Author: sam

Your child will be the end of you

It is a good thing that Ben Marcus is visiting the university in a few days, as his novel The Flame Alphabet demands far more questions, often hidden away in metaphorical events, than it does answers. The beginning especially is shrouded in questions – why would parents leave a daughter they loved? Why are Jews especially infected? And then, who is Murphy and what does he do?

We begin the novel to find Sam and his wife Claire readying to leave their daughter, Esther. Esther is a sharp-tongued teenager who constantly retorts to her parents’ questioning. In many ways her character and relationship with her parents appears normal for a teenager; she wants freedom, she talks back to her parents. Yet, Esther is a much darker, more cynical teenager than most. She is extremely mature, or maybe seems to be because she is so cynical. Sam, Claire and Esther play word games together where Sam tries to lure his daughter into conversation through baiting her: “we fell into the old cajole. We prodded, she resisted, we sulked and put our irreverent feelings in the air, and Esther suddenly, after we had cursed the whole transaction and felt disgusted by the topic, got talkative” (37). The parents’ love is apparent and imprisons them in the unhealthy situation: “sh** on me, oh my children, and I will never fail to love you?” (12).

Simultaneously, words and speech are coming under attack from a disease that is spreading through the population. The nature and effects of the disease are slowly unpacked as Sam, the narrator, details the lead-up to their departure. He loves his daughter but it seems that it is for that reason he also must leave her. From an isolated radio outpost where Jewish sermons are projected through a transistor radio, Sam and Claire are told that experts have identified “children as the culprit” (30). The disease has left both Sam and Claire ill, though when Esther leaves for a horse-riding camp, they seem to recover, or at least feel as if they have recovered ever so slightly. They refer to the days she is gone as “days without exposure” (23). Unfortunately, these days are not beneficial in the long-run.


The Flame Alphabet plays on ideas of communication and silence. There is lack of communication between medical services and the population, between parent and child, and between neighbours in society (for example at the picnic site). Although Sam and the reader are given snippets of the medical discussions of the contagion, it is through Sam’s narration and his own analysis that the cause of the contagion is uncovered. Does the reader gain a greater connection to the narrator, or a better understanding of the feelings of sufferers by this unveiling through the narration? Even the emergency sirens have been replaced by white noise, a distorted silence, “a plague of deafness” (9). As mentioned, there is a lack of communication between teenage daughter and parents, which one could consider natural but for Esther’s scathing remarks to her parents. Though, silence is also a part of Sam and Claire’s life – at home: “We cooked in silence. This was us at our best, stew building, salad making…” (33); and in religion: “feeding Rabbi Burke’s services to his dispersed, silent community” (41). As the reader, do you feel a greater sense of tension through this contrast of silence and deadly sound?

I think it is important to address the idea that it is children and children’s voices that are the source of contagion. It makes it more scary – anyone remember those Doctor Who episodes with creepy children!? Finally, communication and company has broken down between neighbour: “we tried not to trouble our few neighbours in the field by staring” (29). The simple act of saying “Hello” or sharing a glance has become burdened with intrusion. The illness affects people visibly, noticeable although quite subtle, and now neighbours begin to avoid one another. I believe this isolates the families more and makes the issue of one’s only child being the contagion of greater significance. If your child was making you ill, do you think you could ready your bags as Sam and Claire do?

FUN FACT: The squiggles on the spine of the book are the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet, “laid flat” if you like.

Bhopal – the real-life Khaufpur

December 3rd 1984: Hundreds die in Bhopal chemical accident

Hundreds of people have died from the effects of toxic gases which leaked from a chemical factory near the central Indian city of Bhopal.

The accident happened in the early hours of this morning at the American-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant three miles (4.8 km) from Bhopal. Mr Y P Gokhale, managing director of Union Carbide in India, said that methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) had escaped when a valve in the plant’s underground storage tank broke under pressure.This caused a deadly cloud of lethal gas to float from the factory over Bhopal, which is home to more than 900,000 people – many of whom live in slums.

Chaos and panic broke out in the city and surrounding areas as tens of thousands of people attempted to escape. More than 20,000 people have required hospital treatment for symptoms including swollen eyes, frothing at the mouth and breathing difficulties. Thousands of dead cats, dogs, cows and birds litter the streets and the city’s mortuaries are filling up fast.

Bhopal resident, Ahmed Khan, said: “We were choking and our eyes were burning. We could barely see the road through the fog, and sirens were blaring. We didn’t know which way to run. Everybody was very confused. Mothers didn’t know their children had died, children didn’t know their mothers had died and men didn’t know their whole families had died.”

The Union Carbide factory was closed immediately after the accident and three senior members of staff arrested. Medical and scientific experts have been dispatched to the scene and the Indian government has ordered a judicial inquiry. It is understood the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, will be flying to the area within the next few days.

