From satire to reckless sandwiches


From satire to reckless sandwiches

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH has a raven's eye for glittering things when it comes to books. Try to keep up if you will.


I have a friend — everyone calls her Hettie — who whispers in my ear every now and then when there is a book that I simply must read. Last week, her message arrived: Georgi Gospodinov's Time Shelter. Of all the recommendations she has given me, this is the absolute best: the novel that won the International Booker Prize last year.

Organ for irony

It's a book you'd prefer not to tackle in one sitting. Try to create intervals for meals and naps, even though it won't be easy. There are things that make you want to burst out laughing, but you hold back because they're too piercingly true. In an era of political correctness, it often reads like something that slipped past the decency brigade. It reminded me of Milan Kundera's early works.

Gospodinov is a Bulgarian playwright and novelist. Time Shelter is a satire, and it will help if you have a finely developed organ for irony. Truly good satires have a way of pointing beyond the superficiality of human existence and awakening a deeper consciousness in you for the ways in which people destroy their lives and the earth at the same time.

Time Shelter tells the story of a therapist named Gaustine who creates a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, to help people with Alzheimer's disease. The clinic has different levels where past eras are recreated to help people preserve their memories. Gaustine's approach works so well that the clinic starts attracting people who don't have Alzheimer's or any other form of dementia.

If you have to continue finding solace in the past, over time a question arises about whether you should permanently live there. Remember, within the framework of a novel like this, many things are possible. Inevitably, Gaustine's project gains international recognition and repercussions. Several European countries hold referendums to decide which era they want to anchor themselves in. The funny one for me is Switzerland, which decides to live forever in the day of the referendum.

This is a book rich in wit and insight. I will have to read it again. I think I missed too many small things. Angela Rodel translated the book into English, and I hope there is already a team of academics working on an annotated edition. Time Shelter is open to interpretation, and some explanation of Eastern European politics and history would have been useful.

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov was published by Orion Publishing and costs R290 at Exclusive Books.


When I announced in March that this book was on its way, I didn't know what awaited me. It's a brick of a book, one of the two I read last week while at my wife's sickbed. It spans more than 700 pages, and an intense sense of disappointment grips you as the final chapters approach.

There are no flowery frills in Verghese's prose, but it is beautifully written, elegant, smooth and captivating. You have to accommodate significant cultural leaps. The story revolves around an Indian woman, Ammachi, who was forced to marry a much older widower when she was 12. Her life story is unique, but many others are intertwined with it to create an epic structure that completely captivated me.

There are very few writers with a flair and brilliance for storytelling like Verghese. There are wonderful anecdotes that Verghese heard from his own mother. And Ammachi is blessed with the gift of producing sayings that resound. My favourite: “Every family has secrets, but not all secrets are meant to deceive.”

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese was published by Atlantic Books and costs R385 at Exclusive Books.


One of the reasons I love the publishing industry is that it often confronts you with people who have the wildest ideas for books. Usually, you indulge in the idea and say no. But sometimes, extremely weird books get published, and this is one of them.

The title is one of the many questions to which Andrew Thompson tries to provide a rational answer. My only attempt to summarise the answer to this question is: “Wool, among other things."

Other questions will make you realise how peculiar Thompson is: Why do women talk more than men but can't read roadmaps? Why does the date of Easter change? Do men and women gain weight in different parts of their bodies? How would you know when someone is lying to you?

Endless fun. A loo book if ever there was one!

What Did We Use Before Toilet Paper? by Andrew Thompson was published by Ulysses and costs R341 at Exclusive Books.

Reckless sandwiches

Bee Wilson is the daughter of journalist and historian AN Wilson. She is a political scientist but has forged a greater career out of her hobby — food.

She doesn't write ordinary cookbooks but enjoys describing the entire history of something from different perspectives and overwhelming us with recipes. You will never think of sandwiches again as two slices of bread with cheese and ham in between. Buy this book and be reckless.

My experiments got stuck on the “club sandwich" she learned from Louis De Gouy. On the first slice of toasted bread, you place egg salad with finely chopped olives. On the second slice of toasted bread, you place thin slices of tomato, anchovy fillets and finely chopped lettuce leaves. And then you crown it with a third slice of toasted bread.

Sandwich: A Global History by Bee Wilson was published by Reaktion Books and costs $9.99 on Kindle at Amazon.

 ♦ VWB ♦

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