated by beetles, broken down and used in different ways from what it was intended for.
“The main character Katya’s journey is to acknowledge these changes are inevitable, and always have been, and such change is not necessarily a cause for anxiety but is dynamic and full of life and can be embraced.”
Katya is a humane pest controller—she saves and transports wildlife rather than kills it. She is estranged from her ornery father who exterminates pests and lives an itinerant life. Katya doesn’t realize that she has got the Nineveh contract after her father lost the job. Her troubles really start when he comes back into her life, surprising her at a local shop and bar. He has actually planted larvae in the grounds of Nineveh, so that insects will swarm again and he can get work. Katya is the first speaker.
“I don’t do your kind of work. I don’t use poison. I don’t kill things. I told you.”
“What do you do with the beasties then? Put them up in a nice hotel?” He chuckles at his own joke, slaps a knee.
“Boxes. I use boxes.”
“Oh boxes. Oh well that’s all right then. How many boxes have you got? You got twenty of them? Fifty? Five hundred? You have no idea. Those buggers will stick you in the boxes if you don’t watch out. …
She looks down into her glass, rotating the last mouthful of amber.
“Here, I’ll drink that if you’re not going to.”
She lets him take it. He gulps it down in one.
“Tell you what,” he gasps. “I’ll tell you what to do. You go to your precious Mr Brand and you say, here’s how it is, you tightwad bastard, you’ve got a serious invasion on your property of noxious animals, noxious endangered animals and it’s going to cost top dollar to keep them away and it’s going to take months to sort, and I’m going to need a special assistant. And then”—he’s miming it now, flinging something down on the bar like a lightning bolt—“then you slap down a toxic frog or a nice little scorpion, right there in the lap of his Italian bloody suit! That’ll get him!”
He cackles, and Katya laughs too, a blurt of tension. She quickly disowns the laughter with a frown. “Thanks, but I can handle it. On my own.” She struggles off the bar stool—not made for shorties, these things—and gathers up her bags.
“Can I have a lift, then?” he asks. “I believe I’m going your way.”
“Oh.” At first she thinks he’s going to offer to walk with her, but he seems to lose interest. “Oh well.” His gaze drifts across the bottles lining the back of the bar.
“Dad,” she says.
The roll of money she withdrew is still in her pocket. She peels off a fifty-rand note and puts it on the bar. “If you need anything ...” She hesitates. “Call Alma, okay?”
“Likewise, sweetheart,” he says as he pockets the cash. “Likewise.”
From Nineveh, pages 120-121
Modern daughters having to cope with disturbing and disturbed fathers who had a part in apartheid appear in other South African fictions. Marli Roode’s novel Call it Dog, for example, deals with a daughter roped by her father into trying to clear his name of a racist murder.
Henrietta: “You could read the relationship with Len as the old South African trope of the past re-emerging in the present. I certainly think that that does colour the story. That sense of the past being unsuppressable does have a particular South African relevance.
“The father’s life and Katya’s life straddle the political shift in South Africa. He is a creature of the old South Africa and she is a creature of the new.
“Len was a man of his time. He went to the wars in the South African army like most white men of that generation, though it’s not a big deal in the story. He’s a creature from a harsher world. He’s led a deprived life.
“It’s important for Katya to find a home and a stable income, and her interest in humane practices is contemporary. The generational split is an indication of the divide she would like to put between herself and her father. Her father represents the past, her past specifically, that she cannot suppress.”
I suggest to Henrietta that she is a “fellow traveller with speculative fiction” and this she accepts.
Henrietta: “I think Nineveh falls into a grey zone, where I don’t completely recognize the moment when it passes into speculative from non-speculative. It’s set in a recognizable Cape Town but not an altogether real Cape Town.
“Certain things are invented—the plague of insects for example, or the underground cabins beneath the swamp and the estate—these gesture towards fantastical fiction. But I like to keep on that line of uncertainty between the real and unreal.
“I like that concept of a fellow traveller. I have a great deal of sympathy with aesthetics of SFF, and I have writer friends who envy many of the emotional effects of classical science fiction.
“As an early reader I was very much immersed in science fiction. Some of my most potent early reading experiences were in those worlds. I used to spend enormous amounts of time in the Cape Town city library. At twelve or thirteen, I worked my way through the old yellow-bound anthologies of SF award-winning stories, hoovering up any and all fantastical tales. Most of those many stories are still spinning in my mind. I have a fond appreciation of Ballard, his imagery and his tone. He felt like a bridge for me at that particular age into reading as an adult. I remember one of his stories was bound with a story by Mervyn Peake.”
