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The novelist Teju Cole visits Cape Town and I am asked to lead a “literary walkabout” of the city in his company for the Open Book Festival. I worry that this might be a little contrived: can his hypnotic meditations on New York and Lagos really be superimposed on to such a different city? But, as we begin, he recalls the literary experiments of Guy Debord and the situationists, giving us a more resourceful way of imagining the exercise. A regular route taken through the street grid of, say, Paris would be mapped as a geometric shape, then transplanted on to the countryside of Bavaria and retraced, with random encounters carefully noted. Artificial constraints to generate new insights; strict formulas to evade the formulaic.

And so we begin our walk through the city centre, listening to passages from his novel, Open City, as well as the work of local writers. Unexpected affinities emerge between the early Cape colony and the history of Manhattan Island that Cole’s book so carefully excavates. Both were 17th-century Dutch garrisons; both became brutal slave ports. And in each, the built environment turns its back on the water that gave rise to it in the first place. In New Amsterdam, the navigable Hudson river; in Cape Town, the millions of litres of fresh water flowing off Table Mountain, still running unseen below the city centre. Sailors would fill their barrels at shoreline that has now been pushed back and paved over: “Beneath the pavement, a beach!”

As we are finishing outside the Fugard Theatre, still talking about surrendering to the random drifts and eddies of the city, a woman comes up to me. She has the face of someone who sleeps rough and takes hard liquor to make that a little more bearable. I struggle to understand what she is asking – it seems to be, “Are you a preacher?” Before I can answer, someone emerges from the festival box office and ushers her politely away. Only some kinds of randomness, I think ruefully, are permitted in the literary walking tour.

A friend in Canada writes that being absent from her home country during the days that followed Nelson Mandela’s death made her feel an almost physical pain. But one can also have the sensation of being absent even in the midst of things, of somehow failing to connect with history at every turn.

The apogee of this comes when I attend a surf film festival on the same evening that a memorial concert is held in the Cape Town stadium. A talk is happening in the predator tank of the Two Oceans Aquarium, where ragged tooth sharks and the occasional sea turtle slowly circle above the heads of the speakers. Just a mile away, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have come out of retirement to entertain an ecstatic crowd; Johnny Clegg is leading a rousing chorus of “Asimbonanga” (“We Have Not Seen Him”), the struggle anthem dedicated to Mandela. And yet here I (not even a surfer, just someone who likes waves) sit hearing about someone’s trip of a lifetime to “Mada” (ie Madagascar) and “Indo”; or how seabirds on remote islands have bellies full of plastic. The turtle comes into view again and I feel an almost cosmic sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One talk is Mandela-related, however: about a wave off Robben Island that was named “Madiba’s Left” and surfed in his honour during the 1990s. A one-mile exclusion zone around the island had been lifted, so the crew could get a boat near enough to paddle into the heavy Atlantic swell. Madiba’s Left is, according to the local websites, for pros only: lumpy, sporadic and “slabby” – a steep and unforgiving wave coming out of the deep ocean to break on a shallow rock shelf. The talk was a reminder, too, of how much of a role the sea must have played in Mandela’s long incarceration. In Long Walk to Freedom, he recalls being put to work dragging kelp from the ocean, looking back towards a city that seemed so deceptively close, “winking in the sunshine, the glass towers of Cape Town”.

Just sitting down at the desk on a Monday morning, having summoned all my willpower, when the door buzzer rings. From the particularly insistent tone of the ring, I know exactly who it is: Lucas, the most persistent man in the world.

“Mr Hardly – your car is looking very dirty.”

On first buying my (first) car, a few years ago, I took pride in cleaning it each weekend, despite never thinking of myself as a car person. I used to scrub and buff away officiously, the words of JM Coetzee’s priggish narrator in Summertime going through my head: “What he finds himself doing is what people like him should have been doing ever since 1652, namely, his own dirty work”.

Over a period of months, though, Lucas (who already had a car-washing gig with the flat below) wore me down. He would appear, often in a too-tight Sarah Lund jumper and an Edith Piaf beret, and ring the buzzer until I relented. When he speaks to you, it is very difficult to extricate yourself: he has perfected a whole range of ways of keeping you on the spot – the determination and insistent sociability of someone who works the streets each day.

“You can ask the people downstairs,” he always says. “They know me.”

But my reluctance to have Lucas wash the car is less to do with ethics than the labour-intensive nature of the process for all involved. Since he doesn’t have any of his own equipment, and since the body corporate of my apartment block doesn’t want any “strangers” breaching the gate, the car washing involves an elaborate routine of me filling and refilling buckets for him, carrying down cloths and dustpan, threading the garden hose through the fence, turning it on, turning it off. Turning it on again when he rings for the rinse, turning it off, waiting. Sometimes he rings halfway through just for a chat. “You like the beach eh?”, he says, showing the sand that he has swept up.

This particular morning I eventually give up on my dour Protestant work ethic and hear about his trips back and forth to the Eastern Cape, his phones that keep being stolen, his various ailments, how the family downstairs is paying for a doctor. “They know me,” he says again. It is like a refrain of his: “They know me.”

Hedley Twidle lectures in English at the University of Cape Town and won the 2012 Bodley Head/FT essay prize

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