A thoughtful and memorable enquiry into the meaning of identity, race and class, True-Life Walter is a philosophical work of literary fiction that scrutinises modern life and finds something far more magical and timeless lurking beneath.
In recent years there has been much discussion in society about an anxiety epidemic sweeping not just the UK but the developed world.
Anxiety – that pervasive and debilitating sense of unease – is, in itself, nothing new. It has been with mankind ever since our ancient ancestors first crawled into caves, seeking shelter from the beasts that might otherwise eat them.
But, so the experts say, modern living has delivered a whole host of new pressures alongside the conveniences and shiny goods: the stresses of work, of social status, of 24-hour communication and conformity. This, in turn, can lead to a suffocating sensation that life has spiralled out of our control.
New novel True-Life Walter, the debut work of South African author Steven Romain, places an exploration of this condition at the front and centre of its narrative. While it tells a compelling story, it is primarily a philosophical novel of ideas.
The story focuses on the journey of Walter Sabukwana, a 40-something black South African living in Johannesburg and working as a university lecturer. At the start of the novel, he comes to a colleague, John Legrand, with a dilemma. He confides that he has been struggling with severe anxiety, so severe in fact that he describes it as, “more like a physical feeling of burning in the brain… a tremendous sensation of . . .fear and trepidation.”
No medication has helped and things have become so bad that his wife, Jane, a fellow academic, is now planning to divorce him.
Walter loves his wife deeply and does not wish to separate, and tells Legrand that he is considering a drastic, last-resort medical solution to his problem: experimental brain surgery. His neurologist is willing to perform the lobotomy but there’s a big catch. The only patient it has previously been performed upon ended up with a different character, like that of a care-free teenager.
Despite Legrand’s protestations, and concerns that Jane will no more appreciate a husband with an altered personality to one with crippling anxiety, Walter goes ahead with the operation.
Steven Romain, author of True-Life Walter. Copyright Steven Romain 2019
Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the procedure has, indeed, changed Walter. His wife reports that he has lost interest in his former life within the university and rather than dive into books as he did before he now prefers to book into dives, going out each evening to drink with a newly-acquired group of rough-and-ready friends.
Though Legrand had barely known Walter prior to that first time he came seeking advice, he feels a sense of duty towards the man and calls upon him at his home. He is amazed to see that he is far more outgoing and relaxed than before, both in thought and speech, and pleased to hear that his anxiety has vanished.
He is, however, taken aback when Walter reveals that he has decided to leave the university, which he describes as “boring” and seek new employment as a construction worker. But at the same time he has a sense that Walter has not merely reverted into a simpleton as his wife, and neurologist, fear:
“He seemed, not like a child as he had been described to me, but like a more present version of himself. He seemed available emotionally and he spoke with his accustomed clarity and precision.”
Fascinated by the dramatic change in his companion, and with the impression that he may well learn something profound in the process, Legrand asks to accompany him upon his nightly booze up.
Over the coming weeks, Legrand continues to take time away from his work to accompany Walter, trying to understand how his mind now works. At times these vicarious experiences prove exhilarating; at others, such as when Walter, seemingly out of nowhere, decided to break into a car and steal a radio, deeply troubling. Yet even when Jane and Walter’s neurologist report that Walter has started dealing drugs, Legrand does not abandon him. What had begun more as a courtesy and academic exercise has bloomed, at least on his side, into a true friendship.
Legrand finds himself lying to protect Walter and committing to stay by his side until there is a resolution. He is certain that his friend’s character will stabilise and that there will, ultimately, be a positive outcome for all concerned.
The joy in reading True-Life Walter is both intellectual and emotional. The narrative is unusual in that the central protagonist’s saga is told throughout from the perspective of his friend, Legrand. This is a clever move as we are able to follow the ups and downs of his recovery as if reading a doctor’s report, and maintaining enough of a distance to appreciate the wider ideas that Walter’s condition raises, while at the same coming to care for Walter just as his unerring buddy does.
Thematically, the book delves into the nature of friendship as well as free choice (with Walter initially feeling obliged to have the surgery before, seemingly, becoming the master of his own fate). It’s main thematic concern, though, is to meditate on the meaning of an authentic life. As stated at the start of this review, the pace of modern life has been attributed to a rise in anxiety and Romain never loses sight of this, contrasting modernity with the deeper meanings behind the experiences of modern life. Through Legrand, there is a clear admiration for Walter’s simpler, more immediate perspective. Shorn of the obligation to try and keep pace with the expectations of society, he is free and content. In this, the character evolves in some ways to a grown-up version of Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salinger’s seminal The Catcher in the Rye. Though it is only implied by the author, Walter was once a phoney but now has had his innocence, his fundamental joie de vivre, restored.
