By Mike Nicol
Two years ago a hard-hitting anti-capital punishment book hit the shelves here called Shepherds & Butchers by an advocate named Chris Marnewick. The book was a mixture of fact (the gruesome details of a hanging) and fiction, the crimes that had resulted in the various characters being sentenced to death. The book was controversial even though South African abolished the death penalty some years ago.
Last month Marnewich published his second novel, The Soldier Who Said No, which has another social injustice at its heart. But this is a bonus. Because for the rest his novel is an unputdownable thriller. Under the auspicious of my blog, Crime Beat, he and I had a chat about his new novel.
After the non-fiction/fiction of Shepherds & Butchers, you’ve moved into what could be regarded as the terrain of the thriller. In an interview you indicated that this was at the suggestion of your publisher, Umuzi. It’s difficult to imagine this book being anything other than it is; did you have to make many changes?
My genre, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, is creative non-fiction. I take an historical event or a process – like the diagnosis and treatment of cancer – as the focus or main theme of the novel with the aim of making the reader think and rethink his/her previously held views. The best vehicle to carry the true facts and to make the reader think is fiction, I have found. In this instance my editors at Umuzi wanted me to strengthen the fictional aspects of the novel, which is exactly what happened when they edited Shepherds & Butchers. And yes, the result was that I had to make a very large number of changes to the plot, the characters and the individual scenes. In the process the book became a detective novel faster than I had imagined it would.
You have carried two of the characters from Shepherds & Butchers into The Soldier Who Said No. The narrator from your first novel (lawyer) Johann Weber has a minor part here, but the rather sinister and traumatised Pierre de Villiers appears here as the main character. Are you building a greater story that will slowly deal with those featured in your first novel, or is this the makings of a more conventional thriller series?
I started The Soldier Who Said No when I had settled the plot for Shepherds & Butchers. I needed Pierre de Villiers in Shepherds for two reasons. The first is that Johann Weber in his preparation to defend Leon Labuschagne had to obtain first-hand information about the trauma of killing a human being from someone who had actually killed. The interchanges between Weber and De Villiers allowed me to emphasise that aspect of killing. The second reason was that I planned, at that stage already, to develop a detective character for subsequent novels, such as The Soldier Who Said No. The plan is to finish a third novel where Weber and De Villiers will again combine forces. I aim to link historical events set in the 1940’s with events in 1992 as the factual component of the novel.
This interplay between fact and fiction, the past and the present almost seems to be a ‘genre’ in societies such as ours, and, for example, Northern Ireland. I think here of the Irish writer, Stuart Neville’s 2009 novel, The Twelve (in the US: The Ghosts of Belfast). Do you think fiction can link events across the decades in ways that non-fiction can’t? In other words it might be fiction but it contains an implicit truth?
Very much so. History served raw is unappetising. Yet if we ignore history we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Cliché but true. The function of a writer is to serve up the raw facts of an unappealing history in a new and provocative way. I agree that this is a separate genre. Call it historical fiction or creative non-fiction, if you will. A writer working in this genre is able to deal with the thorny issues of the day – and of the past – without the political baggage the media or an historian or even a political commentator has to carry. It is our job to reflect reality in a different way, to make people think. Put differently, a writer can deal with issues of race, sexuality, morality, etcetera without having to be pc. We can tell it like it is, or as we see it, or as our characters see it. John Sutherland put it as follows in a chapter heading in How to Read a Novel: “Fiction – where the unspeakable can happen.” By speaking the unspeakable, writers serve as the conscience of a nation. I think that we have an obligation to present to the public the unpalatable facts of our past and present, to fight our true enemies, ignorance and injustice, past and present. And South Africa has oodles of history still to be made known.
The Soldier Who Said No is an elaborate interweaving of three stories – two directly tied to Pierre de Villiers, one tangentially associated with him. Did one of the stories give rise to the others?
