Prague, Kiev and cardamom


Prague, Kiev and cardamom

As he does every week, KERNEELS BREYTENBACH read voraciously and found books that captured his imagination.


MAY I already nominate a novel of the year? Parasol Against the Axe, by Helen Oyeyemi. The serenity with which this Nigerian-born writer established herself as one of the most inventive authors of our time culminated in this breathtaking novel.

A few years ago, she wowed us with Peaces, a phantasmagoric narrative about two lovers who take a train ride in the spirit of a future honeymoon, but after much commotion they find out that man's life journey means finding out who you truly love. My head was buzzing with warm fuzzy thoughts.

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Feast of the mind

Parasol Against the Axe is completely different. So different that perhaps I should start by saying that reviewers have compared it to the fabulous offerings of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. But that comparison is misleading — it's only half the story. Oyeyemi has a warm sense of humour, a love of casual comments that are at once cynical and funny. She makes Borges and Calvino sound like funeral directors.

Oyeyemi likes story elements that get tangled up with each other. There are three main characters: journalist Hero Tojosoa, her friend Sofie Cibulkova and businesswoman Dorothea Gilmartin. Sofie invited Hero to Prague for her bachelorette weekend and Dorothea joins them.

The narrator is the city itself, Prague, who has seen many strange things in her life. She tells about the book Hero wrote under the pseudonym Dorothea Gilmartin. And what's more, Dorothea and Hero are both reading a book entitled Paradoxical Undressing, which the narrator presents to us as a crazy yet believable non-history of the city, thus of herself.

Dorothea and Hero read the same book but its contents are different for each reader. And every time they open their books, the content is new. I love these stories within stories, Borgesian mazes that together form a whole.

Much of the satisfaction this book brings is linked to the fact that Prague is the narrator, and that she makes it clear early in the book that as a city she has no inferiority complex. In fact, rather the opposite: she is egocentric with a heart of gold. And so fond of pranks. There are so many things happening that one often pauses for breath.

To give an idea of the humour. Late in the novel, there is a piece about a novella on Casanova's humiliation on the opening night of Don Giovanni in October 1787: “Prague’s incurious womenfolk told Casanova to go to hell with all that, just as the operatic version of him had. Each of the pretty Praguers who condescended to let him have three minutes of conversation with them spoke only of the crush she now had on Mozart.”

Parasol Against the Axe is a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the modern wit. Time is fleeting and madness gets its pound of flesh. Enjoy this feast of the mind!

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi was published by Faber & Faber and costs R445 at Exclusive Books.

Cossacks in Kiev

Well, if I have to succumb to my weakness for detective stories, why not one by Andrey Kurkov, the Ukrainian author of the wonderful literary novel Grey Bees (2022)? And with one big leap, Kurkov becomes an author whose books I will go in search of.

The Silver Bone is set in Kiev during the Bolshevik Revolution. An unemployed engineer, Samson Kolechko, joins the police (a safe choice during that revolution, especially since Samson has just laid a theft charge against the two soldiers who occupied and robbed his abode) and finds himself without any real training in the role of a detective. With a murder case he has to solve.

The build-up is bloody — Samson and his father are attacked by Cossacks, his father's skull is cleaved by a sword, the same sword that cuts off Samson's right ear. And the influence of the revolution changes everyone's lives. Kiev is a city in flux, criminals wear the masks of state cadres and Samson falls in love with a woman in the census office.

It's a rather ordinary premise but Kurkov is an exceptionally gifted writer, someone who reminds me a lot of Chris Karsten — the same eye for small detail, the same ability to make the reader feel the surroundings. Kurkov also manages to imbue his narrative with wry humour that makes reading pure pleasure. Look out for the scene where the young Samson begs his doctor to wrap a bandage around his head because no one trusts someone with only one ear. (Don't think it's going to help you take a quick peek at the end halfway through. You won't learn anything.)

The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov was published by Quercus and costs R382 at Exclusive Books.


The title is slightly misleading. It's about the way certain spices in combination with sugar produce the most seductive taste, just as a few grains of salt make coffee feel creamy on the tongue. In the same way, spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, cumin, star anise, coffee, sumak, nutmeg, vanilla and many more in combination with different types of sugar can bliss you out.

The book gives a good overview of the history of sugar and spices, and how to unlock the flavour of spices. There are particularly enticing recipes, almost overwhelmingly so. I have so much to catch up on and I am way ahead of them with only one dish: pumpkin fritters. Life is too short.

A Whisper of Cardamom by Eleanor Ford was published by Murdoch Books and costs 640 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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