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The dark side of South Africa

This review appeared in Austrian newspaper Die Presse in January 2016.


Charlotte Otter dispatches journalist Maggie Cloete on her second case in “Karkloof Blue”, in the process mapping out an image of today’s South African society. Maggie Cloete is perhaps a little too cool, too tough, too perfect. She knows karate and beats up brawny men. She prefers to ride a motorbike rather than drive a car, and likes beer. And above all: her instinct never lets her down, self-doubt is quite simply never an issue.

Author Charlotte Otter has dispensed with all weaknesses when making investigative reporter Maggie Cloete the heroine of her crime novel series. “Karkloof Blue” sees the journalist tackling her second case. As in Charlotte Otter’s debut novel “Balthasar’s Gift”, this political crime novel plays out in post-Apartheid South Africa, once again highlighting unresolved issues from the country’s dark past, and controversial topics from today. The particular focus this time: environmental protection.

The novel is named after a butterfly, the “Karkloof Blue” (Latin name: Orachrysops ariadne). The endangered butterfly lives in an area of virgin forest near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal province. The unfortunate circumstances arise as the company Sentinel plan to deforest the area to plant pine monocultures intended for paper production. Environmental conservationists intend to prevent this.

When the corpse is found of David Bloom, a Sentinel employee, Maggie’s research leads her not only to the criminal practices of large companies, but also to the brutal murders of the Apartheid regime against its detractors. A breathtaking journey into the South Africa of yesterday and today.

Translation by the fabulous Louisa, as always.


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More than just a butterfly

This review was published by Frank Rumpel in CulturMag on November 7, 2015.

More than just a butterfly

From an endangered species of butterfly to the crimes of the Apartheid period: this is the arc spanned with ease in the second novel by South African author Charlotte Otter, now living for some years in Germany. She links the two topics via a third: the destruction of native forests and savannas by the timber and paper industry cultivating large plantations with fast-growing trees such as pine and eucalyptus.

In the midst of the action is Charlotte Otter’s dynamic protagonist Maggie Cloete. The former police reporter had for ten years turned her back on Pietermaritzburg, a city of 220,000 inhabitants in the easterly province of  Kwa Zulu Natal (providing an interesting jump in time to the present between the first and second novels), spending time in Berlin and Jo’burg. But she’s now returned and is back working for the Gazette, enabling her to look after her brother, Christo. He had been in a psychiatric unit for many years due to post-traumatic stress disorder and is now attempting to live in the outside world.

Near Pietermaritzburg, paper company Sentinel is planning to strip the woodland. Conservationists are protesting because the forest is home to one of the last populations of the native Karkloof Blue butterfly. The company nevertheless begins cutting down the trees, until a grave with seven skeletons is found on the site. It is discovered that the grave originates from Apartheid times, and the bodies are most likely those of seven local youths connected to Umkhonto we Sizme (the militarised arm of the ANC) who disappeared without a trace at the end of the Eighties following an attack on an electricity plant. A massive story, but Maggie is gagged by her boss; the newspaper buys its paper supplies from Sentinel.

A whole raft of current issues is woven together by Charlotte Otter to create a compelling story full of action, even if some of the plot twists again seem a little casual in this second novel. But Otter redeems herself for this with a strong, multifaceted female protagonist who never allows a good story to get away from her, no matter how many people’s toes she has to tread on to do so. And along the way she is continually observing everyday societal imbalances, from which the only relief is found in sarcasm. Such as men in management positions. “Where did all these bespectacled suits come from? Can you hire them from casting agencies? Experience in imitating facial expressions desirable.”

Charlotte Otter

Like her debut, this latest novel has been published first in the German translation and subsequently launched on the South African market. Along the way it tells of crimes from the Apartheid period that are far from being resolved, of the extended reach of those who were in charge at the time, of large-scale environmental destruction, of unscrupulous profit interests and of press freedom on the verge of breaking down due to economic conflicts of interest in an increasingly narrow marketplace. A strong, committed crime novel in which Charlotte Otter puts the young democracy of South Africa under the microscope with multiple deeply penetrating insights into its society.



Complex, tough, ironic

This review of Karkloof Blue was published in der Freitag on 16 November 2015. Here’s an English translation for your reading pleasure.

Old wire cables

South Africa: In Charlotte Otter’s “Karkloof Blue”, irascible reporter Maggie takes on a timber company.

Karkloof Blue is the name of the rare butterfly whose habitat is threatened by the planned clearance of natural forest in the middle of plantations surrounding the city of Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal province.

A butterfly novel? If you happen to have any preconceived notions about “female crime novels” they will probably be popping into your head right about now. Unless of course you’ve read South African author Charlotte Otter’s dynamic debut, Balthasar’s Gift (2013), which will have wiped your mind clean of any potentially negative connotations.

