Karina Szczurek was born in Poland, studied in Austria and Wales, and moved to South Africa in 2005, in the same year that she married André Brink. She has already made her mark on the South African literary scene as a critic, essayist and award-winning playwright. Invisible Others is her first novel.
Brink is one among numerous South African writers and artists who have found inspiration in Paris, a city renowned for its aesthetic beauty and romance. It is to Paris that Cara Judsen, the main character in Szczurek’s tale, flees from South Africa. As the narrative opens, Cara is daily walking the streets of Paris, so traumatised that she is fearful of any human contact. The public and the media have blamed her for the suicide of Dagmar Stutterheim. She was having an affair with Dagmar’s husband Lucas at the time of the tragedy, and while she had neither anticipated nor wished to precipitate Dagmar’s suicide, she does feel guilty, and scourged by her notoriety. Both Stutterheims were painters, “household names in South Africa” (55). Her culpability has been sealed in the public mind by the fact that she, a writer, published a novel with the title Triangle in which a painter’s affair ends with the suicide of the betrayed wife. The novel appeared before Dagmar killed herself.
In spite of her reclusiveness in Paris, Cara will allow, tentatively, a relationship to develop with a neighbour, Konrad. He is a Polish doctoral candidate. As the plot shifts between past and present and between Cara and Konrad, we learn that he, too, is recovering from a tragedy. His much-loved partner Hanka has died in an accident.
In the time that Cara ekes out to Konrad she reveals little about herself and her “invisible others”, Lucas and Dagmar, who have marked her. But she and Konrad do find out more about their respective cultures – as does the reader. Regarding Poland, for instance, Cara celebrates Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz’s birth with a glass of Bordeaux, while Konrad meditates on “the decades of Poland’s partition, and other aspects of his country’s past” as well as “the freedoms and opportunities the new Poland and the European Union offer” (49).
Eventually, Cara admits to herself that by coming to Paris she was hoping, perhaps unconsciously, to meet up with Lucas again. She effects this meeting when she attends an exhibition of his work, and they resume their affair.
Szczurek can write with elegant sensuousness – as when depicting Cara’s erotic encounters with Lucas and when describing Konrad’s contrary feelings about his homeland: as he listens to Chopin and reads Wladislaw Reymont’s “season-paced scenes” these stir “in him a longing he does not want to succumb to”. Despite his resistance, “he cannot rid himself of a sensory hallucination; the scent of dry hay wrapped around his head, like a braid of sun-soaked hair under his nostrils” (50).
The narrative traces Cara’s growing understanding of her emotions and compulsions in her failed relationships with Konrad and Lucas. With Konrad there is a meeting of minds and companionship in her loneliness. These are no match for Lucas’s allure, which lies in his libidinous energy: when he and Cara met in Cape Town he already had behind him a trail of sexual exploits with both women and men; a trail, too, of highly priced erotic paintings of his lovers. His painting of Cara stimulates her to the point where she masturbates in front of it. In the epigraph to the novel in which Szczurek quotes from Siri Hustvedt there is the following sentence: “[My] advice is a call to empathy, the ultimate act of the imagination, and the true ground of all fiction.” But I found it difficult not to see Cara as exploitative once she realises Lucas’s seductiveness remains so powerful for her. She knows that Konrad is fascinated by her and she appears to want to keep him interested, alternating between showing her neediness and flirting with him, then shutting down, even disappearing for a while without warning.
In Invisible Others Szczurek joins those South African writers who, increasingly since the end of apartheid, have placed their tales in countries beyond our borders. India features in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room and Arctic Summer (Egypt, too, in the latter), Lauren Beukes’s latest characters are murdered and murder in the USA; the title of Etienne van Heerden’s Thirty Nights in Amsterdam is self-explanatory; and Michiel Heyns, who has followed the fortunes of Henry James and Emmeline Pankhurst in previous fiction, sites much of his latest novel, A Sportful Malice,in Italy. This welcome broadening of place makes for writing and reading enriched by cosmopolitan settings and characters.
Two-thirds of the way through Invisible Others Cara says to Konrad:
This is where writing begins for me. The moment I articulate something which I could never say or ask elsewhere but on paper, in fiction. I think most people are cowards, writers included, but whereas others blunder on regardless, some writers confront their inner truths in writing. That is where we are truest to ourselves, where we do not have to hide or pretend. All fears, longings, desires, hatreds – everything about the human condition, about ourselves and our relationships to others – can be poured into fiction, or any art medium for that matter, distilled into a form that is digestible … (170–1)
As a corollary she directs Konrad, whose dissertation entails discovering what Poles believe “true Polishness” to be, to the epic poem Pan Tadeusz by Mickiewicz. Mickiewicz published this work while in exile in Paris in 1834. It is in art, rather than in interviews with Poles living in contemporary Paris, that Konrad will find, says Cara, “the essence of whatever you are looking for” (171).
Konrad’s research is so successful that he is offered an academic post in Berlin and the last lines of Invisible Others reveal that it is Cara herself who has been the narrator, our truth-teller. The reader is therefore urged to accept the validity of Cara’s claim that in art “truth” has been “distilled” and is at its “most naked and exposed” (171); yet, as she also cautions Konrad, artistic representation carries “a veil of pretence” (171). Art entails artifice.
Szczurek alerts her reader, through Cara, to the power of art, its transformative ability to facilitate expression of the ever-mysterious unconscious, as in this novel, through an exploration of the past. The “truth” then becomes both known and, paradoxically, unknown. Such nuanced awareness leads the reader to expect sophisticated control of style.
Unfortunately, the pleasure of reading this novel is somewhat marred by awkwardness of expression and language errors. English idiom and grammar are not consistently accurate. This is an engaging debut novel: its tale is skilfully structured, intensely felt and it devotes serious consideration to such serious matters as the links between art and memory, art and truth. More’s the pity, then, that the standard of editing does not complement the quality of the storytelling.