Cruel Crazy Beautiful World: A Novel

Cruel Crazy Beautiful World: A Novel

by Troy Blacklaws

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Two characters navigate the post-apartheid South African landscape in this haunting story of the injustice that still simmers below the country’s surface In Troy Blacklaws’s ambitious novel, the lives of two African men run parallel, exposing the tensions that rumble at South Africa’s post-apartheid core. Jerusalem is a young poet and student whose stubborn father will no longer pay for his rambling studies. Half Jewish, half Muslim, Jerusalem is forced from Cape Town to a distant harbor village by his father, who believes a stint selling curios to tourists will right his wandering ways. Meanwhile, Jabulani loses his teaching job in Zimbabwe after mocking President Mugabe and must move south to start a new life. But his life across the border is tainted by the harsh truth that racism isn’t gone; it’s just taken another form. As the two men’s lives merge, their stories reveal the paradoxes of the South African experience. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480410039
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/26/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 230
File size: 493 KB

About the Author

Troy Blacklaws is a South African writer whose work uses the lens of his own boyhood to illuminate the reality of living under apartheid. After moving from Natal, South Africa, to the Cape with his family at the age of nine, Blacklaws learned the truth behind the divisions in his country, first as a student at Paarl Boys’ High and then as a draftee for the army, where he spent two bitter years as an objector. Shortlisted for the Prix Femina for Karoo Boy, Blacklaws is a graduate of Rhodes University and has taught at international schools in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Singapore. He now lives and teaches in Luxembourg.

Troy Blacklaws is a South African writer whose work uses the lens of his own boyhood to illuminate the reality of living under apartheid. After moving from Natal, South Africa, to the Cape with his family at the age of nine, Blacklaws learned the truth behind the divisions in his country, first as a student at Paarl Boys’ High and then as a draftee for the army, where he spent two bitter years as an objector. Shortlisted for the Prix Femina for Karoo Boy, Blacklaws is a graduate of Rhodes University and has taught at international schools in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Singapore. He now lives and teaches in Luxembourg. 

Read an Excerpt

Cruel Crazy Beautiful World

A Novel

By Troy Blacklaws


Copyright © 2011 Troy Blacklaws
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1003-9


Cape Town. December 2004.

A boy tracks a skinny dun cow along a caged footbridge over the N2 highway out of town. The bridge is wired in to keep crazy cows from jumping and bitter boys from dropping bricks onto motorcars that shark along the tarmac below. For such boys Mandela's longed-for freedom is a joke.

A haze of smoke and summer dust hangs low over Crossroads shantytown.

Behind us the sun hovers over Table Mountain.

On the roadside a tow truck, like a morbid mantis, dreams up its next victim.

And on the radio Miles Davis blows high, cicada notes.

See my old man with a lazy palm on the wheel of his mystic-green '74 Benz and his other hand combing his ducktail. Zero Cupido: in his faring Hawaiian shirt and snakeskin boots, he looks the part of a dodgy Cuban dealer in an American film. In fact he's half Cape Malay, half Cuban. With just a jot of Hottentot blood. In theory he's Muslim. In reality he loves his whisky and pig and hasn't gone to mosque for a long time. He has no intent to go on Hajj, yet he enjoys orientating his life to Mecca. He draws an arrow in the sand with his foot whenever he's on a beach. He has pencilled an arrow under the roof of the veranda. Ghosting through Cape Town, he'll cast his eyes starwards to find south and then figure out the angle to Mecca. That imaginary notch in his mind keeps the world from spinning too randomly, he tells me.

Now, out of the blue, Zero's put his snakeskinned foot down. Jero, the freeloading's over, he said to me. He'll no longer fork out good money (?!) on a son who is a drifter and a dreamer: forever lolling on the harbour wall, forever sipping cocktails with flaky gay artists, forever writing sappy po-ems. He spat out the word poems as he might a litchi stone. He has no time for fucking daffodils dancing in the breeze. It's unclear whether he is recycling the one line of poetry he recalls from his school days, or is calling all poets and other artists daffodils.

My old man sees himself as a realist. He endlessly waxes his Benz, fills his hands with a whore's tits, slices kudu biltong against his thumb, douses his fish and chips in vinegar, turns sizzling chops with his bare fingers and licks them off. He has zero finesse at the bone. His idea of fine-tuning is running a kind of spit cloth through the barrel of his Colt 45, or measuring and adjusting the gap in his spark plug. He wants the spark to jump far ... so it burns clean.