When a troop of environment activists attempts to thwart timber company Sentinel’s plans, Maggie as a news reporter should really just be chained to her desk. She ignores this, of course, and she is joined by her brother Christo whom she looks after; inadequately in her view, hyper-protectively and condenscendingly in his. Christo’s psyche has been shaped by the Apartheid regime; after all, no-one escapes a barbaric system, not even the privileged. Traumatised, he deserts following his deployment in border disputes, is landed in prison, and ends up on a psychiatric ward. Now recovered after many years, Christo rescues butterflies; a pursuit that turns out to be not at all as naive or worldly innocent as it appears. Christo is essentially protesting against the human-centric hybris challenged by any broader consideration of the world’s continued existence.

The discovery of a mass grave buys the butterfly some time: Sentinel’s bulldozers and excavators are forced to stop. Who were the people buried in the forest? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by the ANC following the end of Apartheid uncovered many crimes, but many others never saw the light of day.

A Sentinel employee falls to his death. Suicide? Maggie is dubious. A female scientist is brutally attacked and her lover threatened. Maggie continues to investigate, races angrily through the night on her motorbike until she regains control of herself, remembering her son. Yes, she is a mother, but she represents the modern ideal of motherhood and femininity. While Maggie unravels the company’s greenwashing activities, the child stays safely with its father. The adults’ relationship no longer takes the form of being a couple, but of co-parents.

Charlotte Otter constructs a female protagonist who is not simply just strong or even heroic, but who is courageous, committed and vunerable. Maggie refuses to see herself as a victim, even though she ends up unable to avoid becoming heavily involved. She refuses to let her well-researched articles be watered down to benefit the local paper’s business interests in terms of paper prices. She refuses to muddle through under the radar like those who think it’s not possible to impact the weighty, well-funded machinations of the company whose profiteering is masked by token gesture green publicity.

Refused a handshake

Charlotte Otter, now living in Heidelberg with her family, paints the picture of a society in upheaval and in conflict with its past. She portrays the uncertainty in a country with massive social contrasts: barbed wire fences protect the houses of those in positions of privilege whilst the losers vegetate in shacks. And she portrays the minor degradations that women are exposed to on a daily basis, not just in South Africa. For example, the name of another reporter is cited at the top of Maggie’s article, despite the fact that the man in question is a journalistic dunce. Tribal leaders refuse to shake her hand. Even the politically neutral female scientist is forced to learn that “women with opinions are dangerous”.

Karkloof Blue tackles pertinent interconnections between the economy and the executive powers in South Africa, between institutional brutality and media reporting, between patriarchal claims to power and ecological necessity. Broken by the beat of a butterfly’s wing: complex, tough, ironic.


Krimi Der Woche

In December, Karkloof Blue was Krimi der Woche in Die Welt. Here’s a translation of the review by Elmar Krekeler:

“Sometimes there are books you wish you had never read. Not because those books are so horrifying in themselves, but because the implications are horrifying. Such as if we take the content and apply it to what is currently happening in Syria; extrapolating outwards it will be a horrifyingly long time for the wounds to heal, for something new to rise from the ashes, for a new nation to be built on the ruins, on the hurts, on mountains of human bones and on lakes of spilled human blood.

Arguably the leading centre for producing this type of horrifying literature is South Africa. It’s all there; especially in the crime novels full of inconceivable hardness and precision, revealing the breathtaking brutality of violence from disruptions large and small still occurring day in, day out when the tectonic plates of this ruptured society rub up against the as yet largely unresolved past.

A society reeking of testosterone

Take Charlotte Otter – although we could equally have taken Roger Smith, Mike Nicol or half a dozen others instead – it’s a random selection, pretty much. Or then perhaps not. Charlotte Otter, you see, is the only woman who springs to mind right now. And based on our own personal observations – this will drive the sexual equality folks crazy – a woman has a broader view when it comes to male-dominated societies; societies reeking of testosterone, like South Africa.

Back to Charlotte Otter. She’s a South African journalist, IT expert and lives in Heidelberg. What we first encounter in her second crime novel are a waterfall washing away all clues, and yellowed winter grass which retains no clues or tracks. We are in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Just around the corner from Howicks Fall lies Pietermaritzburg, pretty much the distilled essence of South Africa. The barometer that Charlotte Otter uses to gauge this averagely run-down, 200,000 soul dump goes by the name of Maggie Cloete and is an investigative journalist now chained to a desk masterfully turning out news stories.

