About The Author
Alastair Bruce was born in Port Elizabeth and studied at the University of Cape Town where he started in a science degree course but ended with a masters in English Literature. He has lived in the United Kingdom for over ten years where he works in electronic publishing. He is married and has a baby daughter.
His first novel, Wall of Days, is a profoundly moving novel about guilt, loss and remembering. In a world all but drowned, a man called Bran has been living on an island for ten years. He was sent there in exile by those whose leader he was, and he tallies on the wall of his cave the days as they pass. Until the day when something happens that kindles in Bran such memories and longing that he persuades himself to return, even if it means execution.
Wall of Days has been shortlisted for the Africa Best First Book prize in the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. André Brink has called Alastair "a consummate storyteller who appears well set to become a defining novelist of our time". He has also been widely compared to double Booker Prize winner, J M Coetzee, and one South African review described the book as "a novelistic embodiment of Jorge Luis Borges sitting in a corner watching Samuel Beckett and J M Coetzee pleasuring that prostitute who is the postmodern muse".
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Alastair discusses his short story about a troglodyte that formed the starting point for the book, South Africa's collective sense of guilt and the Tollund Man.
Wall of Days is also the first book from The Clerkenwell Press, the newly launched literary imprint from Profile Books, publishers of Alan Bennett, Susan Hill,Chris Mullin, Francis Fukuyama, Hilary Spurling, Ian Stewart and Atul Gawande.
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for the development of the story?
A long time ago I wrote a short story about a man living in a cave. One day he spies another approaching across the desert floor below. The man does not speak and his silence creates unease in the cave dweller. The story ends with the killing of the cave dweller by the stranger.
When writing the novel I developed the story's themes and ideas around silence and isolation and probed further the question of why both of these men found themselves in such an isolated place. When I started the novel, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation commission was winding down and the country was grappling with collective historical guilt and forgiveness and that's reflected in the novel.
Another influence was that I was fascinated by the Tollund Man and discoveries of other 'bog bodies'. The way they are perfectly preserved by nature over thousands of years and the debates over how some of them met their ends is intriguing.
Was the island on which Bran is living out his exile based on anywhere real or it is an entirely fictional location?
It's fictional but not entirely (like any fiction perhaps). It's based on certain types of landscape found particularly in the northern hemisphere - those areas where peat is found and where there have been discoveries of bodies in the peat - but I had no particular place in mind. The landscape of the middle section is also fictional. This though is based on Mediterranean and semi-desert type regions such as the little Karoo and the west coast of
The world in which your novel takes place is not, historically at least, ours. Why did you choose a fantastical rather than a real-world setting?
The simple answer is that it's because the story is 'fantastical', as you put it. To divorce it from its setting would be to change the nature of the story. The story I wanted to tell needed a world that created slight unease in the reader because of both its familiarity (the names, the landscapes, the ruins) and its otherworldliness (the uncertainty of how it got to be drowned and mostly devoid of people).
Bran recalls his lover, Tora, who continued their affair even after he ordered the execution of her mother. Was her loyalty inspired by fear or love?
The novel explores ideas of complicity and guilt. Certainly in the eyes of the narrator people like Tora supported him because his ways ensured their survival. What is (hopefully) clear is that there is a degree of ambivalence in their relationship on both sides.
On his return, Bran finds his people have written him out of their history. Do you feel the narrative of history is more often used to explain and justify the values of society than to reflect the truth of the past?
It's a truism that History is written by the victors and I think it's widely accepted that there is little chance of 'holding a mirror up' to history. Bran's struggle, and one that we all face to a greater or lesser degree at various points in our lives, is with the fact that his story is at odds with the stories of those around him. He has an interpretation of himself and of events that have no place in the society's narratives of itself.
Some South African reviewers have already compared you to J M Coetzee. As a first-time writer, how does this make you feel?
It is daunting. There is possibly a similarity in style and subject matter with some of Coetzee's work, particularly the early novels like Waiting for the Barbarians, which has provoked the comparison. However, paying too much attention to what people say, whether they mean it in a good or bad way, is probably not a good idea for any writer, especially one just starting out.
Bran is a former dictator whose people could no longer accept his ruthless methods for ensuring the survival of his people. Do you think your story has a particular resonance for the people of South Africa?
I hope so but also I hope that it has resonance more broadly than that. While the transition that South Africa went through in the 1990s, and is still going through, has obvious parallels to what the settlement experiences, a more general theme of the novel is how peoples come to terms with or understand the past and how they work with that to define themselves in the here and now, and to reinvent themselves. We see it happening on a global and national scale and on an individual scale.
Bran has been on his island for ten years before returning. What's the longest period of time you've spent completely out of contact with other people?
I've been trying to remember. Probably not very long at all. Part of what I had to try and imagine in the novel is the effect of prolonged solitude on someone, or rather the effect of being away, with little prospect of return, from that which matters most.
Are there any specific authors you'd cite as inspirations for your writing?
There are plenty of authors I find inspirational. Other than Coetzee. I would cite others like Cormac McCarthy, Ishiguro, Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Dickinson, Kafka, Pound, Stevens, Patrick White, Dylan Thomas, Dostoyevsky. There's something about all of them that has the ability to change who you are after reading them. I'm not sure I would compare myself to any of them but I do admire their writing.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working next?
I am working on a second novel. It's still quite early days with it though so I'm afraid I can't reveal anything more than that!