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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.”


Not the Stranger in the Street

In South Africa, violence against women has its own particular shape and colour, and the killing of Reeva Steenkamp made it absolutely clear that no woman, no matter how privileged, can presume to be safe in her own home. South Africa has extremely high levels of violent crime – this is what we are known for 20 years after the end of Apartheid. However, the most lethal threat that women face is not the stranger in the street. It is not an armed and dangerous intruder – that figment of a paranoid imagining that Oscar Pistorius apparently feared so abjectly. It is the man she loves and lives with; a woman is killed by her intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa.

Margie Orford, writing in The Independent. Read the full article here.


Am Reading

So I am writing, but there’s always time for reading. Here, in handy list form for ease of use, are my latest five-star books:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love was a Marmite book. Some loved it, others hated it. I was amongst the lovers. But that aside, the raging success of E,P,L gave Gilbert the money and time to research and write The Signature of All Things, which is the book she was born to write. It is the big, bold, open-hearted story of Alma Whittaker, a nineteenth century botanist whose research takes her in the same direction as Charles Darwin’s. Gilbert says she was inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which the author writes historical fiction with a modern sensibility. This was exactly what I loved about Gilbert’s novel. I also loved it on sentence level. There was deep, deep sentence jealousy.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Lauren is a superbly talented South African writer. Her last couple of books have gone to auction at Frankfurt Book Fair and earned her huge advances. She is a genre-busting wild child, presently sporting pink hair. Her latest is set in Detroit and focuses on the efforts of a female detective to find a serial killer. What starts as a crime novel spirals into a deftly managed horror story. It is vast in imagination and bold in its reflection of the twenty-first century sensibility, replete (in a good way) with Facebook posts, Reddit conversations and journalists manipulating the Internet for cheap fame. Stephen King should look to his laurels.

Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

Loved this. Marx’s big-hearted youngest child got most of her schooling at her father’s feet, and grew up to be a tireless trade unionist, journalist, writer and campaigner before committing suicide in her forties. She forced the suffragettes to consider working women in their campaigns, forced British trade unionism to be more international and fought on every side for workers’ rights. She is a fascinating human being and Holmes does a great job bringing her to life. If we’re talking modern sensibility, then Tussy (as was her nickname) was the epitome of this with her absolute refusal to countenance the mores of her time.

All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

I am an unabased Toews fan. I love everything she writes, mostly because no matter how tragic the subject matter, it is always thread through with dark dark humour. The same goes for her latest novel, about two sisters, emotional refugees from the Canadian Mennonites, who have gone on to make their lives outside the sect – Elfrieda as a concert pianist, and Yolanda as a messed-up normal person. Most of the story is told at Elfrieda’s bedside in a mental institution where she is recovering from her latest suicide attempt and contemplating her next. Witty, tragic, beautiful. This book is hard not to love.




Chased by a Rhino

I hitch-hiked from Narbonne to Perpignan in the back of a fish-truck.

I sold dolls that wee in a supermarket in Bloubergstrand.

I was chased by a rhino.

I met a naval officer who was dancing in a fountain and I took him to my school dance.

I am good at croquet, average at bridge, poor at tennis.

I gatecrashed the first opening of parliament of South Africa’s new democracy.

I waitressed at a Foreign Office event without a work visa.

I’ve slept all night on a beach.

I wore a paper hat for work in the John Lewis staff canteen.

I know that angels smell of roses.

I’ve given birth three times, but only once in a hospital.

I spent a week in Rome in a villa on Appian Way.

I have shaken hands with a Prince and dined with international cricket stars.

I went to Oliver Tambo’s funeral.

The garden of my last home was the site of a Roman temple.

I used to ask boys out on dates.

On honeymoon, my husband and I had to call guards to chase away the elephants outside our hotel room.

After her death, my grandmother visited me in spirit.

I was trapped by floods in a Transkei village.

I write because there are stories in my head.

I write because words follow each other.

I used to be a crime reporter, but not a very brave one.

I have written a book about a crime reporter. She climbs walls, rides motorbikes and saves a child. She is the hero.

Inspired by Simonne Michelle’s beautiful post Dancing on a Greek Island


Over To You

I know I said I was taking a break, but you can’t keep a good blog post down. Today, I’m inspired by über-agent and blogger, Rachelle Gardner, who’s asking her readers some questions.

Here are mine, for you to answer in the comments:

1. What’s the best book you’ve read this year and why?

2. What are you tired of reading about on blogs?

3. What do you never tire of reading on blogs?

4. What’s the one blog on your feed reader that you’ll always read first?

5. Dark or milk chocolate?

Have a great Easter weekend!