This is an unbelievably difficult question to answer, because I don’t know where the ideas come from. The idea to write about the war in Angola came to me while I was talking to a friend in New Zealand and he recounted some of the events of the Bush War and showed me his scars. He also told me that a large number of Recce’s had settled in New Zealand after 1994. Then, the more I learnt about New Zealand’s colonial history, the more I realised that there were certain parallels with our own, particularly with regard to the way the indigenous peoples were treated then and were being treated now. (This is where the ignorance and injustice I mentioned earlier come in.) It wasn’t a huge leap to link the San in SA and the Maori in NZ, who were both disposed of their lands and treasures. And, of course, I found embedded racism in both societies, with a nauseating political correctness masking it in New Zealand while it is right on the surface here. In the end, I decided to use De Villiers’s physical cancer as a metaphor for the cancer of racism in all of us and coupled that to the painful and often unsuccessful attempts we make to find a cure.
The past is ever present in your novel, indeed is a cancer eating at the body politic in the cases of South Africa and New Zealand, and as far as Pierre’s concerned it is literally infesting a body part. The only cancer that is treated and put into remission is his prostate cancer. What are you saying about history? That it is an ever present threat?
History is a problem only if we ignore it. The cancer of racism and injustice is ever present in SA and also in NZ and needs to be faced and defeated. That the battle may be an arduous one and the outcome uncertain is beside the point. The point is that it has to be fought, otherwise the cancer wins. And whatever shortcomings Pierre de Villiers has, he is a fighter and is prepared to fight all of the cancers in him.
Pierre de Villiers is a tough character yet when it comes to racial slurs he has a surprisingly thin skin. Given his stable and loving home life, he still seems to be a vulnerable and explosive character. Again, an instance of the past exercising its long reach? Or the problem of difference and the suffering it causes?
Pierre de Villiers is damaged goods. His past has inflicted serious wounds on his psyche. I think that Pierre also, like most white South Africans, carries the guilt of the past with him. And he feels guilty for not having carried out an order which, had he carried it out, might have prevented a lot of suffering north of the Limpopo. He is overly sensitive about matters of race, partly because of an inferiority complex, and partly, perhaps mainly, because he fought in a futile war carrying out the orders of a racist regime. So he overcompensates. While in his most intimate personal relationships he has come to grips with race, he still cannot help immediately noticing the race or skin colour of every person he encounters. And he wonders whether that is part of his being a South African.
The question about Pierre de Villiers not carrying out the order is an interesting one, morally. He felt that it was wrong to pull the trigger yet, as you say, in retrospect, it could have prevented a lot of suffering. Of course we’re talking fiction here, not reality. Your fiction is full of these paradoxes and moral complexities. Everything in shades, nothing in black and white? This is clearly the way you see the world, partly, I suppose, informed by your experiences as an advocate. But it does make for a more interesting thriller, particularly when the genre at its commercial selling best is almost all plot and no substance.
Your question exposes a raw nerve here. As an advocate, I am not allowed to ‘make up a story’. I am bound by strict rules of ethics to present the case I have in the best possible light without deliberately misleading the court. But as a writer, I am required to go against my professional instincts and make up a story. I find this extremely difficult. The result is that I have taken refuge in this genre, historical fiction, where I can carry the facts of history in the vehicle of fiction. The moral questions I pose in my fiction are not answered directly. That is quite deliberate, and perhaps a reflection of my attitude as a teacher (at Bar exams level). I want to help people to find the truth themselves, or to think that they did. I don’t enjoy plot driven fiction. I want a writer to make me see new truths and remember them long after I’ve put the book down. I don’t read for leisure alone; I read for enlightenment.
After that short digression let’s get back to Pierre de Villiers. You say he’s planned as a series character and he’s certainly ‘damaged’ enough to be a long term investment. Interesting that you should have given him such a stable family life. Is this also to contrast with the ghastly deaths of his previous family?
