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Royal rage. Serpents in Eden


Do not be deceived. Kindly refrain from judging this book by its blithe cover. Jennifer Friedman, daughter of the verkrampte old platteland, launches her memoire of ye olde hick Vrystaat with a lyrical evocation of blessed early childhood in a natural paradise. But soft! – there are shadows lurking at the bottom of the garden.

It helps to know at the outset that Friedman no longer lives in the remote village which she evokes with piercing accuracy and humour. She hymns veld and friendship, with vivid caricatures of the local, mainly farming, community, and provides a moving description of social survival in the face of prejudice. It clearly wasn’t easy, growing up as a  “bladdyJew” in a stern trad Afrikaner dorp. Now she lives in the Central Coast of New South Wales. Which is about as far as you can possibly cry from the beloved country.

Friedman has total recall of every scent, sound and detail of her origins. Anyone familiar with the terrain, the people, and the period will be dazzled by the  lyrical accuracy of her recollections. She revels in the positives, but the child was clearly baffled and appalled by racial and political tensions. The loss of innocence as she encounters the triumphalist political rigidity of small-town officialdom, and the small-minded parents of her playmates, is painful to read.

Her own parents come across as peculiarly unsympathetic to the plight of their forthright eldest. They counsel patience and resilience, and dismiss the child’s fears and confusion while trying to comprehend the alien values of Nationalist education and all its works. Pa tells her, unhelpfully, to “get on with it” and Ma simply insists on conventional proprieties.

Raising teenagers is not for the weak, but nor is it for the dictatorial. After all the introductory dancing in the sunlight, with unstinting love from grandparents and barefoot black housekeepers, the surprisingly violent clashes with parents is startling.  It may well be that Jennifer’s parents, if still alive, have a different tale to tell. But there is no question that the bitterness of their failed relationship with the young Jennifer created an apparently permanent schism.

The Queen of the Free State commences as a romantic portrait of laughing childhood. Then (surprise!) it subtly evolves into a rage against authoritarianism in all its forms. Both moods are rendered with consummate fluency, and both are impressive for their intense observation of things and people. Friedman leads Gentle Reader up the garden path – then performs an emotional mugging.

The harsh home truths are delivered with a fierce honesty that commands respect. Her conventional parents experienced a whirlwind  of adolescent fury as their adventurous baby matured. But perhaps they came eventually to accept this defiantly independent soul, and even to admire her bravery.

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Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, two new Tafelberg books of  prognostications on this country’s future have have arrived. Will they offer the émigré Friedman a vision that could restore her faith in Africa? Clem Sunter says Frans Cronje’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to South Africa in 2030 is “Masterful… Gripping”. DA leader Mmusi Maimane says of Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success: “At last, a book on how, rather than what, to do to improve the fortunes of Africa’s people.” The distinguished authors are: Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis.

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