Authors: Barbara Trapido
For my father
I was introduced to the work of Barbara Trapido when a newspaper asked me to write a feature about her novel
. The commission involved travelling to Malvern where the novel is partially set, and as the train plunged through the tumble of green that leads to the station, I finished the last page with that particular combination of satisfaction and loss that stirs in the wake of a sublimely engrossing read. Entranced, I realised that I had found a new literary passion.
Here is a writer who can combine plot pyrotechnics and dazzling structural shifts with meditations on bereavement, terminal illness and skirt lengths; who can run Shakespearean themes beneath her own contemporary tales of romance and domestic drama, and who can write about AIDS, German song cycles and family abandonment with the addictive pull of a soap opera. This is her own brand of magic: for all her swooping and spinning, there is a darker consciousness at work, a morality and seriousness of intent, and her highly entertaining novels are ultimately suffused not only with literary and artistic allusion but with tragedy.
This Trapido balancing act is put to its finest use in
Frankie & Stankie
, in which a period of breathtaking atrocity is seen through the eyes of a child. I remember being confused by the first chapters, impatiently waiting for the trademark plot twists and intrigues to begin before understanding that this sixth novel covers different territory altogether.
Frankie & Stankie
needs to be read primarily as a memoir, as a very thinly disguised autobiography that deals with growing up in 1950s South Africa as the system descends from âimperial-racist to criminal lunatic'.
For a white author to write about South African politics at all is a risky enterprise, and Trapido's brilliantly daring achievement is to present the daily horrors of apartheid in the voice of a young girl. As the daughter of liberals, her protagonist Dinah, both indoctrinated and dissenting, combines the classic child's acceptance of the status quo with a sense of its absurdity. The out and out insanity of the period's laws and mores is reported with intentional detachment, the unadorned tone of the narrative forcefully driving the tragedy home. As a reader, you never forget the descriptions of ânative girls', of caged bushmen in a show, of racial classification techniques: if a pencil falls through the hair, a child is deemed white. As an English reader, I found
Frankie & Stankie
illuminated this slice of history for me more effectively than any newspaper had done.
The novel contains a fascinating mixture of the familiar and the alien: thumping colonial traditions are upheld in this land of monkeys and lychee trees; Union Jacks are raised against a backdrop of banana palms. It's a work stuffed full of delicious observation: if God is in the detail, there's heaven to be sampled here. As the novel progresses, the exhilaration of Dinah's
developing political consciousness and first experiences of love bring the reader back to the world of Trapido's earlier fiction, in which personal epiphany and transcendent love somehow establish a basic philanthropy alongside the darkness.
Dinah is a character to rival Trapido's best fictional creations: she has a ferocious brain on her, absorbs poetry by heart, is given to deliciously cutting verbal interplay, and will dedicate several hours to literary criticism of
. For those who know her, the young Dinah is instantly and pleasingly recognisable in the adult Trapido, whose combination of extraordinary warmth, eccentricity and a decidedly cool wardrobe render her ageless.
After I'd written my feature on
, I received the first of many cards in large scrawled writing from Barbara Trapido. I bought her backlist, met her, and soon realised that she has a rare gift for friendship: the kind of friendship that includes that much treasured anachronism, proper long letters on thick paper. To me she is Babs Traps, a name she tolerantly puts up with, and I find I can coat my reverence with much joking irreverence.
In the summer I had cucumber sandwiches with her in an old parsonage in Oxford, where she delivered an impassioned speech about the Middle East and quoted yards of poetry, walked straight through a garden sprinkler without pausing because it was a hot day, then followed the meeting with a long letter expressing her worry that she had talked too much, and signed âwith ten thousand kisses from Babs Traps'. This somehow sums her up.
Dinah knows that she's weedy: she's always been little and thin, and she has no meat on her bones. She has permanent black smudges under her eyes and, because she's asthmatic, she breathes through her mouth, which is always open. This makes her look daffy as well as weedy. In addition, her parents tell her she's edgy;
her mother calls it. There are various anecdotes about her early life that testify to this. Dinah is edgy because her mother is edgy during the pregnancy, and she's born premature because her mother has got over-excited on the day. First of all she's had a pleasant surprise because Dinah's father has got a letter declaring him unfit to serve in the Dutch Army in the war against Hitler. This is because his eyesight is too bad, which ought not to have been a surprise, since he's as good as blind without his glasses. Dinah's dad is from Holland, though he's been in Cape Town for nearly five years. That's why it's the Dutch Army that can decide whether or not to call him up. In the South African Army you can't get called up. You have to be a volunteer. But there are lots and lots of volunteers, because some of the recruitment posters have been so snappy:
DON'T BE LEFT OUT OF THE GREATEST ADVENTURE OF ALL TIME!
WAS THERE EVER A GIRL WHO DIDN'T PREFER A MAN IN UNIFORM?
