Defend Truth

Opinionista

Covid-19, Father’s Day and the beautiful torment of books

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Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

It was the decline. Neither of us had an inkling. But Parkinson’s was eating his body. My father, who wielded a table-tennis bat like a Musketeer did a sword, could not even butter his own bread; had to make do with tea bags as he could not hold the strainer steady.

On my neighbour’s bookshelf was a series of books by French authors. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Simenon. Simenon of the Inspector Maigret series. The first one was a slim novella, The Sailors Rendezvous. I was hooked. Like an addict locked down in a Mazzotti warehouse, I smoked through four, five of them. Striptease tells a story of a maddened dancer who Simenon slowly undresses and teases. But it was The Fate of the Malous that seared the throat and reddened the eyes. 

The story revolves around a young man’s journey to understand his father Eugene Malou, who kills himself after falling into debt. It travels into Alain’s inner self with merciless precision. As I turned the pages it swept me into a rollercoaster of emotions, holding on for dear life, while all the while trying to let go. 

My father was an ace table-tennis player. How many times did we stand on opposite sides? How many times would I take the lead, 10-6, 19-15 only to be beaten? Quick on his feet. If he had a weakness, it was his backhand. I would try to exploit this by a flat serve to the corner. But he would pivot on his heels and, quick as a cat outside a Chinese takeaway, take the shot with his forehand. A blistering drive and if I did get to it, I could only parry it back. And there he would be waiting, drawing his elbow half-cocked, and stab at the ball. It leapt back like a rocket and the point was done. He called that innovation Shaka, after the short stabbing spear used by the Zulu king’s impis. My father, I remember, was a history teacher. 

Later, he would make his tea. Leaves brewed slowly on the stove. Milk boiled. Separately. His forehead would crease in mountains of ripples as he savoured his drink. And victory. 

The first day I returned from travels, far, the game would be on. The victory already written, but still I gave it my all.  

Then, I won two games in a row. A few months later, the same result.  Once, rocking on his heels, he fell backwards. I laughed and mocked. Another time, the bat slipped and flew out of the garage entrance. I was beating him. Sending him to his backhand, dropping the ball short and then whipping it with top-spin into the opposite corner. By the end of the set, he was like a punch-drunk boxer, jerking his head, slipping and smashing the ball after it had long passed his bat. I was merciless. Thinking, striving to catch up on two decades of defeat.  

A few times, my mother insisted I put him in a nursing home. Alone. When I left, he would mumble “so quickly”. I promised to come back later in the day. Never did. 

It was the decline. Neither of us had an inkling. But Parkinson’s was eating his body. The ball would not stay in his palm as he served. The short elbow jab was reduced to an involuntary jerk. One day, as he lunged, he fell and cut his forehead. Blood flowed. It was the last match we ever played.

My father, who wielded a table-tennis bat like a Musketeer did a sword, could not even butter his own bread; had to make do with tea bags as he could not hold the strainer steady. 

He landed in hospital. His medical aid collapsed as some of the trustees had gambled their savings and invested in a casino. The hospital demanded R80,000. Hounded out of an academic job, I did not even have R800. The ambulance cost R1,000 to take him home. A distance of a few kilometres. Bundled him into a white sheet. Into the front seat. As I made my way down Sparks Road, a friend followed, thinking I was carrying a dead body. He had bedsores. Holes through his heels. He slept on the lounge couch. I on the floor. Nursing him. Covering the holes. Slowly. Opening new wounds. For myself. He had to sign on to a legal process to pay the medical bills monthly. A court judgment. This man who meticulously paid his accounts. Who refused to owe anyone a cent. Like Eugene Malou, reduced to a delinquent. 

A few times, my mother insisted I put him in a nursing home. Alone. When I left, he would mumble “so quickly”. I promised to come back later in the day. Never did. 

Turning to Camus gave no respite. In The Fall, Camus tells us that “even for a 10-minute adventure I’d disavowed father and mother”. 

My father played Cordelia in high school. He put on a scarf, lipstick and mascara. Was it here that my penchant for cross-dressing was born? King Lear sought to turn love into an article of trade, to measure it, as Brian Rothman in the superb Signifying Nothing points out, and in the process destroyed it. Shakespeare, writing at a time when England was living through a brutal period of declining feudalism and a world where financial transactions, calculations and measures were being born. 

Salvation too is a number. In places of worship, only 50 are allowed. Once we shook hands in peace. Now we use an elbow, or an ankle tap to get to the head of the queue to receive the Lord’s mercy.  

It is this violation, this destruction that King Lear relentlessly and obsessively pursues. The play was written in a London of bubonic plague, cheap death… a London given over to the deal: the buy/sell transactions of a risingly brutal capitalism… It sets up, and ultimately recoils in horror from, what it conceives to be the terminal transaction: the buying and selling of natural love.

Today we live in a world of an arithmetic panopticon. How many have tested positive, how many have died, how many recovered, keep your distance. Counting is complicated and begs questions of comparison as countries label who dies of Covid-19 in multiple ways. But still, the media persist, with headlines that tell us Brazil has just passed England in the number of Covid deaths, with Italy after leading for a few weeks, fading into fourth place. One could easily think one was watching results of World Cup soccer rankings until one reads that India outpaced Italy. The last time India qualified was in 1950 when all the other teams in the group pulled out. 

Salvation too is a number. In places of worship, only 50 are allowed. Once we shook hands in peace. Now we use an elbow, or an ankle tap to get to the head of the queue to receive the Lord’s mercy.  

I am 61. Permit number 97. I wear it round my neck. There are lots of people in the park. They avoid people like me, carriers of the disease. In The Plague, Camus writes: “For the first time exiles from those they loved had no reluctance to talk freely about them, using the same words as everybody else, and regarding their deprivation from the same angle as that from which they viewed the latest statistics of the epidemic… there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship…”

I think about my father at the nursing home. Alone. Lear-like. Where was his Cordelia? In the bastion of “civilisation”, England, the old were locked into care homes and died in their thousands. Lepers.

Love is about a future, Camus tells us, and those of us plagued by old age are already past. What is a pilgrim to do?

I go back to the old man
Mind and body broken
It is the moment before the dance begins
Whatever happens or cannot happen
In the time I have to spare
I see you dancing, father

— Brendan Kelly. DM

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