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Richard de Nooy

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The First Time I Died

There was pandemonium at the bus stop. Shouting and crying children and parents crowded around a heavy truck that had stopped on the zebra crossing. Someone had been run over. There were lots of people in the way, so I couldn’t get a good look. Judging by the expressions of those who had, this was a good thing. So I turned and walked home. I must have been about six or seven. At school the next day I heard that the kid had tried to hang on to the side of the truck as it slowly trundled uphill with its heavy load. He had slipped off and landed under the back tyres. His head had been crushed. I couldn’t quite imagine what that must have looked like, even when I saw his picture in the paper a couple of days later. But I did get an entirely different shock that jump-started something in my brain. It was me. The boy in the picture. Same green blazer. Same straight blonde hair. Crooked fringe. Blue eyes. Gap-toothed smile. I stared perplexed, nauseous, as helpless as a ghost reading its own obituary. Then my mother came in and asked me if I’d made myself a sandwich. I brushed past her as I hurried to the kitchen. And I remember the relief I felt when she scolded me for my bad manners.

I recount this incident because I do not fully understand what drives me, why I feel the need to write and draw, but I know the key lies hidden somewhere in the synapses that suddenly created the connection between fact and fantasy, between what was out there in the real world and everything it triggered in my brain. This was followed by the gradual realisation that the latter, the intuitive concoctions of my mind, would not only vastly outweigh the stimuli and experiences of the real world, but could also prompt very real emotions. It took some time before I felt confident enough to share these intuitive imaginations and their related emotions with others. At first I suppressed them, because they frightened me, and later I hid them, because I was afraid no one would understand. But eventually they could no longer be contained. At university, friends would express delight at the surrealistic doodles I drew during lectures. And it dawned on me that I was finally sharing the seemingly random firing of neurons by creating something tangible that others might understand and enjoy, that might add meaning to their own lives.

I often feel uncomfortable when I am asked which authors or artists have inspired me. The only honest answer I can give is: all and none. I am a sponge, constantly absorbing the experiences of the real world and then gently squeezing out a trickle of fiction that looks and tastes real and clear, but only because all the imperfections have been filtered out. I have a towering block of flats that rises high above my head. I merely have to step into the lift and press the button to a random floor, where I can explore to my heart’s content, opening doors and observing the inhabitants. I feel no need to interpret their actions, words and thoughts. I simply have to tell their stories, assume their roles and perspectives. And so I am the torturer, his victim, his wife, his daughter, her dog, their god, the man who washes him for the grave, his brush, his comb, his sponge, the coffin – all and none.

What it boils down to, I suppose, is that I have always used stories and metaphors to make sense of the world and the thoughts and processes it seems to trigger in my brain. I recently read an article about a scientific study of brain activity that revealed remarkable similarities between the patterns seen in creative minds and in people suffering from schizophrenia (Creative minds “mimic schizophrenia” ). This really struck a chord with me and it reminded me of a documentary I’d seen of a man who had learned to control his schizophrenia by creating hundreds of paintings during his waking hours. And I remember thinking: Now why does that sound so familiar? I myself have often experienced my creative drive as an aberration rather than a talent; something that needs to be reined in, steered, controlled, to prevent it becoming little more than the garbled musings of a madman. I have gradually become more adept at riding this feral stallion. Most importantly, I have learned that I can detach myself further and further from the action that drives the story, the uncut real-world experience, by simply creating more and more layers of narrative – like those little Russian matryoshka dolls that can be placed inside each other. And so I have a man describing his brother’s actions, but also a narrator describing the interaction between the brothers, and then there’s me describing the actions of the narrator and the two brothers. But I might also have added a further layers. A psychiatrist, for instance, trying to explain the actions of the narrator and the two brothers, and a god trying to control the actions of the psychiatrist, the narrator and the two brothers. All of these layers add further control, each doll is contained by the next, and I, as the author, get to decide at which level the narrative will unfold. This allows me to remove myself further and further from the actions of my characters, adding new levels of interpretation and meaning that mimic the rather complex interconnections that my brain seems to generate automatically.

Often these interconnections give rise to absurd, surrealistic and, dare I say, comical images that seem to mock the tragedy and atrocities that unfold at the action level. I recently wrote: “Serious thoughts do cross my mind at times, but they are invariably run over by comical, little cars and mega-trucks marked Mirth & Puns Haulage.” This presented a problem when I first started writing, because South Africa was a very serious place when I left it back in 1986. Much of the literature and news was driven by the need to bring about change. The atrocities were very real and had to be recounted and interpreted so that others might understand this need. At the time, I felt I had no right to tell my stories. The real world was complicated enough without me adding my personal brand of madness. A friend recently reminded me that my first book would probably never have been published back then. I think he may be right. It would have been like M*A*S*H being broadcast while the Korean War was still on, or Inglourious Basterds being screened before WWII was over. This explains why I only really started working on my debut novel after the first democratic elections had taken place in South Africa. As if the facts had finally caught up with the fiction that had been brewing in my mind for so long.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 17th, 2010 @23:16 #

    *happy sigh* Richard's back.

    Lovely meditation on the firing of neurons we call creativity. I wonder who else among us scribbling lot feels like this? Not me, but then I fear I'd rather read a story than write one...


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