Henrietta’s next novel for the UK is Green Lion. Like Nineveh it first appeared in South Africa some time ago, but will appear in the UK in August 2017 as a part of a three-novel set.
Henrietta: “Now that the two books are written, I see that they belong together and I think of them as two parts of a story. I am pleased they’re packaged together.
“Nature is irrepressible in Nineveh, something that must be accepted, celebrated in fact, but there is another side of my relations with the natural world which is a sense of bleakness and sorrow that we are killing so much of it.
“The next book is about—in reality—an extinct subspecies of lion, the black-maned lion of the Cape. It used to be endemic, and lived on slopes of Table Mountain. In reality the last wild black-maned lion was shot in the nineteenth century. A few survived in zoos in SA, though now none are left. Some scientists debate if it was actually a subspecies. As a small child I was taken with the idea of the black-maned lion. I used to go to the South African Museum of Life because my mother used to be (before my birth) the official artist for the Museum. She used to paint the dioramas or do a lot of the setups for the displays. She always used to take us there. It felt like we belonged there. There was an old black -and-white photo of this last lion to be shot, the stuffed specimen of it. But there are no specimens left in South Africa. All they had was this blurry black-and-white photo from 1865 or whatever.
“So I started writing about lions and the zoo and it developed into a story about a young man who returns to Cape Town after being away and finds a job in a special zoo that has been set up as a state-funded exercise to breed back into existence these black-maned lions using a few last remnant animals that they’ve found in obscure zoos.
“He becomes a zookeeper there and becomes somewhat obsessed, infatuated with the last remaining lioness which is bound up with his childhood. The reason that he visits the zoo in the first place is that his closest childhood friend, whom he’s estranged from, was the zookeeper before him and was horribly mauled ... not fatally but close to fatally.
“In the present-day story the lioness escapes into the mountain and our hero then pursues her.
“The more we destroy the animals around us, the more we yearn for their company and for a connection with the natural world. In the book there’s an eccentric club for people who are mad about animals. They arrange encounters with animals and also spend a lot of time watching wildlife documentaries. There’s a lot of reference to this adoration of the image of the animal in the absence of the real thing.
“The title Green Lion is an old alchemical reference, the cryptic, mystical name given to sulphuric acid, which was one of the steps to creating the Philosopher’s Stone, which granted eternal life. We try so hard to preserve the things we love from death, but just like the alchemical quest, it’s an illusion that we cannot attain. The possibility of genetic reconstruction of species is a futile human longing to bring things back from death, just like the alchemical ambitions.”
And the third book in the series?
Henrietta: “The third book is not yet done and I’m a little hesitant to talk about it in detail but it does seem to be shaping into an investigation into how human history and plant history are intertwined over long periods over deep time.”
I say that it is her interest in the Other that makes her a fellow traveller. Here she disagrees. Her best known story, “Poison,” won the Caine Prize, and is outright science fiction.
Henrietta: “I should probably qualify that. OK, so there’s “Poison,” the story that’s probably my most-read bit of writing, which falls into fairly traditional speculative fiction, but that was a good long time ago and was quite uncharacteristic of me at the time. I subsequently published a book of fairly naturalistic stories, but just in the last year or two I’ve started to produce a little crop of stories that are increasingly playing with speculative tropes.
“A wonderful publisher in London, Jared Shurin at Jurassic—which has now closed down—did these fantastic anthologies of speculative fiction, and through South African connections, I came to know of him. And he invited me to contribute to a couple of these anthologies, and that was the spur to do things I hadn’t done before.
“So I wrote a story ‘Animalia Paradoxa’ for him, which was an alternative history about the French Revolution and naturalists in eighteenth-century South Africa, which was a kind of world that I never considered exploring before, quite releasing.
“When I do produce another anthology, a strong theme will come through: all the stories I’m producing are imprinted with increasing strangeness. I’ve written a story about a virus that induces sexual obsession, ‘Limerance,’ which I think is my current favourite story. I’ve written a story that plays with the imagery of a perpetual motion machine, ‘The Second Law.’ I’ve a story ‘The Bronze Age’ that summons up some kinds of mystical bronze-age warriors into the present.”
To go back to “Poison”; it’s about an explosion at a chemical plant in Cape Town that sends a slowly spreading poison cloud across the city into the countryside. The story’s heroine, Lynn, is a comfortable middle-class woman who can’t quite grasp what is happening. She leaves late, fleeing in high heels. She fails to get the last ride out of a roadside gas station in the path of the cloud. She finds herself in one of Henrietta’s favourite locales—a borderland, the furthest extent of the cloud, an interzone between city and country, between life and death.
