By Anne Landsman
Summoned back to Cape Town from bohemian New York, Betsy Klein finds herself tending to a once irrepressible father now lying in a coma. For days, she lingers around the sterile corridors of Groote Schuur Hospital with her mother, brother and sundry nurses and doctors, all hoping against hope for Harold Klein to awake.
But the past is where the book is really located as Betsy, pregnant with her first child, recalls incidents from her loving yet anguished relationship with her father.
Audaciously, she imagines the world through his eyes, growing up the son of a poor Jewish shopkeeper in the rural platteland, feeling alienated from local Afrikaners and mixed-race Coloureds, yet conflicted about his own father Joseph’s Lithuanian roots. Some passages are memorable — on the train journey where the young Harold embarks on his idealistic escape from rural claustrophobia to become a doctor, he witnesses “the Langeberge [mountains] washed by the cool moon, giant soldiers bent over in sleep.
The raggedy velvety sky has a million holes in it. You pray… for the train to roll towards Cape Town, like a stone rolling down a cliff into the sea.” The metropolis itself is vividly described and there is something almost Bacchanalian about Harold’s lusty tryst with the lascivious Koeka as the beat of ghomma drums from Cape Town’s New Year “Coon Carnival” invades the airspace of a sleazy hotel.
The deepest stream amid Landsman’s streams of consciousness is the River Touw. Here was where Harold had his first, guilty, sexual encounter; and where he later taught his daughter how to row. Harold is returned to the Touw in a final dream as in reality he lies insensible with hi-tech instruments manically whirring away.
Landsman draws on Afrikaans parochialisms to achieve an effect which, when it works, is scintillating. She evokes a past that is at once soft and sepia-tinted and charged with visceral passions. Through Harold’s eyes, Betsy recalls Jewish fears as Afrikaner youths in Nazi-like brown-shirts flock to the foundation ceremony at the Voortrekker Memorial in 1938.
Later, Harold yearns to join the adventure of war but never makes it. Instead, he does battle on the Saturday-night casualty ward, swarming with injuries caused by fighting revellers. Angry at “practising on the poor people of Africa”, he/Betsy chides himself: “You might as well have pulled your wagon into the laager at the Battle of Blood River and shot your own Zulu.” Elsewhere, Harold upbraids white patients for mistreating black workers and laments apartheid’s destruction of Coloured District Six. Yet the great political events of 1948-1990 seem distant as parenting and work ambitions consume Harold’s adult years.
The Rowing Lesson is leavened with period humour: two medical students toboggan down Cape Town’s Jameson Steps, one (a Jew) masked as Hitler, the other as Haile Selassie; a girlfriend’s family excruciatingly vets Harold, the laissez-faire Jew, over a Shabbat meal. At times, however, the deluge of puns and medical mantras feels heavy and the conflation of time, place and person can be confusing. Betsy paints sub-Saharan beasts in her New York loft but other than that we learn little about her.
And the once alluring, chain-smoking svelte and freckled Stella is reduced to “my mother, thickening at the waist, middle age congealing like a slow-cooking stew”. But, as in her first novel, The Devil’s Chimney, Landsman excels at blending the personal and historical. Hers is a distinctive voice which evokes South African mores with surgical precision.
Lawrence Joffe is a freelance reviewer