This is a BBC article written about the Bhopal disaster, which is the real-life version of the situation described in Animal’s People (see conveners’ post). Interestingly, the descriptions highlight the loss of life, both human and wild animals, as well as the confusion and panic the disaster caused. Thoughts on the effects of illness mentally and physically, both to individuals and the community is important to consider, whilst also discussing the notion of blame. Another thing to look at is this minute-long news clip showing footage from 1984 (warning: some people may find the scenes disturbing).

The chemical factory in Bhopal has now been left unchanged amongst overgrown surroundings.

Welcome to our Humanity

“Welcome to our Hillbrow”

This sentence is uttered over and over again as the narrator realises the novel that his protagonist, Refentse couldn’t write in his own lifetime. The novel is in effect, a dedication to both his friend but also to a new South Africa struggling with questions of identity in the post-apartheid era. Like the novel that Refentse set out to write, Mpe’s novel addresses “Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.” (55) The narrative is particular in that it is written in the 2nd person, addressed as a letter or a dedication to Refentse, intricately describing the struggles of the community. It encompasses all of these through its thoughtful narrative, which addresses the very characters it describes.

The harrowing image of violence in the aftermath of Bafana Bafana’s (the South African football team) victories as bottles are hurled from balconies and a young girl was once fatally hit by a car in the madness, paints a bleak picture – even in jubilation, there is tragedy and suffering in Hillbrow. The town is full of crime and discrimination leads to the creation of scapegoats. Many of the locals blame the foreign black Africans for the moral corruption in their town. The Makwerekwere (a derogatory term used by black South Africans for other Africans) are despised and take the blame for the grievances of the town, “we can attribute the source of our dirges to Nigeria and Zaire” (21) and “It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came” (118).

This xenophobia is similarly evident when Refilwe leaves to study in the UK. Refilwe discovers that she is then part of the marginalised “Africans” (102) population who are socially and culturally isolated, not altogether different from the way that the Makwerekwere were treated. Prejudice breeds in whispers and gossip that is sourced from speculation and ignorance however it also has very real impacts in the community. The conscience and the mind are seemed to be similarly powerful, “If such words (speculations about Refilwe’s condition and morality) did not actually come from people’s mouths, then they simply rang inside your own head” (120). Ultimately, it is a deep sense of guilt and despair that loom too great in their minds that sends Refentse to his death, and in turn, Lerato and that sends Sammy into a spiral of depression.

Just as HIV/AIDS lurks in the background of the lives of some of the central characters, particularly Refilwe as we discover she has been infected for 10 years, it similarly lays unseen in the background for most of the novel. AIDS is perceived as a problem inflicted on the community by foreigners and given that it is most commonly transmitted through drug use and unprotected sex, it is also linked to a morally corrupt, promiscuous society.

Identity and place are thus central to the narrative as they indicate the status of the person in society and imply either a sense of belonging or distance. After it is discovered that Refilwe has AIDS, she becomes “by association, one of the hated Makwerekwere” (118); her original identity had been lost through her association with a Nigerian boy, as well as her suffering from AIDS, and people no longer treat her in the same way.

As the novel progresses, the phrase, “Welcome to our Hillbrow” expands to include other people and places, as if the sentiment of moral corruption behind the original line is spreading around the world. The penultimate chapter ends with, “Welcome to Our Humanity” (113). Perhaps one should views others as if Through the Eyes of a Child… or maybe, like Hillbrow, the whole world is infected.

Questions raised from this text include: How does identity and prejudice influence the relationship between a specific culture (or set of people) and illness? Whether the idea of contagion is always linked with a place and therefore, looking at the selection of texts we have read, do writers try to increase tension by having characters that travel? Do you like the narrative of this text with it addressing the very characters it describes, does this add anything to the novel?

— Tom and Sam

Not a Guide Dog, a Blind Dog

Here are links to a couple of things… firstly to a blog review of Blindness – it provides a good overview of the book and crosses over with issues we previously discussed, e.g. the lack of punctuation.

Then, to provide some light relief for Eid, and to plug my own poorly made video (!), here is a YouTube video of my dog George. He has been blind from birth but copes really well!

George Running Blind

I feel Saramagos’ depiction of blindness does not give much credit to the abilities of the blind, however I suppose this can be attributed to the suddenness of the event and people’s confusion.

Black(s) Coffee

Here is a link to Historical Views on Contagion… in this case, Yellow Fever in Philadelphia.

It outlines some of the beliefs surrounding the disease at the time, for example Benjamin Rush thought that the origin of the disease was a pile of rotting coffee beans and that Blacks were immune to yellow fever… neither of these are true.