Elleke Boehmer's first collection of stories - or "portraits" - best displays what it is about the short form that makes it such a fascinating genre: clarity of thought, precision of execution, and the pure joy in the practice of language.
Although best known as a novelist and a theoretical writer, Boehmer truly shines in her latest offering. Most pieces in the collection have been previously published in journals and anthologies, but here they come together, polished to form a scintillating whole.
The portraits tell the stories of different characters, but are arranged in a quasi chronological order as if spanning a unified lifetime of experience. In the opening piece Khaya a little girl's awkward curiosity about her nanny's breasts reveals the underlying power relationships between her and the servant and puts an end to the natural intimacy existing between the two. Stories of growing up and youth follow, paving the way for reflections on ageing and death in later pieces such as Her Walk in the Park, Fold, or It's OK. The background to the collection is formed by South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy.
However, Boehmer approaches the events from an intimate, deeply engaging perspective, capturing the historical process through the minute details of her characters' individual, private lives. In Mrs Wedlake a girl fails to bring up the courage to overcome her prejudices towards a woman in her hometown who is considered "a Curiosity, a Scandal", and regrets her decision later on in life. Confronting otherness is also the theme of Off-White, a collage of "slides", which portray a girl's grappling with issues of identity: how does race manifest itself, and how does one fit into the seemingly obvious and yet so elusive categories?
The Bean-Bag Race is set in the new South Africa and tells the story of a single, Coloured mother who works very hard to afford a good school for her daughter. On Open Day at the school she enters the race of the title, and wins, but is cunningly cheated out of her victory.
The title piece, Sharmilla, perhaps the most accomplished of the portraits, is a mesmerising story of a Capetonian escort and one of her clients who believes to have a special connection to her, and through her to the country they live in. He insists that "she feels it too, the common ground that join us", but Sharmilla resists his version of their narrative. Instead she tunes in to the song of a woman, singing out to the ocean at Sea Point. It is one of the most memorable images of the collection and a powerful ending to a story which strongly echoes and enters into a dialogue with J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.
In other portraits such as Highveld Hibiscus Garden, For Love or Robben Island the complicated and frayed relationships between family members are illuminated. Zulu Speaking shows how understanding a language can ease the horror of a traumatic event. In the Epilogue to Sharmilla, and Other Portraits Boehmer charts her own relationship to the two languages governing her life - Dutch and English: "The bilingual writer who works chiefly in one language yet deep-dreams chiefly in the other can perhaps be pictured as a heavy book squeezed between a pair of small, light bookends positioned on a short shelf. The bookends constantly threaten to tumble to the ground....Somehow however the precariously balanced ensemble stays upright, keeps on its shelf. There is a kind of equilibrium." Boehmer adds a little later on: "Something holds."
Indeed, not only in linguistic but also in narrative terms "something holds" when Boehmer balances narrative against history, events against people who witness and live through them, the outsider's against the insider's positions, the private against the political, and the intimate against the public. Sharmilla, and Other Portraits is an elegant and beautifully nuanced collection which lingers in one's consciousness for a long time after the curtain has been drawn over the last of its portraits.
Sharmilla, and Other Portraits
by Elleke Boehmer