‘The Alphabet of Birds’ by S J Naudé casts a spell

Alphabet of birds book coverThe seven short stories in this new collection by S J Naudé take the reader on a series of melancholy journeys. Somehow, none of the characters seem able to escape deception, disappointment or the pangs of unfulfilled desire. Curious then that such a set of stories can deliver such a degree of satisfaction, teetering on the edge of pleasure.

Naudé is an Afrikaner and his book was originally written in Afrikaans but the author has made his own excellent translation into English. At one point in the story ‘Mother’s Quartet’ when a woman reads to a child in Afrikaans, the words are not translated and it comes as a pleasant shock to recognise the poem.

Engeltjie, engeltjie, vlieg dadelik voort!  

Jou vader is dood, jou moeder is dood

En jou kindertjies eet droëbrood.

(Do you remember, Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home?)

For many years Naudé practised as a lawyer in London and New York but then took himself back to South Africa and worked for a Master’s degree in creative writing. This book is the outcome of that hard work and the Afrikaans edition has won several prizes while the author has been awarded a prestigious writing scholarship.

The stories shed light on what it is to be an émigré South African returning to a post-apartheid country and finding it hard to fit in; and what it can mean to be a white South African trying to ‘do good’ in a climate of political corruption that seems to be tolerated by the new masters.

Expressions of love are thwarted and overall the protagonists find themselves defeated by the stronger will of others or by a combination of circumstances. This is not so much an alphabet of birds as a dictionary of melancholy. Hard to describe then why it seems to be so satisfying.  The quality of the writing, creative and distinct, must be part of the reason. And the fact that life is often nasty, brutish and yet seems to go on forever may be another. Naudé’s work is compelling and I hope to see more of it.

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