The undiluted pleasure of reading


The undiluted pleasure of reading

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH's imagination was sparked by delightful insights and language that's as clean as a whistle.


THERE is at least one thing for which we should thank Donald Trump. His repeated use of the term “fake news" has sensitised us to anyone who chooses to believe in falsehoods, lies and insane explanations. With Trump, the term is obviously reflexively ironising, since he has one of the greatest forked tongues of all time; his legacy is the spirit of our time and books like Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse's Fake History: 101 Things That Never Happened are a welcome corrective to lies that fall outside the purely political sphere.

Historical lies

Teeuwisse is internationally known as a lie detector for popular urban legends. Known as “the fake history hunter", she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of human error since the Middle Ages.

Fake History features her unmasking of things people all too easily believe. She addresses the myth that one Thomas Crapper was the designer of the flushing toilet (and gave part of his last name to the euphemistic terminology surrounding defecation). Not so, says Teeuwisse. The Scots of the Orkney islands already had something similar in the Stone Age. As did the people of Crete, the Hittites and the ancient Greeks.

One story that Afrikaners have often had to correct is that Hitler's Nazis invented concentration camps. Didn't we feel first-hand what Lord Kitchener's people did to soften the Boers? Teeuwisse gives Kitchener the credit due to him — but neither was the Boer War the first in which concentration camps were used. In the 1890s, there were already such camps in Cuba, and before that the Americans laid out reserves for the native population that were little more than large concentration camps. What distinguished the Boer War and Nazi camps from their predecessors was the use of barbed wire to keep prisoners inside.

Social media is obviously one of the great vehicles for misinformation. Teeuwisse uses two photos to show how easily lies are distributed. One is supposedly of Queen Elizabeth II allegedly throwing food at hungry people in Africa in her youth; the other is of journalists allegedly hanged in Nuremberg for preaching falsehoods in favour of the Nazis.

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Teeuwisse points out that the photograph which supposedly proves Queen Elizabeth's scandalous behaviour was taken well before her birth. No faces are clearly recognisable but the dress code is Victorian.

The other photo, of people hanged in the open and swinging in the wind, was used by anti-vaxxers in the Covid era to threaten journalists who were in favour of vaccination. Teeuwisse relates how she traced the photo's provenance and found it was taken in Kiev in 1946. It shows  Germans hanged by Soviet forces for distributing lies about, among other things, the Babi Yar massacres of Jews during World War 2.

The most famous urban legend that Teeuwisse unmasks is the one of Horatio Nelson's dying words after the battle of Trafalgar. Legend has it that he told his close friend Thomas Hardy, “Kiss me, Hardy". Explaining the circumstances of Nelson's death, she says it took him a long time to breathe his last. There were multiple people by his side, and indeed he asked Hardy to kiss him — and Hardy did so. But Nelson moved to the brink of death several times and therefore repeated over and over again the words he hoped would be quoted in the future: “Thank God I have done my duty."

While the sea battle was still raging, Nelson grew steadily weaker and the group around him heard him muttering a lot and asking for water. His last words to Hardy, finally, were: “God bless you, Hardy".

Teeuwisse's 101 corrections made for one of my most enjoyable reading experiences in the past year. As I read, one question constantly nagged at me: who will put together the purgatorial collection of corrections about Trump's mendacious balderdash one day? It'll be a thick book!

Fake History: 101 Things That Never Happened by Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse was published by WH Allen and costs R297 at Loot.


Anne Michaels wrote Fugitive Pieces (1996), one of the greatest novels of our time. She's a poet and in Held, her third novel, it's once again her writing prowess that strikes the reader. For my feeling and taste, it is a masterpiece; her sentences are an index of cosmological discovery, rich enough to impregnate your imagination.

The book begins in a snowy landscape in World War 1. Michaels's observations are rendered in flashes and sparks. You colour them in: “The mist erased all it touched" reads one of her single-sentence subsections. Only that. The narrative snakes from rural Suffolk in the Eighties to north Yorkshire in the Twenties and Paris in 1908. Generations come and go and battlefields and obsessions change.

The characters (John, the soldier in the snow at the beginning of the novel, his wife Helena, and their descendants) become part of your anxiety. Their joys make you tingle. I admire Michaels anew. Baffled by everything she packages in simplicity: “Bundled and chaste, she gave herself to the roaming intimacy of their conversation; fears spoken aloud to be discarded; mourning of, gratitude for, all she'd lost." Finally, here is a worthy sequel to Fugitive Pieces. Read it slowly and wish, like me, that you could write like Anne Michaels. Magnificent!

Hero by Anne Michaels was published by Bloomsbury and costs R420 at Exclusive Books.

Imagination and language

Is any reviewer ever going to be ready to write about this book? The obvious angle is that after eight volumes of short stories, Kelly Link's debut novel is a surprising flight of imagination for someone already known for boundless imagination. One could also write about her as a writer who makes the fantasy genre respectable. For me, the glory of this novel lies in Link's prowess at language. Without it, this story would have had less life than our president's state of the nation address.

Link takes magical realism to the next level. Three dead ten-year-olds return to the world of the living and Link's idea is to give readers a complete insight into the fullness of their lives. You might think it's a relatively simple idea, but wait. Link lets the three compete for the right to stay alive through the execution of a series of magic assignments. And as the story unfolds in widening circles to include the teens' loved ones and all their travails, Link is busy chatting with you about the ingredients of this word construct. There's an awareness of the storytelling as creation, a kind of built-in critique with which she constantly tests you. I hate it when reviewers say they'll read a book again, but I'm going to return to The Book of Love. I have not yet reached the limit of this great joy.

The Book of Love by Kelly Link was published by Bloomsbury and costs R597 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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