So my big moment a couple of weeks ago was a review in Die Welt, one of Germany’s four national newspapers. A friend kindly translated it for me.
Two viruses on the loose in Africa’s sick-house
Charlotte Otter wields an angry pen as she paints a portrait of South African society. It’s a violent society, infected by the viruses of crime and AIDS, fractured by ethnicities, cultures and social difference.
South African journalist Charlotte Otter lives in Germany and tells the tale of Maggie Cloete, also a journalist, who is trapped in the chaos of South Africa’s violent society.
While desperately asking ourselves why some of the most peaceful European regions – those which enjoy some of the lowest crime rates worldwide – produce most of the bloodiest crime novels, we stumbled upon a theory, which we decided to adopt and spread here.
This theory claims that it is especially those who are spoiled by external peace – authors and reader alike – that are in need of fictional murder. They need it, if you wish, as anathema, as a protective spell, so that crime does enter their boring, peaceful reality.
This is a charming theory, which we can discard without any regret. The fictional murder business is booming, qualitatively and quantitatively, and it’s booming in one of the world’s most torn and violent societies: South Africa.
Better than any documentary: South African crime fiction
Generally, this fiction is extremely hard to digest; without ornament, full of clashing sentences and concepts, as bloody as the country itself. These are stories that echo deeply in the place they are set, in the post-apartheid land of an only superficially appeased community.
As a result, we find novels that tell you more about South Africa than all the reporting on the 2010 World Cup combined.
They tell you about degeneration, the clash between social strata, and do so till the former townships stand in flames again. These are stories about conflicts between races, between the healthy ones and those who are eaten alive by disease; conflicts between golf players and trash collectors.
Charlotte Otter is in good company
Deon Meyer writes these stories, and Roger Smith. So does Charlotte Otter.
One has to explain Charlotte Otter first. She worked as a crime reporter and learned her writing in South Africa. Then, she moved to this completely different place, Germany, and took her husband and child with her.
Otter – we imagine her in her mid-forties – lives in Heidelberg. Rumor has it, that she is also somehow involved in IT.
Balthasar’s Gift is her debut novel. And it fulfills all necessary requirements for a socially relevant crime novel – and this according to textbook. Pietermaritzburg has found its place on the map of crime.
Pietermaritzburg lies in the KwaZulu-Natal province. It is populated by 200 000 souls, surrounded by lovely nature and beautiful parks, and finally, characterized by the extreme gap between the ridiculously rich and the bitterly poor, between the healthy and the soon-to-be dead AIDS patients. There are more ethnicities here than the German Bundesliga has clubs.
One morning, a body lies on the steps of the HIV House, the mission that helps those infected with the virus. Balthasar Meiring, son of a brutally conservative Boer farm father, has been shot.
The good spirit of Pietermaritzburg
Balthasar was the good spirit of Pietermaritzburg; saviour of orphans, widower to an AIDS victim, gay, blond, tall, with the stature of a praying mantis turned human. It could have been a typical South African cause of death: robbery gone bad.
But it wasn‘t. At least, this is what Maggie Cloete thinks, and she’s bound to know. In her capacity as crime reporter for the Gazette, she has been hunting criminals for more than ten years, perpetually chasing after them on her Yamaha named ‘The Chicken’.
Just a couple of days before he died, Balthasar called Maggie, and asked her to investigate the case of Sven Schloegel, a German quack who was selling an inefficient herbal treatment to unsuspecting families. The treatment was so expensive, that they were not only unable to afford the (actually helpful) retroviral medicine; they were also forced to incur debts with an infamous local crime lord.
The overture to what will hopefully be a long series
Balthasar’s Gift is the angry, quick and brick-smashing overture to what we hope will be a long series. As is it with overtures, we already encounter all the things that Maggie Cloete will deal with in the future.
This is what she’ll have to face: The two viruses that are destroying Africa, AIDS and crime. The novel shows/Maggie witnesses how AIDS changes society, how it scares and shames its people, destroys families and children; how it takes hold of children and kills them cruelly. How medical education is subject to archaic rituals and sick ideas, like the notion that sex with very young virgins cures the disease. This is why Balthasar’s Gift also tells of the rape of a two-year old girl.
Medicine is helpless, because the government is incredibly inactive, ignorant and incompetent in its dealings with the epidemic, an epidemic that kills thousands on a daily basis, a disease that hollows South Africa from the inside, that pulls it into a moral abyss; that simply tears it apart.
A cohesive picture of South African society
And Charlotte Otter does more: She paints a cohesive picture of South Africa’s recent history, and does so with ease. She illuminates the state of mind of the last survivors of Boer society.
While she entangles societal analysis and characters effortlessly, there are some very see-through and redundant literary maneuvers. It is not just due to our general distrust of art editors that we could have passed on the very blond art editor of the Gazette.
Some turns are very obvious in their task to cloud the straight line of investigation. At some points, the plot jumps awkwardly around corners, just like a young springbok leaping over the scrub.
Be that as it may. The abysses of Pietermaritzburg/KwaZulu-Natal are much more exciting than those of Stockholm, that’s for sure. Fearless, upright, engaging spectator Maggie Cloete grows on you, whether you like it or not, and she has to continue.