Quite a few black men are volunteering as well but they're not allowed to carry guns â though if you come from Basutoland you'll be given a stout wooden stick. Or sometimes you'll get an assegai. Meanwhile the women are saving on light bulbs and they're knitting balaclavas for the troops.
Dinah's mother has never learned to knit. And just a few hours before Dinah is born, she has a really nasty shock, because, while Dinah's dad is out teaching one of his evening classes, a man, having first tried to break down the front door, has gone tramping round and round the garden of their ground-floor flat. He's been shouting abuse at her in the darkness and he's banged on the bedroom window.
âOpen up there, Dolly!' he bawls. âCome on now, Dolly, for Christssake!' Then he tramps around and bangs about some more. âGive us a kiss, now, that's my girl,' he bawls. âLet me in, you bitch! Wazza matter with you?'
Dinah's mum thinks he must be the multiple rapist currently on the loose in Cape Town and, since she's got no telephone in the flat, she takes a big risk in making a dash for the phone box, clutching Dinah's elder sister to her bosom, while the rapist is busy trampling the arum lilies to death around the back. She dials the police, who come at once, only to discover a drunken Australian soldier asleep in one of the flowerbeds. His troopship's docked in Cape Town for a few days and he's been trying to make his way back to a woman who's been very free with her favours on previous nights.
Right now there are lots of Australian soldiers docking in South African ports. And most of the local citizens think that the Aussies are really wild. In Durban, way up the Indian Ocean coast, the local Vera Lynn has been offering up special renditions of âWaltzing Mathilda' from the quay, which has the Australian soldiers rushing eagerly to the wharfside of their troop ships. This is because the singer in question is just like a great white whale. She can manage two hundred and fifty songs a day which she belts out through a megaphone and she's always dressed in white. So she's known as the Woman in White. Her real name is Perla Gibson.
Dinah is born later that night. It's the night of the Australian soldier. She's born in the lift during a wartime power cut because her mother can't hold on any longer, even though the nurse tells her she's got to.
to hold on,' the nurse says. âI've never done a birth before.'
The poor girl is a wartime stand-in. Next morning, the regular
day-nurses all remember Dinah's mother from her previous childbirth. They groan at the sight of the new baby, who weighs just a fraction over four pounds and looks exactly like a shrivelled yellow monkey because she has infant jaundice. But Dinah's mum is quite taken with her baby's yellow complexion and imagines it to have something to do with her husband's Netherlandish family, who are all unknown to her â trapped as they are in occupied Holland â but she does know there's a Dutch connection with Indonesia. She fancies that her baby's looks are exotic. The same nurses saw Dinah's older sister into the world fourteen months earlier and they right away called her Angel-face. Now, with a flash of originality, they call Dinah Tiny-mite.
âTiny-mite is going to give poor Angel-face a very hard time,' they say.
Angel-face by this time is a healthy, smiley, auburn-haired cherub with four pearly incisors, two up, two down, who gurgles and bounces so charmingly from her cot on the balcony of the apartment that total strangers come by and bombard her with presents. They throw stuffed toys up on to the balcony for her and little jerseys they've knitted out of their scratchy wartime wool rations. What the nurses don't know is that Tiny-mite is already giving Angel-face a hard time, because, once the waters have broken, Dinah's dad has just leapt straight into the taxi along with his wife. He means to drop her off at the hospital and hurry back at once, so he's left poor Angel-face sound asleep and all alone. And then, of course, he's stuck in the lift. Plus, given that he's a fairly recent immigrant and not yet all that
with English popular culture, he's forgotten that it's Bonfire Night, so when he gets back two hours later, Angel-face, who's been woken by the neighbourhood rocket display, is standing at her cot bars in paroxysms of terror with her poor little face caked in snot and her beautiful gingernut curls all spiky with sweat.
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
Treason and plot are uppermost right now, because pro-Nazi elements among the white population are stockpiling their ar
senals of hand grenades and guns. Plus the government is anxiously gearing up for a possible Japanese invasion, now that Japan has entered the war on Germany's side. General Smuts has just announced that all South Africans, black and white, must learn to pull together. Segregation measures will be relaxed, he says. That's while the war's on, anyway. Afterwards the segregation measures will all come back again. Meanwhile, a mad lady in the hospital foyer is telling Dinah's dad that Scorpios will always have the rockiest journey through life. Unfortunately Dinah isn't even meant to be a Scorpio, so maybe it's no wonder she's not all that well equipped to deal with its several astrological disadvantages.
Angel-face is called Lisa. Tiny-mite is supposed to have been called Amaryllis, after a song her dad sings while her mother accompanies him on a borrowed piano.
Amarilli, mia bella
. It's in a collection of antique love songs that he's got in a book from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Instead, Dinah's dad changes his mind on the way to the registry office next day. He finds himself whistling a pop song that goes, âDinah, is there anyone finer, in the state of Carolina?' He likes to make decisions without consultation because it's quicker that way and, anyway, he always knows best.