Ballads about the banality of responsibility: Reading Diane Awerbuck's Cabin Fever

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Title: Cabin Fever and Other Stories
Author: Diane Awerbuck
ISBN: 9781415201114
Publisher: Umuzi
Publication date: July 2011




“Murder ballads”, one of the short stories in Diane Awerbuck’s new collection, Cabin Fever, opens with a journalist taking a night off to attend a musical performance of ballads in the midst of reporting on a murder trial. “Ballads,” the unnamed journalist muses as she tries to lose herself in the performance, “are stories, are desperate letters, are messages from the grave. I sat in the third row, at the end, and listened for stories. I wanted to know how things happened” (92). Reporting from the courthouse the next morning, the journalist once again finds herself listening for stories, but this time she is the one who has to explain the story of a young murderer smirking at the relatives of his dead victims. According to her this smirk is “the saddest thing about him, a reminder that he had no idea what he had done. But,” she concludes, “he would come to know the significance of his act”, would come to know “the banality of responsibility” (97).

Even though “Murder ballads” is not the title story, the poignancy of the phrase “banality of responsibility” resonates throughout the entire collection. All the disparate stories in Cabin Fever can be seen as “murder ballads” which explore the notion of individual responsibility. Immensely powerful, often melancholic and written in a style that perfectly balances lyricism with simplicity, the majority of stories in Awerbuck’s collection pose difficult questions about the moment of intervention. When should a person intervene, these stories ask their reader, and if no one intervenes at all, what does that suggest about humanity? “In the ballads,” the journalist of “Murder ballads” informs us, “no one comes for you” (93), suggesting that Awerbuck’s collection is more interested in exploring the failure to act when faced with the banality of responsibility than the moment of claiming responsibility for one’s actions.

Most of the stories in Cabin Fever are therefore poised between the moment of recognising personal responsibility and taking action. In the story “School photos”, for example, a schoolteacher named Mister September is sickened by the bruises he sees on his abused female students, but is unable to convince the girls to speak out, or to speak up on their behalf. He photographs their bruises, “their swellings and splittings, [verifies] various shades of black and blue” (75) so that there will be concrete evidence of abuse when the girls are ready to testify. The girls, however, never take action and Mister September keeps the photographs at his house without ever intervening himself. Rather, he lies awake at night wondering “what the people at the Kodak shop thought” of the “close-ups of an unknown girl’s back, the studs of her spine and the bruises overlaid on it” (76). While the story does not make it explicit, the underlying suggestion is that even the people developing the photographs are aware of the abuse being perpetrated, but that no one wants to engage with the banality of responsibility that speaking out would entail.

The story which follows “School photos”, “Extra lesson”, further complicates the same question surrounding individual responsibility and intervention. In “Extra lesson” an unnamed female schoolteacher survives a violent attack when two boys, armed with a knife, force their way into the library of a girls’ school on Valentine’s Day. One of the two boys, a thin “spare coat-hanger of a boy” (100), has a crude, home-made tattoo on his arm, “carved into his skin with a compass and made permanent in ballpoint pen: I AM NOT WHAT I AM” (102). “Othello,” the thin boy clarifies (101). It is this tattoo that finally helps the frightened teacher to stand up to the two boys:

That home-made tattoo helped me make up my mind ... The same choice, the old choice – whether to lie down when you’re told, or to stand up. Like a man, people say, as if women are excluded from honour and dignity. (103)

Still, the teacher does not act quickly enough and one of the girls in the library is killed. “It happened so fast, survivors always say,” the teacher relates, “as if slowing it down means they could have done something about it” (108). The crux of the story – indeed, of the entire collection – is contained in the teacher’s phrase “could have done”, since a whole library full of people could have stopped the thin boy, but no one did.

This same theme is repeated even more clearly and more forcefully in the story “Loxion Kulća”, where the protagonist, a struggling farmer named Jurie, survives an attack on a crowded Metrorail train. Once again, no one on the train stands up to their attackers, even though the passengers far outnumber the young men threatening them. Their lack of action causes Jurie to think “savagely, The world is divided into people who do bad things and people who do nothing... The words came bursting out of him in a spray of spit, leaving him breathless. ‘What’s wrong with all of you? Why didn’t anyone do anything?’” (116-17). In his rage at his fellow passengers, Jurie is able to ignore the fact that he, too, failed to act. Furthermore, having spoken out against a failure to act, but having failed to act himself, Jurie feels compelled to jump off the train rather than face the silently accusing faces of the other passengers. 

However, the teacher in “Extra Lesson”, unlike Jurie and the passengers on the train, does stand up to the thin boy, but does so only when her own life is threatened. Once the thin boy is overpowered and pinned to the library floor, the teacher is convinced that “if he had a chance he would have tried to kill himself” (109), a decision heavy with the paradox of both taking and avoiding personal responsibility. The story ends with the teacher having to face the responsibility of her own moment of delayed intervention: “I wonder about me. I let her die. I am not what I am” (110).

While many of the stories offer a rather bleak view of individual responsibility, the collection is also marked by moments of anticipation, desire, hope and renewal. The final story, “Phosphorescence”, concludes the collection with a touching portrayal of a more positive kind of personal responsibility. Brittany, a suicidal teenage girl, described as “angry”, “raw” and “sullen” (136), is sent to live with her grandmother after she tries to kill herself. She discovers the possibility of beauty, and the beauty of new possibilities, when she skinny-dips with her grandmother in Graaf’s Pool, “trailing phosphorescence from every fingertip” (141). After their moonlit swim it seems as if Brittany no longer “wants to cut herself loose from [her family] altogether” (137), for when the two women make their way back from the pool, “for some of the way, they held hands” (144). The story perfectly captures Brittany’s  decision to live without recourse to sentimentality or overwriting.

Most of the stories in Cabin Fever are set in or around Cape Town, which provides its characters with a detailed sense of place and grounded experience. Because the collection is located so clearly in a specific setting, the reader is constantly reminded that these stories relate events that could very easily happen in reality, and that the characters are thus asking questions that beg real answers. In this way, place and setting deepen the searching quality of the collection’s questions about individual responsibility by turning them into everyday problems of a familiar reality.

Cabin Fever is an immensely powerful collection. It is written in such lyrical prose that one would like simply to surrender to the beauty of its language, but is forced to acknowledge the collection’s probing questions as to when and how one stands up to a multitude of everyday brutalities and injustices, and to answer to the failure of facing up to the banality of individual responsibility. While the overarching tone of Cabin Fever is melancholic, the collection also points to tender moments of the beauty that comes with the choice of taking responsibility for discovering and sharing individual hope and joy.

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