There was nobody left on the forecourt. The battered white taxi was pulling out, everyone crammed inside. The sliding door was open, three men hanging out the side with their fingers hooked into the roof rim. Lynn ran after it on to the highway, but the only person who saw her was the blond toddler crushed against the back windscreen, one hand spread against the glass. He held her gaze as the taxi picked up speed.
The cloud was creeping higher behind her back, casting a murk, not solid enough to be shadow. She could see veils of dirty rain bleeding from its near edge. Earlier, in the city, she had heard sirens, helicopters in the sky; but there were none out here. It was silent.
Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road. She had to stop herself looking over her shoulder, flinching from invisible cars coming up from behind.
She thought of the people she’d seen so many times on the side of the highway, walking, walking along verges not designed for human passage, covering incomprehensible distances, toiling from one obscure spot to another. Their bent heads dusty, cowed by the iron ring of the horizon. In all her years of driving at speed along highways, Cape Town, Jo’burg, Durban, she’d never once stopped at a random spot, walked into the veld. Why would she? The highways were tracks through an indecipherable terrain of dun and grey, a blur in which one only fleetingly glimpsed the sleepy eyes of people standing on its edge. To leave the car would be to disintegrate, to merge with that shifting world. How far could she walk, anyway, before weakness made her stumble? Before the air thickened into some alien gel, impossible to wade through, to breathe?
Henrietta: “That garage where she ends up is exactly on the limit of the familiar world and she can’t quite bring herself to step on either side of that line. There is peril in every direction. And she herself psychologically ...”
Henrietta breaks off. For the first time in the interview, she displays something other than articulate sociability. She is frustrated. People call her work “quiet,” when it’s full of things like falling houses, lions eating people, insect plagues, and a chemical apocalypse.
Henrietta: “A lot of people who had been quite puzzled by Lynn psychologically, seemed extremely frustrated with her since she can’t bring herself to act or to feel particularly. She is, in herself, quite a nihilistic person already before this began. She’s been flirting with living and not quite living and there’s certainly a great deal of attraction for her in the dust heading her way.”
For me, Henrietta is part of the great African tradition of white-diaspora writers who edge into science fiction. For example, Doris Lessing famously wrote a series of colourful examples of what she called “space fictions” including Canopus in Argos, which was first a book and then a libretto for an opera by Philip Glass. Another example is J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which is set in a future, post-technological world. In my view Henrietta echoes Coetzee’s precision and imaginative purity. There is no cheesiness in her work.
Henrietta studied with Coetzee (though I wouldn’t make too much of this), in the early days of the University of Cape Town’s creative writing course. For Henrietta, she was part of a pause, a hiatus in South African writing in the early 2000s.
Henrietta: “It was a very different environment for writing back then. There were not many people in my peer group who I was aware of, who were writing at that time. Not like it is now. There wasn’t a whole cohort of people doing it. I think I benefited a bit from the novelty of my situation in terms of getting published and getting a bit of attention for Shark’s Egg (her first novel, partly written for the creative writing degree).
“I wrote when I was a school kid. I wrote poetry and short prose, but after school I had a period of time when I didn’t write. I was drawn to science. I did a BSC in archaeology in the end, and I also did a bit of zoology and biological anthropology. At one point I wanted to be a palaeontologist. I never could quite commit to any of it. I was always cripplingly indecisive, always waiting for my vocation to come and seize me. And then it did. I think it did.
“I do think what must have had an effect on me was growing up in a society in which you are constantly aware of multiple and very different life experiences around you all the time. And of sometimes being a non-comprehending observer of the intersections of different lives—in a city like Cape Town, which is still very segregated in terms of how much people actually have to do with each other in their everyday lives. One is aware of multiple different cities coexisting in the same place, which I think is something I write about all the time. I do think that as a writer, my mode is watchful awareness and the sense of not having an omniscient understanding of all the complexities going on around me.
“There’s also a mode of writing which is a masterful, an all-seeing, all-knowing epic take on your time and place. Personally I don’t feel that it’s possible for any one person to do it, certainly not in contemporary South Africa. For myself as a writer, it’s not what I’m drawn to. It also would be foolish to try.
“I do think humility is essential. It’s also kind of the only thing that is possible for a writer of my sensibility. To be an observer of minutiae and nuance and little mysteries.”
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