No, this was a deliberate decision. I wanted to create a fictional character, a detective, who is unlike the stereotype, the washed-up alcoholic who is estranged from his family and is making a come-back. (The Kurt Wallanders, John Rebuses and Bennie Griessels.) Both De Villiers and Weber are in high risk occupations when it comes to stress, long hours and the temptation to find escape in alcohol. I deliberately ‘married’ them to strong-willed, forceful women who help them to cope with the stresses of their jobs in order to portray what I see as the norm. Surely this is the normal, and not the broken-family stereotype of a detective that we encounter elsewhere. I believe in strong women – my profession has many of them, and strong women were/are ever present in my personal history – and it irritates me that in most crime fiction women are reflected as either victims or non-participants in the events taking place around them.
One issue that intrigued me is that Pierre de Villiers wasn’t able to pull off an intended violence – I’ll leave it as vague as that so as not to spoil the plot. But this decision ties up with his earlier decision – the decision referred to in the title – to say no. I get the sense that Pierre is more committed to due process than he might admit?
True. Pierre’s enemies are my enemies; ignorance and injustice. He has a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. And he speaks up and resists when he encounters what he regards as wrong. I’ll let the reader find the incidents in the book when this happens.
If this is the case, that Pierre de Villiers is a through and through lawman, could you see an instance where moral justice might triumph over the judicial process in your fiction?
Yes. For me, morality stands on a plane higher than the law. There comes a point where one has to disobey a law that is so immoral – and so devoid of rational justification – that one could not reasonably be expected to carry it out. Hence Pierre’s rebellion, but being committed to law and order, he is prepared to face the consequences.
To shift the focus now to the historic part of your novel: the chapters dealing with the war in Angola. There is a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the writing, is it an area you know well?
I only got to know this well through extensive and time-consuming research. My personal experience of matters military is confined to nine months in the SA Navy. The problem with this genre is that the writer has to get the facts right. Otherwise he/she loses the moral authority that possession of the facts provides and his/her message loses credibility.
There is a slow re-assessment of the border war happening in recent non-fiction accounts of the experiences of soldiers. As this occurs, the gap between the initial historiography and the revised (ie current) version widens. But there is still a reluctance on the part of the soldiers and the generals to admit what happened. Fiction, it seems, becomes a way of dealing with the issue, as you have demonstrated. Do you feel that we are still in denial about that chapter in our history?
Very much so. But the people who experienced that war at first hand are still alive – the survivors – and it is important that they should record that history. A writer can only write what he or she can uncover – or guess. It’s my job as a writer to expose aspects of that war which may not have attracted attention in the past. In Shepherds & Butchers I tried to show how the death penalty process affects a lawyer and a prison warder involved in different aspects of the execution process. I did a similar thing in The Soldier Who Said No.
You also put Pierre de Villiers through a particularly nasty experience at the hands of the SADF. All of it quite believable in the fiction and in reality. Also the attempts to brainwash him are ruthless. This is savage criticism of our previous lords and masters.
I don’t think a fictional account can properly expose the excesses of the apartheid government. And the historical record is incomplete. Too much of what really happened and who was involved has been shredded or sanitised, even in our archives. The more I learn the truth of those years, the angrier I get. I don’t believe in the amnesty process. We should have prosecuted them for the criminals they were, the whole lot of them, without exception. The amnesties handed out like so much candy to the worst types of criminals – on both sides of that conflict – are an example of the law achieving a result which, while legal, is entirely immoral.
Finally, given that, as you mentioned earlier, we can anticipate more of Pierre de Villiers, how about a quick taster? Does he return to South Africa? Will he and Johann Weber team up?
Yes, he will and they will. I intend to expose in the last of this series the facts of a particularly nasty operation of the ‘third force’ in the years between Mandela’s release and 1994. I have seen no reference to this operation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings or in the media. Johann Weber, in his capacity as a maritime lawyer, and Pierre de Villiers, in his capacity as a soldier subject to the orders of a ‘third force’ general, will combine to finally defeat the general and in the process make a deliberate choice between what is “legal” and what is morally right.
ITW International Committee Chair for South Africa, Mike Nicol, is a journalist and writer and now a hard-core crime fiction addict. He’s published two crime novels – Payback and Out 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.