I silently scorn his world of dabbling and dealing, of whistling at schoolgirls in skimpy skirts and shooting pool in murky bars, of totting up takings on a Lion matchbox and smoking fat Havana cigars.

It's a mystery to Zero how I'm so tuned into the ephemeral, into things neither here nor there. I'm fazed by the sound of old men sucking air through gaps in their teeth. I sniff the wispy smoke from under a just-unlidded beer bottle as if it is perfume. I love Parma ham shaved in opaque slivers. I linger in a cinema long after a film ends to ride out the vibe as long as I can. I enjoy arthouse films with their zen endings that hang in midair. I gaze into a lava lamp until I see flamingos and phantoms. I listen to indie folk and whimsical garage instead of hard rock. All this renders me a moffie in his eyes. A free-verse fairy with a footloose soul.

He has a point. I still have zip on paper after two years of reading for my thesis on García Márquez at the University of Cape Town. I got lost in the dusty labyrinth of his Latin American mind. All the thoughts I placed on paper somehow became poems ... and a play. Lost? This is beyond imagining for Zero. He never goes beyond the Cape Flats without a map in hand. He loves to unfold a road map and follow the N2 all the way to Durban with a finger. Then to laugh at my fumbling bid to origami the map along the original folds again. Ironic, for a man of such hazy ethics to be so focused on compass points in a land where booming shantytowns render maps old overnight.

I curse him for exiling me to survive all alone out in Hermanus: boondock harbour town south-east of Cape Town. Hermaanus. I hope you've never heard of it.

We go by a fire raging on a highway island. A wizardy old man shakes a fly whisk at the flames.

My amigos pity me. At dusk today they'll all head down to the Cape Town harbour for sundowners. They'll jabber their dreams of recording music and put forward their beer-foam theories on why Mandela's rainbow dream fell out of focus in this land of antithesis. And where will I be? In Hermanus, other side of Hangklip, far from the jazzy verve of Cape Town.

– My father and my father's father were fishermen in Kalk Bay, Zero intones. Jero, my boy, you come from a long line of fishermen.

He swivels his focus away from the Benz icon to glare unblinking eyes at me, to spook me out.

This is, I think, his bid to prove the futility and absurdity of my reading García Márquez.

– But Dad, this sea's been fished dry and the fishermen are dying out. Besides, my other grandfather taught philosophy.

He taught in Vienna until 1937. Then he sailed for Cape Town. He was one of the few lucky Jews. Lucky to have eluded the Nazis then. Lucky too to have keeled over before his daughter fell for a Muslim.

Zero flicks my words out the wound-down window with his ducktailing hand.

– And he had to sell newspapers to put a roof over his head when he came out to Cape Town. Philosophy won't put fish and a beer in your hands. I tell you flat, my boy, if you want to survive ... you have to have something to trade.

That's Zero's Survival Tip #1.

He'll hand you his hard-earned wisdom free of charge. One hand palm up (as if balancing the circle of the wheel) and the other with fingers down (tapping on his drum-taut gut), he may just remind you of Buddha calling on the earth to witness his moment of illumination.

I look away out my window and see four nude youths on the rim of the road: painted from head to foot in white clay, they perch on the roof of a gutted motorcar. I catch the thudding of a boom-box bass and see their eyes pan after us.

They linger in my mind long after they fade in the rearview. The white clay renders them invisible to the spirits who want to waylay them during this hazardous limbo time when they're no longer cow-herding, lizard-catching boys and not yet men.

In the past, when they verged on manhood, Xhosa boys would be sent out of their mother's hut far into the untamed bundu to learn to survive by hunting and foraging. You'd never see them during the in-between time. Now there's hardly any bundu left and the only wild animals are tourist-hustling baboons, feral dogs and cocky rats. Each day another row of shanty huts is conjured out of the dust of dying, dwindling bundu. And each day folk stray further and further out to seek firewood.

Zero takes the exit for the Strand. Bullet holes scar the sign. This is a surreal Nevada rather than the Nirvana foretold.