A story as flighty as a rare blue butterfly

We’ll get to Maggie in a minute. First of all, however, our eyes are drawn to the flight of a flamboyant-looking little butterfly. Answering to the name orachrysops ariadne, but more commonly called the Karkloof Blue, it glides and judders its way through the air, zigzagging around, first over a carefully folded bundle of clothes that has been placed at the fractured edge of the waterfall… then over the naked corpse of Dave Bloom, lying smashed to pieces on the rocks below.

Not unlike the butterfly in flight, Maggie Cloete zigzags through her second case. Bloom was employed by Sentinel, a paper manufacturer turning the indigenous forests around Pietermaritzburg into endless pine monocultures to serve their own purposes. The last remnant of forest is slated for clearing, but this is the Karkloof Blue’s natural habitat. Environmentalists and tree conservationists have plans to stop this happening. Preventing the clearance is what Bloom wanted; it’s what the activists’ leader and self-styled guru wants; and it’s what Maggie’s brother Christo also wants.

With smooth horizontal, vertical and crosswise strokes dissecting the history of Pietermaritzburg, Charlotte Otter sheds light on the murders of young anti-apartheid activists left to an agonising death from Anthrax poisoning and then buried; on the trauma inflicted upon young men after refusing to commit hideous murders in the name of protecting the borders while in uniform; on the highly questionable deception strategy of large international corporations donning the guise of quasi capitalist environmentalists, all the while mercilessly destroying the last habitat of the Karkloof Blue.

This is known as greenwashing. People die, bodies come to light, conspiracies, sinister secret activities… all are covered up by the government. This is how it is in South Africa; as soon as your spade cuts the ground, corpses rise up from the apartheid regime.

Maggie zooms around on her motorcycle, becoming increasingly tired of constantly having to report on people’s inhumanity towards others.

The apartheid regime ended a good quarter of a century ago, but in South Africa nothing is ever really peaceful. You only need turn up the heat up one notch and the ‘melting pot’ encompassing all influential South Africans, united purely by concept alone, will explode. This is how it is on every level, in every family.

Now consider how long it will take Syria and the entire Middle East to get anywhere approaching the stage that South Africa is at today. Horrifying.”

With thanks to the fabulous Louisa Bird.


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Wisdom from the Master

On the way home from France today, Germany’s Top Husband played us Tim Ferris podcasts including this lovely one with Paulo Coehlo. Here are some jewels that spoke to me on the subject of writing:

  • On walking: “Walking is for me, my way of thinking, my way of meditating. It is not that I am thinking, but in a kind of trance, totally connected with the present moment.”
  • On what writing means to him: “What I do is to have pleasure, to have fun, to have social responsibility towards my readers, my self and the world where I live.”
  • On the writing process: “I go into a tank and I can only leave this tank when I have finished the book.”
  • He takes notes at night to empty his head so that he can sleep, but the next day the notes are “totally useless”
  • On capturing ideas: he does not capture ideas, but the book “that wants to be written” makes itself clear to him
  • On starting: “When you discover the first sentence, behind this first sentence is a thread that takes you to the last sentence.”
  • “When you write a book, as it is written in The Alchemist, you connect, you connect to the soul of the world, you connect to this energy that I call inspiration”
  • “If you want to capture ideas, you are lost because you are not going to live your life, you are going to be capturing ideas. You are going to be detached from the emotions that you need to live fully. You are going to be an observer and not a human being that is living his or her life … I strongly encourage writers not to think about writing every time they do something. Forget notebooks, forget taking notes. Let what is important remain.”
  • On tools: “I use Word; that is all.”
  • On stories and story archetypes: “There are only four stories: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the struggle for power and a journey.”
  • On style: “Don’t try to innovate. You can innovate on Twitter, Facebook, mobile, but not in storytelling. Storytelling is pure, it is the essence, since the dawn of time and it is magical … It’s like fashion. Style is the dress, but the dress does not dictate what is inside the dress. What counts is the person inside the dress, not the dress itself.”
  • On simplicity: “Keep it simple.Keep it simple. Trust your reader. He or she has a lot of imagination. Don’t try to describe things. Give a hint and they will fulfill this hint with their own imaginations.”
  • On acceptance: “Writers want to please other writers. They want to be recognised by academia, by the system. Forget about this. Who cares, you know? You should care to share your soul and not to please other writers … This is a weakness.”
  • On getting stuck: “You are fighting with me, book? Okay, I will sit here and not leave you alone until I have found my way out of this crossroads. And then it may take ten minutes, it may take ten hours, but if you don’t have discipline enough, you don’t move forward.”
  • On research: “If you overload your book with research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and to your readers. Books are not here to show how intelligent and cultivated you are. Books are here to show your heart, to how your soul, and to tell your friends, your readers, you are not alone.”


