If you don’t feel like you belong in the place of your birth, can you ever really feel at home elsewhere? This seems to be one of the questions at the heart of SJ Naude’s book. The six long stories which make up “The Alphabet of Birds” range in characters and locations, but all describe individuals groping for a connection and an affirmation of identity somewhere “other.” Many of the protagonists are South Africans struggling with an internal battle between asserting that their country of origin is the place where they belong and trying to emphatically dig their roots in elsewhere. Some prominent characters are gay men who meet other men in distant locations as if they are both survivors. There is a consolation in coming together, but there is no suggestion that there will be a lasting fraternity or that the artistic friends’ houses, German castles or drug-fuelled night clubs they find themselves in can ever closely resemble somewhere that can be called home.
Most notably the female character Ondien who appears in two stories founds a musical group that fuses together world sounds with African instruments. The group dissolves, yet she still seeks to write a music which creates unity. She embarks on a quest to visit her siblings who have settled in America, Dubai and London only to discover they are all in desperate circumstances. Their new homes have transformed into uniquely suffocating traps. She returns to South Africa to live an increasingly impoverished existence. Wherever these characters go they are accompanied by a profound sense of isolation and are plagued by loss. She discovers that “You steal from someone weaker, the stronger ones steal from you. You return to your weaker victim. Things circulate. A life cycle, an ecosystem.” The society portrayed is one founded on transactions of taking rather than exchange. Even when a woman named Sandrien in the story ‘Van’ dedicates herself to a life of philanthropy giving medical care to rural villages, her efforts are drowned in tidal waves of red tape, corruption and indifference.
It all sounds quite bleak and much of the striking drama in this book is undeniably solemn. Yet, Naude has a beautiful way with his prose that makes these stories feel consoling rather than harrowing. It faces up to reality rather than avoiding uncomfortable dilemmas or feelings. Sometimes the thoughtfulness of Naude’s writing grows too abstracted from the action of the story so it’s difficult to decipher what is actually happening in certain parts. Yet, through a persistent accumulation of images, scenes and feelings the reader is left with impressions of experience. This isn’t a light read, but it’s in many ways a hypnotic one. I did come across a rare passage which made me chuckle. One younger character admonishes an older one that “You should leave behind all the gym nonsense; the weight of weights settles into your muscles after a while.” What a fantastic justification to give up the gym! This appears in the final story ‘Loose’ which has a special radiance with its descriptions of dance as a way of strategically carving a way through the space of the world and expressing emotion. The title itself, one letter away from the word “lose,” suggests perhaps that a loss of self can be prevented by remaining in perpetual motion.