On that wave of gulls by Vernon Head: a book discussion

  • 0

On that wave of gulls
Vernon Head
Jacana Media (2023)
ISBN: 9781431432998

On Wednesday, 28 June 2023, Paul Murray interviewed Vernon on his latest novel, On that wave of gulls. Head is an architect working in a practice in Cape Town. He is also an avid birdwatcher. This is not his first novel; he has previously written a nonfiction narrative entitled The search for the rarest bird in the world, followed by a novel, A tree for the birds. His schooling was at Diocesan College Rondebosch, where it never dawned on him to become an architect. In fact, he showed no interest in the arts or social sciences, instead enjoying the learning area of biology. His passion was writing about nature. If there was any art in his education, it lay in the art of perception, which accounts for his later gravitation to architecture. His year in the post-matric unit at school (grade 13) was a maturing time for him, when he became interested in Roman and Greek antiquity. Here follows a brief synopsis of the two books mentioned above, before going on to discuss his latest novel.

The search for the rarest bird in the world (2014)

The book is a detective trail cum love affair; it recounts an expedition to the Plains of Nechisar in Ethiopia in 1990 undertaken by a group of zoologists, who detected the wing of a bird that had somehow been killed, and this one wing lay there in the road. Scientists at the British Museum were faced with a dilemma: how do you classify a bird from a single wing and nothing else? They managed to register this find as the Nechisar nightjar (classified name: Caprimulgus solala). This story captivated the mind of one of Cape Town’s birdwatchers, Vernon Head, leading to an expedition 22 years after the discovery of the single wing, to find the Nechisar nightjar. Head was in his element on expedition, breathing in the air of the pristine environment, searching for a rare bird species. The reader will have to get into the book to see the outcome. During the reading, one will be introduced to an author who has a great feel for employing words as he creates his special kind of meaning behind them.

A tree for the birds (2017)

As with The search for the rarest bird in the world, A tree for the birds is also set in Africa. One of the places the novel ventures into is the Congo River, the river that features (although not by name) in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of darkness (1899). In A tree for the birds, the character Chrisnelt is a young Congolese gardener growing into manhood. His “classroom” is the birds and insects as well as the environment, as he discovers his own inner self and consciousness. Themes from the book, such as the interconnectedness in creation, and the image of water, are similar to themes that feature in Head’s other books, including his most recent novel, On that wave of gulls (2023). Dragonflies, trees, rain, water and the role of the gardener all take up a symbolic position in A tree for the birds. The following lines explain the employment of these symbols:

People do not die because it is Ordained. People do not die because they choose to. People die like falling leaves from the highest trees to surrender the future to new branches, permitting a slow walk toward the sun, blessed by the rain.

On that wave of gulls (2017)

The reader of this book will soon find that Head writes as if he is birdwatching while writing. This strategy is an important feature in the book; there is an arrangement of the words, searching meaning, like turning out to watch birds – birds jumping around on the pages, flitting about in all directions. And as for the gulls, as seabirds that inhabit our shores here in Cape Town as elsewhere along the coast, they fly above the waves, almost as if they are surfing them. It therefore comes as no surprise that, in the case of On that wave of gulls, the main theme is the sea and how it can “touch” us in several different ways. The tides provide a rhythm of ebb/flow, back/forth, push/pull, high/low – with the moon as part of this action, giving the book its gyration. One of the characters is a female seagull, Calypso, part of that gyrating energy. Head is deeply interested in classical mythology; thus Calypso (a character in classical mythology from the pages of Greek epic poet Homer) is an important binding agent between the ancient writing tradition and the cultural history of the Cape, where each year the carnival of the Cape Minstrels is a reminder of abundant energies (“Kaapse Klopse” – Cape Calypso). Features of the seagulls are explored, as if Head is calling up his biology studies from school days – now more in the form of chronobiology exploring rhythms, the push/pull between the earth and the moon, biological events such as laying the perfect egg, and our own positioning in a world between nature and humans.