10 Things I Have Learned

So long since my last listicle. Here’s one, on things I have learned:

1. The difference between react and respond. React is fast and emotional and (if written in e-mail form, at work, after a long hard stressful day) can earn you enemies. Respond is considered and thoughtful. Our power lies in choosing to respond not react.

2. I never, ever, ever, want to go on a cruise. The thought of being trapped in a floating village with 2,000 other people that I have not personally selected to join me on holiday strikes dread.


3. New Year’s Eve parties are mini-cruises: being trapped at a party that you can’t leave until a certain time, where you have to kiss people you don’t know/like while drunken adults manage fireworks in close proximity to small children is a horror.

4. Clearly, the concept of feeling trapped is an issue for me.

5. I came back from South Africa recently with the feeling that the way I live is extremely sheltered. Then the Germanwings tragedy happened and I realised that bad things happen everywhere. We have to live each day as well as we can and keeping loving our people.

6. Easter eggs bought well in advance of their due date will only be eaten.

7. Parenting is a long, slow, painful journey of learning to let go.

8. Nothing motivates the workforce more than chip day at the canteen. Especially if it falls serendipitously on chocolate pudding day.

9. Loyalty is becoming one of my favorite characteristics – in a spouse, in a friend, in a colleague. Forget charm or wit. Loyalty is hot.

10. Avoiding writing is equally painful as just doing it.

Pic courtesy of Vesselin Kolev on Flickr


Radical Acts of Empathy

I’m attending the 18th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, SA. The theme of the festival is writing for your life, and at the opening night, each writer gave a short address on what this means for them. Here’s mine:

I work at a computer company, where a lot of very clever people spend their days writing code for software applications. The code they write now is in various programming languages, all of which are based on binary code which is made up of nothing but zeroes and ones.

One of my theories about the trouble we’re in right now as a human race is the fact that we tend to think in binary: male versus female, black versus white, old versus young, gay versus straight, Muslim versus Christian, atheist versus believer, northerner versus southerner, local versus foreign, poor versus wealthy, rural versus urban, fat versus thin, abled versus disabled.

Binary ways of thinking make us feel safe. They define who we are – and who we aren’t. But they are also extremely lazy.

For me, binary is a spectrum. On the mild end of that spectrum, we get stereotypes. What stereotypes do, is allow us to assign a certain set of characteristics to a person whom we believe falls into a certain group. If you ever hear someone saying ‘they’ about a group of people and then making a reductive assumption about the characteristics of those people, then you know they are stereotyping. As writers we have to fight the urge to indulge in stereotypes, no matter how convenient they may be. To do so, we have to address our unconscious biases.

The other end of the spectrum from stereotyping is othering.

Othering means defining others by their difference to us and deciding that that difference means they have less value than us. In South Africa, we have intimate experience of the dangers of othering. Our previous government ran a huge, state-sanctioned, legally enscribed othering project called Apartheid. Germany, where I now live, ran a military-industrial othering project called the Holocaust.

Stereotyping is lazy; othering is lethal. And it is born out of fear.

What both reading and writing offer us is the insight to break this lethal cycle and see the humanity of others – in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own.

We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.

Writing forces us to reflect on the rich inner lives of others, even if they are unpalatable. Reading opens us to a world where people who seem vastly, almost unrecognizably different from us, are just as human on the inside as we are.

Reading and writing are both radical acts of empathy, that enable us to break the shackles of binary thinking and not other people out of our own fear of difference. They teach us that each individual life is rich and complex and nuanced, just as our own lives are rich and complex and nuanced.

When we read and write, we engage in radical acts of empathy that crack open our hearts. We stop saying ‘they’ and start saying ‘us’.


Tis Christmas and the Season for …

… single writer binges.

I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.

So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.

Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.

Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?


First Draft Emotions

Writing novels is not as hard as coal-mining or refuse collection or washing the windows of skyscrapers, but it does cause a roller coaster of emotions.

As I sit down to write my 1,000 words every morning, here’s a collection of things I feel and think:

  • Get off Facebook, right here, right now
  • Just do it
  • That scene is crap
  • Why the hell is she doing that?
  • Is it a problem that I still don’t know who the murderer is?
  • Just do it
  • Everyone is going to hate this because it’s a piss-poor pile of crap
  • Nooooo! No to Facebook
  • Fighting again, Maggie? Please act like a grown-up
  • I hate that character and I still can’t explain why the story needs him
  • Abject terror! I have no idea what the next scene is
  • Just do it

Which is why when I read this quote from Jane Smiley: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist” I felt calm again. I am going to write it in CAPITALS and stick it up in my writing corner.

All it needs is to exist. It will be the perfect first draft.