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Green as the sky is blue
Penguin Random House
Having previously read one of Venter’s books in Afrikaans, a book with the title Ek stamel, ek sterwe, which was translated into English as My beautiful death, I expected similar themes, such as homosexuality and homesickness, to feature in Green as the sky is blue. Maybe not so much homesickness as that the characters in Venter’s novels often exhibit a love/hate relationship with South Africa. And it was so again in this book; however, unlike with Ek stamel, ek sterwe, I experienced this latest book as much “lighter”. This is most likely due to the fact that unlike in Ek stamel ek sterwe, the theme of HIV/Aids does not feature in Green as the sky is blue.
This book will certainly, however, raise some eyebrows and specifically for one reason – the graphic gay sex scenes in the book, of which there are plenty. One can safely say that the book is an exploration of gay sex, and the main character, Simon Avend, grapples with sexuality throughout the book. Simon tries to understand why he experiences what he experiences. But he arrives at no answer at the end. This links up with the title of the book, which alludes to the fact that in the Xhosa language there apparently is no word for the colour blue. In the process of Simon’s grappling with his experiences, an important aspect of the book is the role of psychology. Every chapter is followed by a visit that Simon has with his psychologist, one doctor Spiteri, who is a therapist but is also fighting her own demons. Simon’s troubled relationship with South Africa is mirrored by his relationship with his mother. In one chapter he takes a visit to Jeffrey’s Bay, where his mother is retired, and in another, his mother visits him in Australia. The book ends with Simon cancelling his visits to his therapist.
The title reminded me of the famous linguists Sapir and Whorf, who postulated that humans are in a way controlled by the languages that they speak. They are bound by the limits and boundaries of their languages. Every conceptualisation also places a limitation. This is the power and danger of words, and the reason we must treat words so carefully. There certainly are experiences where language fails us when we want to express them. But in Green as the sky is blue the language of Xhosa in addition also again speaks to the troubled relationship of Simon with his homeland, in particularly his upbringing on a cattle farm in the Eastern Cape. The book is, however, set on different continents – Africa, Asia and Australia – with Simon always traveling and having different sexual experiences. But despite all the travelling, the South African connection always stands central to his identity and who he is.
Despite a lack of motivation to get going with this title, once I started, the book turned into quite a page turner. It does not drag on forever on the same tune as some books do. It is quite fast-paced and there is not a big confusing pool of characters as one find in many books. Venter is a gifted author and has a way with words. The narrative jumps between the first person and the third person telling. Simon’s visits to his therapist are all narrated in the third person, while the rest of the story is told directly by Simon. There is enough variation to keep the book interesting, and I have to conclude that Green as the sky is blue is a thoroughly enjoyable book. The book also had a nice feel of Zen Buddhism to it, in the way that Simon concludes that some things are just beyond expression, that it is what it is and that one must flow with life and not always resist by overtly abstract reasoning.