Book review – Theo & Flora by Mark Winkler
Theo & Flora, a most unusual novel of love’s hopes and disappointments, past and present, is built on a number of devilish literary devices which had me hopelessly sucked in within a few chapters.
The first is the structure. The novel takes places in two time frames in successively interleaved chapters. The first is in the present, in Cape Town, though the eyes of Wasserman, a once successful novelist now stalled and desolate and deserted by his more successful wife. The second is through the eyes of his grandfather-in-law, attorney Theo Silver between 1944 – 1949 as he bounces between Cape Town, Hermanus, PE and Knysna in search of love and peace.
And as we find out later (not a spoiler), also linked similarly to the author himself. This is no small matter. A fictional novelist writing a novel about his late grandfather-in-law, actually written by Mark Winkler, who has exactly that grandfather-in-law. It is seems to violate the laws of the universe somehow, but I can’t pin it down.
And herewith devilish trick number 1 – the story from 70 years ago is told in the present tense and the current day story is told in the past tense. I snorted with glee when this became apparent by Chapter 2, and that choice turns out to be much of the fuel for the ensuing story, and it never feels tired.
Devilish trick number 2 – this story is an epistolary, kind of, a story told in a series of old letters between two people, adulterous lovers in this case, at the end of World War II. But Mark Winkler gives it a twist. Present day Wasserman comes across the letters in his Cape Town house. And he fashions a novel out of them, while the author Winkler takes us (in each odd chapter) back to the present 70 years ago to flesh the story out through Theo’s eyes. Damn, that’s clever. It creates simultaneously an immediacy and intimacy for both the living Wasserman and his late grandfather-in-law Theo. I imagine Winkler puzzling over how to tell this story and suddenly shrieking in joy as he sees how to do it.
So, the setup. Writer Wasserman’s wife has left him, he was once famous but is now nearly forgotten, except by his French editor Delphine who begs him to write again. He is alone. He has no real friends. He drinks a little more than he should. And then he finds a box of old letters.
And the other setup. Theo Silver is married to Sarah, it is over 70 years ago. They have a son. They live in moderate affluence in their Jewish Cape Town community. But Theo is hopelessly love with the married Flora Goldberg and furtive dalliances and assignations ensue. And the story is driven by this immovable lynchpin – in those days one could not get divorced without spousal approval. And Theo’s wife Sarah would rather that everyone was miserable – herself, Theo and Flora before she would submit to that public humiliation.
Oh, the complications that this decision brings! Theo & Flora is a tumultuous story of love and lust and patience and nastiness and betrayal and cowardice and cunning and dark urges and moral ambiguity (on most everyone’s part – there are no truly lovable characters here, my favourite sort of cast).
The 1940s story (the story of Theo and Flora) could have stood alone as a novel, but Winkler’s decision to go meta and also tell the story of the fictional author of the novel is a force multiplier – the reader is left loving and hating people across time, alive and dead, all of whom are connected to each other by marriage. And I say again, including the real author, Mark Winkler.
Oh, and almost nothing on politics, race, class, history, apartheid. What a relief to have these South African elephants out of the room so that the story has space to breath on its own.
Mark Winkler has sort of quietly rocketed to the upper echelons of South Africans letters over the past 3 or 4 years, with shortlist nominations, international deals and rave reviews of his previous (and this) novel. He has become a favourite of mine not only because he is a beguiling story teller and gentle and caring wordsmith (I kept wanting to clip sentences for re-reading), but because every one of his novels that I have read (three out of four) are utterly different in tone and form and story and character – his range is astonishing.
If you haven’t read Winkler, do it now.
Published by Umuzi
(c) Steven Boykey Sidley