Romain also uses Walter’s path as an exploration of the social landscape in contemporary South Africa. Though apartheid has been, thankfully, resigned to the history books, an invisible form of racism still lingers in the form of classism. With subtlety, the author criticises the tendency among the higher echelons of society within the country to sneer at those economically below them. Walter has voluntarily gone from a middle-class lifestyle to a lower-class one, and with his new station comes greater contempt. The message is loud and clear that this does not make him, or anyone else at that level, a lesser person. Romain weaves in the work of a writer that he greatly admires, and whom formed the basis of his post-graduate degree, Rudyard Kipling, to illuminate this point admirably.
True-Life Walter is a masterful combination of thoughts and form, with some beautifully descriptive language befitting its status as a work of literary fiction. It’s only a short read, coming in at around 120 pages, but like with The Catcher in the Rye, the ride will continue long after you’ve put the book back on the shelf.
True-Life Walter by Steven Romain is available on Amazon priced at £3.47 in paperback and £2.46 as an eBook.
Meet the Author: Steven Romain
South African author and ordained rabbi Steven Romain has spent a large part of his life in study, pursuing a deeper understanding of what being human really means.
Speaking with author Steven Romain, it immediately becomes clear that what motivates him is a thirst for knowledge. A graduate of the University of Cape Town, where he studied Philosophy and English Literature, he went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, writing a dissertation on the work of Rudyard Kipling.
Yet academic achievement is only one manifestation of his pursuit for understanding. At the same time he could be considered, like one of his favourite novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky, as a life-long student of the human condition. His enquiries into the deeper questions of identity and purpose, as examined in his debut novel, True-Life Walter, were shaped by his Jewish faith and, in particular, his in-depth study of holy book, the Talmud, which he conducted in Jerusalem after graduating from university. While there he studied intensely in several institutions over a number of years, qualifying as a rabbi.
In 2014 he moved back to his native South Africa with his family, settling in the capital, Johannesburg. Here he has continued his academic studies while being an active member of the city’s sizeable Jewish community, teaching the Torah and Jewish history.
Away from his studies, Steven is a devoted family man who spends much of his time and energy on raising his six children, aged between three months and 12 years. He lost another child at a young age 10 years ago, but says his faith has been a great source of strength in dealing with the tragedy.
Writing is his other love and is, he says, the perfect way to reflect and “heal”. Now aged 40, he grew up in South Africa during the last days of the apartheid system and has drawn upon the unspoken legacy of that deplorable policy for his first novel. Its central character, mild-mannered black academic Walter Sabukwana, becomes a victim of this underlying social divide when he walks away from academia for a more personally fulfilling, basic existence. As Steven explains, “In modern South Africa, the psychological and social residue of apartheid is still there. There is significant poverty in Johannesburg and the upper strata of society has sadly inherited a tendency to consider those who are of a lower social rank as less human. If the wealthy do have a relationship with the poor, such as an employed domestic, then that tends to be quite superficial. Outside of that working arrangement, they are invisible to the rich.”
Through his writing, Steven is interested in uncovering the deeper, spiritual meaning of human identity away from the “confusion and distractions of modern life”. This is something he will continue with his second novel, Ruby Cockrell's East African Pearl, which is set in late 19th century Africa and which concerns a colonial administrator who comes to contemplate his life choices in the face of death.
Exclusive Q&A with Steven Romain
We speak to author Steven Romain about his definition of literature, the meaning of identity, and the secret to writing a novel.
As someone who has completed degrees in both philosophy and literature, what do you think is the primary importance of literature?
A. Literature is the imprint of all the externals of life–politics, science, religion –on the individual psyche. Or you might say, like Hegel, that it is the picture of the really central thing in life and history, which is the spirit of humanity, as it changes and grows and which is only symptomized in society’s externals.
Literature taps into the actual living reality of people’s minds and the ideological lenses through which people see the world. When someone says literature is important to him, he means he recognises that it is has only been in the books he has read that he has seen any working picture of the way the world is viewed in his times, and why it is viewed so. For example, take a society that is becoming increasingly industrialised. A novel produced by that society will show the ways in which people’s minds–their speech, desires, aspirations, imaginations–are being slowly but surely modified by that trend. How does that trend affect people’s marriages, their religious devotion, the things they find inspiring? All this is found in real literature.
You have studied the Talmud and have qualified as a rabbi. How has the Jewish faith influenced your writing?
A. The Talmud has, of course, framed my view of the world, since this is its purpose. It shows me how every detail of the world forms part of G-d’s scheme, and has a place in mankind ultimately realizing its purpose. Judaism views man’s personal choice of a holy life as centrally important, but this is a subtle and individual matter. The Talmud teaches the principles that are needed to draw a spiritual blueprint for this great project. The Jewish faith teaches that our world is the continual work of a Creator who is lofty beyond anything perceptible in the universe, but Who takes an interest in the deeds of man. Of course, this has deep consequences for literature, which aims at illustrating the meaning in our experience and viewing it in useful contexts.
