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Books Column: On blockbuster books that will never be born

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams recalls meeting a man carrying a lifetime of political dark arts receipts, and wonders what became of the book he was writing.

I once attended a meeting to discuss a book that didn’t exist, but whose possible publication ensured that its putative author was looked after by a large, friendly bodyguard whose mere smile could gut you like a fish. 

This meeting taught me a few things. 

It taught me, for example, that at any given moment, someone, somewhere is mulling over an idea for a book that, they think, will change everything. The manuscript lies cached beneath old polo shirts in a BMW’s boot, or malingers with its sensational revelations in a box under a bed, or ekes out a meagre life as a series of entries locked behind a passcode in a notes app. 

The book might float partially formed in emails between wary authors and excited, urgent editors and publishers; or as cloud-backed-up whispers of conversations surreptitiously recorded in restaurants and hotels. 

My guess is that, thanks to the realignment of life priorities encouraged by the pandemic, the number of people collecting receipts for a blockbuster book – one that exposes corruption, lifts the lid on political rot, launches prosecutions, ends careers – has increased tenfold over the past year. 

But too often these books are never born. Babita Deokaran’s tragic case is instructive: receipts pose a grave danger to the power structure, and the power structure will take any measure to burn them before they become, as a book, unburnable. 

Occasionally, just occasionally, though, you catch a glimmer of what’s written on these receipts, and with that a look at the way South Africa really works. 

The putative author mentioned above also arrived with his publisher, who had given his unwritten book a code name, which I won’t mention here (but for those in the know, you’ll recognise that it wasn’t The Machadodorp Minutes). 

He explained who he was: a political fixer. And what he’d done, down the years: anything his organisation had asked him to do, from procuring extra lawn chairs for an important function to organising the murder of – well, someone inconvenient. He’d given his life to the organisation; the organisation had accordingly looked after him. 

He was bombastic, overwrought, uncertain. He repeated himself and sometimes spoke in sentences that were, quite simply, incomprehensible. But I believed he was who he said he was – a specimen from a realm totally foreign to me, the likes of which I would probably never encounter again. Imagine South Africa as a sausage: here was a man who helped prepare the mince. 

Why the publisher had brought him to us, a handful of booksellers, was somewhat unclear. Did they hope to impress him with their access to those who would help make him famous, stacking copies of his book high and wide in our shop windows? Were they dangling him as bait to encourage us to increase our orders on their general list? 

I realise now that it was probably neither. What they were doing was the work that all publishers do: the labour required to birth a book. Alas, this particular book never saw the light of day. What became of its author? On this question, the imagination creeps into unpleasant territory. We would have been better off, no doubt, if he had persevered, and brought his story into the world. 

Here’s hoping that others manage what he could not, and shed new light on what has happened in South Africa over the past few years. We need more harbourers of secrets to transform, through the alchemy of publishing, into authors. It’s hard to say of a blockbuster book, especially at this teetering moment, that it was better never to have been born. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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