Calypso is one of the main characters; another is the overweight architect who once was successful. His name is Hieronymus Vos, after the artist Bosch; he is married to Charlotte, who is from the Caribbean. The third major character is a Khoisan man called Pooi. He is homeless and a foil to the man who designs fancy homes. Readers will discover Pooi’s dream, intertwined with Cape Town’s important symbols of place, such as Robben Island, Kloof Street, Table Mountain and the sea line – the edge, that feature of liminality which we know not when it starts or ends. This opens the vista to the great sea, that repository of history across which generations of discoverers, slaves, ships and cargo have travelled, as early as Homeric times – here at the Cape, as much as the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. Counterpoised Pooi, who hails from the plains of the Kalahari, searches for his life from the land to the land-sea, right here in Cape Town, tying up the motifs: edge, liminality, history, characterisation, language, evocation of an era, environmental concerns (plastic!), employing metaphor, descriptive phrases and lyric prose. While reading, we see the way the sea affects us, be it violently or calmly – narrated from the three perspectives of Vos, Pooi and Calypso, in constant gyration, inextricably intertwined. Each of the characters appears in in-between spaces, as Head says about his own work as an architect, giving power to the landscape.

Charlotte is a supporting character, but she is forceful, for the reader to understand the reparative/restorative reappropriation of a space that was (still is) filled with violence, as with the slave societies her forebears had to endure. She was apprehended from the very place where Head peered into the dark depths of the world’s deepest river (the Congo), the second longest after the Nile. Here is the great irony of the novel: the depths are so profound that there can be no light – an abyss – no hope to those men and women tied up under the rule of colonials (Congo means “together”, but its people are now scattered in other parts of the world as labour for colonial industries). Charlotte is a very strong character. (A supporting character, strong as she is, can account for the tour de force aspect of the novel – or two strong stories: firstly, human nature versus nature, and secondly, reappropriation of power, breaking down former hegemonies. Careful not to see her vacillating nature as weak, it creates a new structure, a new space, very à la Walcott.) Although she is portrayed as moving here and then there, this space frees her (up) as the author engages in rapprochement – a white man writing about victims, about casualties. He is quick to acknowledge that he is also tied up, a slave to the society he works in, creating buildings for the rich. The redeeming factor is nature, and how he sees – perception, and the carefully planned laws of nature that no one can defy. For example, Chrisnelt learns this from the formation in the forest, the way nature works. Vos learns this at architect school: you cannot defy lines; you learn about edge and structure; you have to break through the threshold to get to the other side – reminding of Borges:

And all is part of the diverse crystal of this memory, the universe whose arduous corridors have no end and whose doors close themselves at your step; only from the horizon’s other side will you see the Archetypes and the Splendors.

The novel is about art. Architects design buildings in space, in a style that they acquire from their teachers at university/college. They draw arabesques and straight lines, showing ambivalence between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Heart and mind are strong features, lines that lead the eye in, against the wild features in the waves of the sea, and the flight of a seagull on those waves, on waves of waves – like that architect imprinting her/his style on that building, on many buildings, writing up a sense of place in a building, with lines, curves, circles, triangles and the rest; like seagulls gyrating, creating images in their own space, abiding by the laws of nature. Calypso must lay the perfect egg, to procreate. Vos must design the perfect plan for his next building, to earn fees; Pooi must employ the perfect breaststroke (swimming) to reach his dream.

It seems that one also needs to go beyond just buildings and get one’s inspiration elsewhere – as from nature (the edge, where we end and nature begins, might have routes to our sense of place). For this, Charlotte is important; she loves the poet Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize winner (1992), admired by Head for his writing about the sea, as well as for his Homeric qualities in employing the format of the epic, and also because of his strong theme of humanity:

Love after love

The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

– Derek Walcott

The characters in Head’s novel all try to regain meaning from previous fractious situations towards the reparative, the restorative. We can only become whole through the perception of nature, and try to understand our place better in the universe by the healing force which she offers as we respond self-consciously to that invitation. 

Reading Head is empowering for this.

Vernon Head at the book discussion on Wednesday, 28 June 2023, at the Mitre, Bishops, Diocesan College. Photo: Paul Murray

Vernon Head and Paul Murray in discussion. Photo: Bishops Archives

Also read:

Merrydown Farm, a Karoo novel by Michael King

Milner – last of the empire-builders by Richard Steyn: a book review

John William Colenso: Heretic or savant?

  • 0


Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.