News From South Africa

By Mike Nicol

A couple of months ago Deon Meyer won a Barry Award for his novel, THIRTEEN HOURS. Now he’s back with his seventh crime novel in English, TRACKERSs. It’s a very different sort of book. At one level it’s an experiment in how to tell a story. At another it’s a spy story with two novellas – one about a security guard charged with minding some rhinos in transit; the other about a straight down the line PI investigation. Of course all the pieces fit together, as they should. I put a couple of questions to Deon about his book.

TRACKERS is a book of stories to a greater degree than any of your previous novels. Now ‘tracks’ are stories in themselves – clues to some larger narrative. Is this what gave you the idea for the book’s structure?

To be honest, the title came after I decided on the structure. And the structure had its’ origin in  a number of things: There was my acute awareness of how tyrannical structure is in the process of writing in this genre, and the need to at least try to escape these shackles; my fascination with, for instance movie and TV-series structure (and if and how they can be applied in the novel); the desire to tell three stories; and, finally, I kept wondering if I could have done DEVIL’S PEAK, an earlier book, a little differently. (And that was probably the longest sentence I’ve written in a while ..)

Let’s look at the structure a little more closely. There is a longer narrative presented in two parts, and two shorter stories, novellas in their own right. In many respects they are spin-offs from the main story. What are you saying here?  Are you saying that every story generates secondary stories, like moons around a planet?

What I tried to say (or at least explore) is that everything is connected. I’ve been intrigued by the concept of collateral damage since ‘Heart of the Hunter’, this notion that all tracks intersect, if you will – the guilty and the innocent …

TRACKERS returns to previous characters from your fictional universe – Lemmer and Mat Joubert. The interesting thing about these two men is that they are happily in love (although not with each other!). In a novel filled with mistrust, duplicity, betrayal and selfishness these two relationships stand out in their normality. Obviously you felt this was important?

Mat Joubert’s very happy marriage (I owed him one after the trauma of DEAD BEFORE DYING) was a deliberate balancing act, or counterpoint to the less calm marital waters of the other storylines. Even Lemmer, very much in love, has problems: Emma does not know about his violent past. He is a worried man.

They also give men a good name in a book where the male representations are driven by greed and nasty brutishness.

They do. Both Joubert and Lemmer have their own, distinct moral frameworks, but they are essentially good men.

You have three interesting women in TRACKERS – which is not to say this hasn’t been the case in previous books, it has – but let’s look at them in more detail. Milla – the protagonist in the main narrative – decides to walk away from a bad marriage and take control of her life. She starts off a victim, ends very much in control of her destiny. Then there is Flea – a con artist and mercurial survivor. She plays dirty but then her lot is not easy and we end up admiring her amoral manipulations. Finally there is Tanya Flint who is a victim of her husband’s duplicity. She suffers the trauma of realising that the man she loved had a secret life. In a sense the portraits of the women have a complexity that is missing in the men, was this deliberate?

Yes. Traditionally, in this genre, women have had the role of the floozy, the dame, the side-kick, the victim, or the love interest. So it was my way of going against convention – something you did so wonderfully with your character Sheemina February in your Revenge Trilogy.

A side note on Tanya: She is a strong, hard-working, honest, and good woman. One of the questions I asked was: What happens when the husband feels threatened by this?

Now for the stories. The long story about Milla is about spying. It is about the electronic devices which watch us in our cities, the electronic footprints we leave as we move around with our cellphones and laptops. It is very much a world of Big Brother.

And a world that both troubles and fascinates me. Privacy is dead, and it will become even more dead. (I spoke to someone in Europe recently who is funding a start-up company developing software that can take all our little digital bits and pieces, and stitch it together to show an alarmingly accurate picture of exactly who we are, what we do and where we go …) There are so many levels to this – for instance, the percentage of bad guys being caught through technology these days. What’s a poor crime author to do?

Then there is Lemmer’s story which concerns that very hot topic – endangered species, in this instance, rhino. In Lemmer’s first appearance (Blood Safari), the plight of vultures was a topic. In this coincidence or is Lemmer a closet greenie?

Confession: I’m the closet greenie, Lemmer is the vehicle …

The last story, that of Mat Joubert and Tanya Flint is a classic PI investigation. As such it is about the recovery of truth. It’s a bleak truth that is uncovered, but I suppose it does set Tanya free.

Yip, the old do-we-really-want-to-know-the-whole-truth-thing. She loses so much in the process – no only a loved one, but also the image of whom she thought he was.

On a completely different topic, one of the issues that comes up repeatedly in our crime fiction – for obvious reasons – concerns race. Often names are a good indicator of the complexity of our society, but in TRACKERS you have colour-coded many of the characters. Are you ensuring that outside readers understand the racial make-up of SA society, or is there another reason?

That is certainly part of it. But there is also my personal philosophy, and now I have to tread carefully to get this right: One of the reasons why I love South Africa so passionately, is because ours is multi-cultural country. I love the fact that we have so many fascinating histories, and origins, and languages, and traditions. And it would be great if we continue to mutually respect and protect the various cultures, because it is what makes us unique as a country – in the bland Facebook world. For me, indicating that a character is a Xhosa, a Zulu, a Sotho or an Afrikaans person, is not a racial label, but a proud part of who they are as human beings. Our diversity should be celebrated.

Mike Nicol

Mike Nicol is a journalist and writer and now a hard-core crime fiction addict. He's published two crime novels - Payback and Our To Score (a co-authorship), and is a founder of the blog Crime Beat. He lives on Cape Town's peninsula, up a mountain, in the teeth of the wind.

Visit Mike at: www.crimebeat.book.co.za.

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