Based in Berkeley, California, Whereabouts Press publishes an intriguing series of Traveler's Literary Companions. “Unlike guidebooks written by professional travel writers,” they explain, “our books feature stories written by literary writers — all of whom who have lived in the places they write about…. Many of the stories in our books appear in English for the first time.”
In some ways, the approach is similar to that of the “Travelers' Tales” series. But unlike those, the stories in the Literary Companions are generally (though not always) fictional, and they are not always about contemporary life.
The series currently includes 21 titles covering individual countries (and the cities of Amsterdam and Prague), in addition to Gay Travels, Lesbian Travels, and a volume called Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Stories. (The most popular volumes are for Italy, France, and Amsterdam.)
Released this year, South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion is the first of these books to look at an African country. Ranging widely over the history and ethnic mosaic of South Africa, it includes seventeen selections, of which the newest is Rustum Kozain's previously unpublished “Krot” and the oldest is Olive Schreiner's 1906 story “1899.”
Only one of the stories, Jan Rabie's “Maiden Outing to Rondebosch,” appears to have been translated from another language (Afrikaans), but the others are peppered with enough other languages to require a glossary of phrases from Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa, and Zulu, as well as Arabic, Dutch, German, and Afrikaans. Like the editors’ introduction, the glossary is thoughtfully compiled, going so far as to correct apparent errors in the original versions.
The editors, Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht, have chosen stories of very different types and lengths, and let each one stand on its own strengths. “1899” and “Mrs. Plum” by the late Es'kia Mphahlele are each more than forty pages long, while the mythic opening section of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country takes up only two pages.
Not surprisingly, two of the strongest stories — though very different from each other — are by South Africa’s Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. In a section from Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron, set in the uneasy period when apartheid was crumbling, an ailing but canny old white woman is drawn into the hellish world of the townships. In Gordimer's story “The Ultimate Safari,” a family of Mozambican refugees makes its way through South Africa's Kruger Park, experiencing the land and wildlife in a much more primal way than the tourists who visit the park in comfortable Land Rovers.
Though there is always room to quibble with the selections in a book like this (I might have cut the long and emotionally manipulative story “1899” to make room for someone like Andre Brink or Breyten Breytenbach) this is a rewarding and thought-provoking collection that will give the potential visitor to South Africa a lot to think about.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com