ANTHONY Schneider may live in New York, but there are bits of his heart and his sense of being scattered all over the world. The author of A Quiet Kind of Courage (Penguin Books) was "born, bred and buttered in SA", before being taken, aged 12, to live in Atlanta, US, in 1977 by his parents.
Back then, South Africa was in an uproar after the June 16 1976 Soweto riots and the apartheid security police were busy battering Steve Biko, among others, to death. Schneider recalls his parents once saying to him that if they had not had children, they might have stayed here, "but this was not the kind of place where they wanted their kids to grow up".
The rampant insecurity and fear triggered one of South Africa’s many waves of emigration, creating a worldwide diaspora of South Africans on the move. This is in essence what "courage" is about — losing and gaining countries — for Henry Wegland, the central character, has lived in Lithuania, Liverpool in the UK, and Johannesburg before fleeing to the US.
He has no choice, unless you call prison an alternative.
We meet Henry as a young lawyer, married to Sarah with a seven-year-old son, Glenn, on whom they both dote. Another mutual feature is a firm sense of morality. Sarah joins the South African Communist Party but Henry goes a step further by becoming a card-and-bomb-carrying member of the African National Congress. Sarah thinks it is a step too far.
The book opens with an explosion and no doubt many a heart will sink at the prospect of yet another "struggle book". Schneider vehemently disagrees with this attitude. "If people in the 1960s moved mountains, why do we not want to hear about them?" But Schneider emphasises that his book is not about apartheid. "It is essentially about the conflict between history and humans," he says in a voice with undertones of US and British accents.
This understated, elegantly written novel is about the consequences of people being caught up in historical upheavals, the decisions we make at such times and their long-lasting effects.
In the first chapter, Henry goes about his lawyerly duties by day and his bombing assignments by night. He is intensely nervous and conflicted about his actions and does not set out to kill people with a song in his heart.
A look at his colleagues tells us how deeply involved he is, for they include Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Govan Mbeki and Rusty Bernstein.
They meet at Lilliesleaf Farm and they are planning to assassinate a member of the National Party. Henry is to drive the getaway car, so if the plan succeeds, he will be an accessory to murder.
We then fast-forward to present-day octogenarian Henry, dressed in blue corduroys and an old camel-hair coat, about to take his "crepuscular perambulation" in New York with his 20-year-old grandson, Saul. The old and the young man are discussing the possibility of Saul going to South Africa to meet some of his grandfather’s old friends and their offspring.
Saul has visited the country that so preoccupies his grandfather several times on holiday. The idea is that this time he will go to Mpumalanga, where he will look up Nellie, a close black friend of Henry’s, who is his granddad’s age.
Saul may even make some sort of documentary film, and it might be about Henry or others involved in the struggle.
The novel moves back and forth between New York and South Africa, both in the past and in the present. It includes Henry’s now middle-aged son, Glenn, and his lively wife, and it is a nice touch that three generations live under one roof in what many regard as a particularly family unfriendly city.
When Saul is hijacked from Nellie’s family home in a township outside Nelspruit and taken at gunpoint to an ATM, most South Africans will murmur "how familiar".
It is a highly plausible plot and, at that point, the novel reads like a thriller.
But, the rest of it is not racy, pacey stuff. The writing style is flowing and sophisticated, as you might expect from someone who studied as a Master’s student under the tutelage of twice Booker Prize winner Peter Carey.
Another of that ilk who has praised Schneider’s book is Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer. Her cover shout on his book says: "A depth, a synthesis of human contentions, intellect, emotions, self-searching, fully realised…. A work of the meaning of exile."
Schneider’s parents were friendly with Gordimer in his childhood before they moved to the US. He remembers Joburg Sunday lunches of 20 around the table — "just immediate family, and now I have only one aunt who lives here half the year". The rest are spread across the world and Schneider and I take turns at ticking off countries where our relatives live, a shared sadness of brain drain and emotional loss.
He struggled initially at leaving friends behind at St John’s College and being the "foreign kid" in Atlanta, ahead of the deluge of South Africans who emigrated there in the 1980s. "I come back a lot more than my parents do, I feel at home here. For 10 years I came back every year, even twice a year. It was so lovely to see my real friends and those ties."
University followed, then a business scholarship to Japan and finally New York, where he now works as a partner in a small company "helping big companies solve e-mail and online marketing problems. It’s boring but steady".
Schneider lives both in New York, "which I now love", and London, "where my heart is, because that is where my lady is. We’re expecting our first child any day now and soon I’ll be spending my time with nappies and bottles."
He is thrilled at the prospect, "jumping out of my boots with excitement".
He has been published in several international literary magazines, including McSweeneys, Conjunctions and Bold Type. It has taken him six years to write this, his debut novel, and he quotes one of his favourite authors, Philip Roth in explanation: "Beginning a book is unpleasant."
He insists that the book is not autobiographical, "but most certainly many characters have something to do with their authors on some level".
He, like Henry, likes Bach and Bob Dylan, dislikes stretch limousines, has a family with a Lithuanian background "and we both know what it feels like to live as displaced South Africans, or not-quite-Americans".
This book has left a deep emotional crater in my psyche, dealing as it does with loss of family. I expect many of his readers make comments such as this.
"They don’t, and yet they should because that is where the main character, Henry, and I touch. It’s the launching pad of my book!"