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Books Column: Puzzling out an answer: on the literary clues that authors drop


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

Ben Williams thinks he’s spotted a tip left by an author in plain sight that adds a new dimension to their work. Care to puzzle it out with him?

This column about literary puzzles is a puzzle itself. Can you solve it?

One of the great pleasures of literature is decoding a story’s secret – or in some cases not so secret – conceit. The roman à clef – “novel with a key” – is the preeminent example here, being a story about real people and events masked by the artifices of fiction. 

Alas, I haven’t come across a good roman à clef in years. (Suggestions, anyone?) Fortunately for me, though, another class of story is enjoying a bull run, offering plenty of cat-and-mouse guesswork as to the sources of its inspiration – or leaving the guesswork aside and simply announcing its status as an homage outright. 

We live in the age of the literary remix, in which new writing pays tribute to stories that have come before, changing them, taking them in fresh directions, extending their characters’ lives and perspectives in – ahem – novel ways.

Think of the works that Jane Austen’s books have inspired over the last decade. Many of her minor characters have been seized upon by modern writers to re-frame her classic plots – including the novel Charlotte, written by SA’s very own Helen Moffett, and billed as “the sequel to Pride and Prejudice you didn’t know you needed”. It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone wants more Jane Austen in their life, so go on, get a copy.

Then there’s Shakespeare, who is always on deck for a centrifugal spinning, key passages in certain of his plays emerging from the whirl of words to join the beat of another writer’s drum.

In the cases where the authors have chosen to be obscure or reticent about their gestures to other works, the more you read, the better able you are to detect the details of their inspiration. Often, they’re sprinkled lightly across a story’s structure, or hinted at via a character’s name. (Pro tip: watch out for characters whose initials are “JC”.)  

Sometimes, however, an author will leave a great whopping clue like the proverbial letter on the mantelpiece, there for all the world to see – and yet, still it goes unnoticed. The longer the clue lingers, the greater, I imagine, the author’s delight.

On that note, while I don’t want to spoil anyone’s delight, I think I’ve sleuthed out an homage to the aforementioned Bard in a new work of African fiction that is attracting a good deal of positive comment and attention. Here appears a short review praising the book; there an admiring book club post on social media. The novel is being thoroughly enjoyed, but no one has yet winked back at the author for their inspired appropriation of a classic Shakespearean set piece – as far as I can tell, at least.

Well, dear author, here is my official wink back. I had a happy suspicion the moment I saw the book’s title, and, after dipping into the story, am fairly confident that my suspicion is confirmed. Marvellous stuff – well done.

My own clue to you, dear reader, on my literary puzzle-solving begins with a brief story about loneliness and literature inspired by Justice Albie Sachs. 

In a recent, must-listen podcast about his first book, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, he talks about two works that provided him with lifesaving company while he was in solitary confinement for fighting the apartheid state; namely Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Melville’s Moby Dick. The way Sachs describes the comfort these books imparted to him reminded me, rather incongruously, of the classic text that I carted around with me during my first trip abroad, which happened to be to South Africa in 1995.

I was travelling lightly. The only book in my possession was a cheap paperback edition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. My situation was not remotely comparable to Sachs’, of course, but still I took succour from having the book with me: it served as a kind of mental anchor as I explored my new environment, which was not always the most inviting. 

I found myself very lonely at times; The Merchant buoyed me up. Listening to Sachs’ interview, I remembered how the play had become deeply embedded in my identity.

I read The Merchant so often during my trip that I memorised large parts of it, and to this day can recall key passages offhand, including the following one, set during a trial that showcases – alongside one of Shakespeare’s most glaringly anti-Semitic moments – the glory of one of his greatest characters. Here is the canny heiress Portia, who controls others in the play like they’re marionettes:

PORTIA: Do you confess the bond?


PORTIA: Then must the Jew be merciful.

SHYLOCK: On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.

PORTIA: The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

And with that passage, I conclude my puzzle of a column, for you now should be able to identify the book in question, and join me in my admiration of its author’s mantelpiece placement of their clue.

When you solve the puzzle, do buy the book, and pay special attention to any suitors you encounter in the story, flipping back to The Merchant’s Act III, Scene II, and others, as necessary. 

The novel is not a roman à clef – it is a wonderfully original work of fiction – but you can’t now say I haven’t delivered you a key to one of its many doors. DM/ML

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

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