Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World
Review by John Harvey
Bona fide essayists are a rare breed in South Africa. While “opinionistas” have become a dime a dozen as the nation’s political soap opera continues to dominate the public discourse, those rare souls whose insights abound with equal parts substantive rigour and wondrous prose have gone largely unheralded.
It is sincerely hoped that this offering by UCT literature professor Hedley Twidle will change that. Professor Twidle, a former Oxford scholar, has the ability to see the machinations of human existence in way few others can. What most take for granted or simply as “a part of life” he unpacks in a unique and thoroughly engaging manner.
Though the title suggests a satirical vivisection of the state president’s persona, Firepool is more a reference to the collective, socially maniacal South African condition in post-apartheid South Africa. Politics play a part certainly, but not only in the parliamentary sense of the word.
Going back to his formative years, he exposes (and laments) the curious and oftentimes brutal hierarchy that pervades “traditional” secondary school institutions, and how a young man’s own insecurities are used against him in establishing the pecking order.
Acne, and all its vulgar iterations, are painstakingly explained to illustrate the psychological impacts on its teenage host, who looks on helplessly as clear-skin jocks ascend to the top of the food chain.
Spud it is not, though that is not to say there’s not irreverence in spades.
Professor Twidle methodically delves into the government’s intense and potentially apocalyptic flirtation with nuclear energy, sparing no detail on the consequences of such an action, but as an example of his power of insight, look no further than his essay on the N2 highway. He makes the significant point that cultural classics like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road were about anything but the road, as the Beat writer and his merry band enjoyed capers off America’s interstates.
Together with a friend, he rambles along the N2, drawing stark contradictions among the suburbs and settlements that lie to its left and right, thereby bringing home the economic disparities for which Cape Town has become known.
Professor Twidle draws on personal experience, but never in such a way as to think him hubristic. It is Everyman’s lived experience – the good, the bad and the ugly – but with a delightful twist.