Your novel explores the divisions that remain in South Africa post-apartheid. To anyone living outside of the country, how would you explain the current situation?
A. Currently there are old ways of seeing and feeling which do remain, as the residue of apartheid. An important, but not often emphasized, aspect of apartheid was an enslavement of the mind. People of colour struggled to believe in the value of themselves. This was a depressing and powerful reality for many years, and still exists.
The daily routine to which they were subjected; the places which they were forced to call home; the places from which they barred, not to mention the way they were inhumanly categorised, reduced and classified, were tremendously depreciative of their idea of self. Now all this is officially unacceptable, we know, but the fact remains that many men of colour you will meet in South Africa have internalized these ways of seeing and feeling about themselves. I was interested in exploring this question of personal depreciation in the context of present-day Johannesburg, using a black protagonist who would normally be considered very liberated, namely an academic.
You also use the novel to question the superficial mode of modern living. What do you think that people have lost in their obsession with social media and other distractions?
A. I am bothered by the ways in which views, feelings, visions, and opinions are abbreviated, summarized, commodified and sold. I meet people who are very excited about having political opinions, but often they are only quotes of a news broadcast they have heard. Rather more upsettingly, we routinely rehearse the retrieval of emotions, even ones like inconsolable despair, during television viewings. I don’t view this as a light matter. Our minds are naturally full of dreams and illusions, so the task of knowing the world for what it is, is difficult at the best of times. But when someone turns inner experience into an end in itself, and not a means to reach outward and know the world, he cuts himself off from reality.
I think each one of us should start a project of building our minds, organically, from the bottom up and using our minds to know the world. This is not possible for a person who is constantly exposing himself to news, emails, and videos, because these will accustom him to making of his impressions an end in themselves. I certainly don’t want the director of a television series to decide for me how to feel about situations in my life.
True-Life Walter is an examination of identity and its meaning. How does Walter’s experiences reflect your own position on how identity is crafted?
A. The question of identity is not easily described, but it seems that struggle and ambiguity form an integral part of it. All your memories, your ideas of the world around you, take on new form following your conscious choices. We are constantly struggling to digest these memories and ideas and decide what they mean for our ‘today’. And this decision is nothing but a personal, conscious one. Or at least it should be, because if someone doesn’t try to make it, he will just be a mess of confused impressions. I’ve also met many people like that. The more you’re a conscious chooser, the more substance there is behind what you are. In my novel, I explore the situation of a man who is uniquely left with nothing but the chance of pursuing that bare choice, which keeps disappearing from before him.
Which authors, past or present, do you admire the most, and for what reasons?
A. I love Dostoevsky because he opens up a picture of a great spiritual clock-mechanism beneath his characters. You start to wonder: what is a man? He seems so deep, with only a small part of him visible to us. And particularly man’s experience of coming in contact with the modern world comes across vividly in his work. The modern way of thinking and speaking seems so insufficient when viewed next to man in his full depth. And then, somehow, all the mysterious content of man appears as latent in that modern world itself. I think he’s an important writer for us because of his capturing of the modern human experience, and also because of his deep spiritual convictions within that context of modernity.
You have a large family, which must demand a lot of your time. How do you find room to write?
A. I’m quite disciplined about my use of time and therefore I find myself able to sit and write quite frequently. Because it’s my great pleasure, and also a healing activity, I jump on the opportunity to write. Also, it’s possible to work on a book while walking or driving around, by conceiving its direction, plot, and scenes. In fact, it’s usually when I’m going for a walk that I realise my way of conceiving my work is narrower than it needs to be.
Anxiety, which Walter suffers from, is becoming more common within society. Why do you think this is?
A. This is a good question and one I’ve thought about. I’m not sure, but I think it may have to do with being out of touch with personal purpose. One theory I have is that it’s the method we use to disempower ourselves in the face of the gigantic responsibility of free choice. Our generation may feel a particular need to shirk this, feeling so divorced from deep life realities and worthwhile ideals.
Writing a novel is no simple task. What one tip would you give to other writers to make it easier?
A. A novel is all about vision, so you need to foster the powers in you associated with vision. If a picture, a dream, or the lyrics in a song have touched off something deep in you, try to identify exactly what touched you. Then, realise that there is a story that is told by that feeling. Allow it to unfold before you. Don’t construct it or plan it, but rather watch it reveal itself. Each of us has deep vision within himself. You have to believe that.
Tell us about the next book that you are working on, Ruby Cockrell's East African Pearl?
A. I’m excited about it. It’s set in late colonial Africa and focusses on a colonial administrator who takes a remote post there with the aim of finding spiritual renewal. I wanted to depict the aspects of mortality and fate in the air of that time and place, and, through it, to explore the essential point of free choice. Death is connected with free choice. I wanted to reveal, behind colonial themes and images that might be familiar, a kind of hideous, raw reality that lurks behind the historical. The novel is about half finished, and I’m enjoying it a lot.