Apartheid depended on static, unequivocal signposts. Nowadays signs shift all the time. Words on them fade, or hang skew after kamikaze taxivans wipe out a post. They become shanty roofs or, flipped, advertise a barbershop or a shebeen or second-hand coffins. Even roadside milestones get pinched to hold down canvas tents in the southeaster banshee-wind. Names of the dead vanish from graveyards, the brass letters traded for drug money. The time when words stood still on poles is long gone. Words just won't stay put.

– But you don't catch fish, Dad, I dare shoot back at Zero after the long lull.

This too is scripted. I find holes in his logic and he just shifts the focus.

– I trade in other things.

– And one day they'll put you in jail.

Zero laughs. He levels his eyes at me again and taps his forehead.

– I'm too savvy for them, my boy.

Then he winks slyly.

– I leave no spoor. No proof.

He blows air through fluttering lips. His shot at drama falls flat. You'd think he'd ditch the theatrics with me. I'm not duped by his act. His mates, on the other hand, hang on his quips and tips as if he's a god.

His mates being his sidekicks: Canada Dry and Dove Bait. Men who'd die for him, he loves to tell me. There's always a sulky hint that I would not.

He'd found a job in the dry docks for Canada Dry, that jackass of a dope-dealer, when he came out of jail.

For Dove Bait, cocky Casanova of the Cape Flats, he'd found a doctor to hook out a girlfriend's unloved foetus with a bent bicycle spoke.

And then there's another mate of his he'd hid in our attic for two years after he ran his foe Black Mamba down dead in the taxi wars. In his case it's harder to tell how he reads Zero. He's flinty and taciturn. He survived in the attic on tinned sardines and books I took out of the university library for him. He got hooked on Freud. When he ventured out again, he shaved his head bald to elude Black Mamba's boys, had Phoenix tattooed on his forehead and juggled tingalinging Chinese Baoding balls in one palm. The old, upbeat taximan they called Bahaya was dead. Instead we had an iguana-eyed backyard guru in a faded pink Lacoste shirt who could dart a sparrow out of our lemon tree with his blowpipe.

Canada Dry, forever spaced out on grass, would jibe that the blowpipe was a ganja bong from the Congo and that it was as long as Dove Bait's dong. Phoenix alone never cracks jokes, is never bawdy. He hears all their tall macho tales with a wry smile in a corner of his lips. Sometimes he gives me a conniving wink. He's even-keeled and zen as a spirit level. And yet I imagine he too would die for Zero.

– No proof, echoes Zero.

– So you'd rather I become a crook than a poet?

– You piss on the hand that feeds you, Jerusalem.

Zero spits gob at the wind. His calling me by my full name is a sign he's riled.

– Besides, in other countries you can freely trade the things I sell. The law's fickle. Yesterday's jailbirds are today's heroes in this crazy land. What's black market now you'll find in the 7-Eleven tomorrow.

He puts his foot on the gas to go past a smoking, tilting taxivan. A Zola Budd. As we go by we hear the squawk of chickens in a cage on the taxi roof.

Zero wags his trigger finger at me.

– Just remember this. This crook money put you through university. And you still beg for pocket money whenever you go out.

I just keep my eyes on the road ahead.

At the Strand a black dog lopes along the sand. A longboarder rides the foam.

I remember Miriam, my mother, scolding my father for going too far out to sea with me. He'd bait and cajole till the sand fell away and I doggy-paddled. He thought I was scared of the deep. I never told him I was scared of sharks, for he would have called me a moffie. My mother was not as far gone then. She'd stay huddled in the Benz and doodle on the margins of the newspaper till they became a mosaic of mermaids and turtles and nude girls. Or she'd sit on a sarong on the sand and peel a mandarin and flip the peels into my father's snakeskin boots.

She still taught girls how to paint on silk, then. And she still coloured her lips.

– One day I'll find a way of surviving by the pen.

– Survive, hey? By writing po-ems? Tell me then, what does a po-em fetch in the market?

This from the man who once told me magical stories out of his head. How did he end up so money-minded and arid?

A Chevy Silverado pickup rides hard on our tail.

– How much will folk fork out for a fresh metaphor, hey? And will you mark down one that's fingered? Or does it flower, like an opal or a pussy, if you handle it?

Just so, my old man, unwittingly, uses poetry to put down poetry.

The Silverado flashes his headlights at us to shift left so he can zoom by.

Zero, glancing in the rearview, stays in his groove.

