“WE ARE definitely starting this interview with the story of you dancing with an elephant.”
So who am I to oppose the written request of the author? The fact that I danced with an elephant (not a real one) has nothing on earth to do with Sven Axelrad's book, Buried Treasure, much less with the author himself. But the silly exchange was indicative of what I could expect in the interview I later conducted with him. Playfulness, a sense of humour, irony. These abounded in the conversation, as in the book. Just like the lovable character Augustine's flowers that he sneakily grows on old graves in the fictional town of Vivo.
But the longer we chat and the deeper I dig, the darker and more complex it gets. And definitely more interesting. It's almost like excavating a grave, only to realise that the bones and rusty clocks and the ghost you discover don't belong to the human whose name is on the headstone. You find something quite different. It's exactly the same with the book.
Buried Treasure is a debut that is not a debut because Axelrad has authored several stories already. This writer from Durban is almost more proud of his other books, because he persevered. He finished them and tried again. But here it is now (with a bit of luck, he reckons), a published book that is wowing critics and readers alike and is a strong contender for awards, according to several reputable reviewers.
Backlog in the afterlife
Meet Mateus, the caretaker of Vivo's burial place. He is an old man with weak eyesight who accidentally buries corpses in the wrong graves. This causes a backlog in the afterlife and chaos among the rebellious spirits. It turns out this administrative mistake is like ending up with the wrong passport — you can't travel anywhere, not to heaven or to hell. Mateus knows he screwed up and finds assistance in the form of a young homeless girl named Novo, whom he manages to rope into the world of cemeteries to help him clean up this deadly mess. The story unfolds in a magical fever dream full of ghosts, old-world romance, prostitutes fornicating in a dirty phone booth, love across time limits, an unforgettable scene in the university library, and a very grumpy dog named God. A philosophical adventure, if you will.
No, Axelrad doesn't do drugs. When I ask whether any kind of mushroom or other hallucinogenic substance was involved in the writing, his response was laughter. He is a little bit scared of of hard drugs, he says, but he'll happily sip on a whisky to calm his nerves. The truth is less exotic, then: it's simply the way his brain works. He gave himself absolute freedom to write, jumping from theme to issue with little planning. “I picked a story and my brain went wherever it went.”
And that substantial brain dropped anchor in a few heavy places. Metaphysics, life and death, decay, religion. Layer upon layer, a story takes shape that is not only thematically dense but also rich in intertext and lines from a specific Bob Dylan song. Axelrad's fondness for and knowledge of Latin American fiction is also evident throughout the book. The amalgamation of insight, favourite songs and the influence of writers such as Márquez, Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa builds up like a thundercloud, he says, and when the creative process begins, an almighty storm erupts. All the elements and references then combine and fall neatly into place. “Smart, phantasmagoric and brilliant. [Studied] nonchalantness," says Joan Hambidge. Definitely.
The central theme in Buried Treasure is identity: “[An] enchanting adventure that explores what our names mean to us and what we are without them.” According to the blurb, that is. But what does the writer say? Who is Sven Axelrad when he is not writing? Or when he's not an accountant at a tampon factory? (“That’s bloody marvellous,” I say. I would have thought he'd laugh louder. Industry joke, obviously.) What is hidden beneath the tattooed exterior? Behind the magnificent beard? Who is Sven Axelrad when he's not making music, playing touch rugby, being spouse to Shannon or dad to Zoë the Yorkshire Terrier?
Goodness underneath it all
For a man who has devoted an entire book to the subject, this is an interesting question, he says. After all, it's the same issue that kept him busy for months, not knowing exactly what the answer would be.
“I think all of us would like to imagine ourselves as really complex, but I think in the end the answer is relatively simple. I’m hoping that there would be kindness underneath it all, not only in the book and the characters but in myself. David Foster Wallace said you must be able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. Or something like that.” It is as simple as giving up your place in the queue when shopping for groceries. Simply that.
But we are only human. Life does not consist of moonlight and roses cultivated on graves. He is honest about his own “deep sadness” and melancholy, and the character Augustine (probably the author's favourite) is simply a concealed and more fun version of his own thoughts and emotions. The less fun side he probably manages by means of exercise, especially swimming, and writing of course. “And I hang out with my dog. Dogs are beautiful cures for sadness, you know, they're not worried about stuff. They're just there for a good time.”
What about the dog who is more than a dog, maybe even God himself? Does God exist as far as Axelrad is concerned? It's complicated, he says. But you could deduce that God the dog is his way of trying to answer the question. God the dog is grumpy and difficult but unbelievably loyal. Omnipresent. “But I suppose if you read the book, you know the way I painted God is not just for the story, she very much exists, right?”
Do ghosts exist? “I think I believe in haunting of a different kind. Being stuck in people's memories … Those that we love are always with us in some ways. That's real, right?”
And that's what the story ultimately does. It remains with you long after you've passed the book on for someone else to read (because you have to do it, you have to share the joy). It haunts you, like the upset spirits of Vivo. It lingers, like God the dog. It stays with you, like the author's own enthusiasm about his wife, his friends, dusty bookstores and strong coffee. And his tenderness. When you finally excavate the grave, you find it. The treasure he hoped you would find. A heart.
Just like in the book.
♦ VWB ♦
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