The Silverado hoots.

Zero flicks him a finger. No Silverado cowboy is going to hustle him off the road.

The Silverado hoots again.

Zero just laughs.

Opals. Another sideline of his. Along with uncut diamonds.

As for the other thing, an image of my sallow mother floats into my mind. Zero never goes out with her. There was a time when he had had to hide his white-skinned girl behind a veil. And the taboo had spiced their romance. She'd wear a slit-eyed burka to the beach and a Malay head cloth to the drive-in. The law forbade them to marry, so they went to Amsterdam. After Mandela came out of jail, they came home to Cape Town with my sister and me as mementos of their exile. And in Mandela's rainbow land they no longer had to dodge and dive ... but by then their love had run dry. And folk no longer saw flicks at the drive-in.

While Zero cruises all over the Cape, my mother haunts the front yard, mumbling to her gnomes arcane words I am hard put to decipher. If she's not communing with her gnomes she's drifting in a dream.

Just ahead of us a surfboard flies off the roof rack of a jeep. It flick-flacks on the tarmac.

Zero swings hard to dodge it.


Limpopo river.

Just as a rogue surfboard scratches paint off a Silverado far to the south, Jabulani Freedom Moyo surfaces from the muddy Limpopo that runs from Botswana to Mozambique and forms the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa.

As he runs along a bald footway under a power line, he reflects on how he became a fugitive.

Not that long ago he was still an English teacher at a high school in Bulawayo, in the Ndebele southlands. In the afternoons he coached cross-country, javelin, long jump and football. Though he cursed all the marking of papers, he loved the upbeat dialogue with his students.

One day, over tea in the staffroom, he'd remarked to his colleagues that Mugabe looked like a joker in his vivid, Java-print shirts – West African style. They had laughed. They felt no love for that Shona man who had commandeered their country. But one rat had felt it his duty to report him to the headmaster.

The headmaster (a Shona posted to Bulawayo by Mugabe) had made Jabulani stand up in front of all the schoolchildren in the school hall when he read out the crime (mocking Mugabe) and the verdict from Harare: Mister Moyo was fired. The headmaster had reminded his school that Mugabe was taught by Jesuits and had studied overseas and was therefore no joker. He'd said Mister Moyo was lucky not to be jailed.

Students and teachers had dared to hiss at the injustice of a teacher being shot down over a jibe. It was not as if Mister Moyo had tossed darts at the image of Mugabe, or had not stood still as Mugabe went by in his Benz convoy. If schoolboys in Bulawayo had learnt one thing, it's this: in Zimbabwe the law is just a panga blade to cut down Mugabe's foes.

The irony is that Mugabe had once been Jabulani's hero in the chimurenga, the long fight for freedom. Jabulani had spent his boyhood bowing to the White Man in Rhodesia. He was halfway through high school when Mugabe had outfooted that old white Smith. Rhodesia was now Zimbabwe and Salisbury now Harare. And it was in this free Zimbabwe that Jabulani Freedom Moyo had become a human being who held his head up high.

But then the rumours had begun to bleed out. Of killings in the Ndebele south. Of corpses dumped down an old mineshaft. Of the raping of girls. Of white farmers run off farms that Mugabe then doled out to his mates. Of starving, uprooted farmhands camping in roadside gullies. And, in the end, the jambanja, the chaos of being tossed out, went beyond the farms and you saw the fugitives on the pavements in town holding quavering chickens and skinny goats and peanuts in Castrol cans.

Teachers had looked up from their newspaper or coffee when Jabulani had gone into the staffroom to empty his pigeonhole. Someone (the rat?) had posted a dry, flat frog in it. Teachers had defied the scowls of the Shona headmaster and stood and tapped their teaspoons against their teacups in a staccato tattoo of camaraderie. For Jabulani they risked their feet being beaten and their heads being submarined by a gang of Mugabe's goons.

A student of his had come to his classroom to tell him that he'd learnt a myriad things in his class and that he now wanted to become a writer. He'd learnt how to tune in to the music of words. The boy had hidden his tears behind a hand and Jabulani had hugged him and put a Hemingway in his other hand. A book about a jinxed old fisherman was a curious gift to a boy who might never see the sea.


Excerpted from Cruel Crazy Beautiful World by Troy Blacklaws. Copyright © 2011 Troy Blacklaws. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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