Frankie & Stankie, by Barbara Trapido

The right way to look at an upside-down world
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The Independent Culture

Frankie & Stankie is a fictionalised memoir about growing up a first-generation white immigrant in South Africa through the late 1940s and 1950s. Dinah de Bondt is born in Cape Town at the outset of the war against Hitler, and soon after her family moves to Durban on the tropical east coast.

Frankie & Stankie is a fictionalised memoir about growing up a first-generation white immigrant in South Africa through the late 1940s and 1950s. Dinah de Bondt is born in Cape Town at the outset of the war against Hitler, and soon after her family moves to Durban on the tropical east coast.

Dinah's Dutch father has been in South Africa barely five years when she is born. Her mother, a Berliner, struggles with English pronunciation. The other European émigrés in her community include Greeks, Italians, French, Portuguese, Irish, and English, who "are best". The majority of the population around Dinah is Zulu and Indian, yet in the midst of this mecca of multiculturalism, she "longs to be English" even before she goes to school.

Just as Dinah's German mother struggles "to get her head around the idea that the world she grew up in isn't there any more", Trapido's fictional auteur ego acts to recover a childhood from a world that no longer exists, and whose passing is regarded without nostalgia. For Dinah, belonging is not a place, but a language.

With exquisitely accurate detail, Trapido revisits childhood through a tactile and endlessly playful understanding of the poetic language of things. Animal biscuits, bioscopes, Maltabela maize porridge that sounds like an operatic aria, the elegiacally named yesterday-today-and-tomorrow flower bushes – all these perfectly capture a specific time and place while addressing the universal theme of how language mediates the microcosms of childhood.

Taking its title from misunderstood words in an Italian worker's song popular with her dissenting parents, Frankie & Stankie is an adventure through the childhood misperceptions of language. The song refers to fallen comrades, but Dinah imagines it is about two orange-bloomered clowns: "When Frankie is the right way up, then Stankie is upside-down, and vice versa." Written from the perspective of a child's-eye view of an upside-down world, Trapido's fictional reflection on her upbringing is an attempt to write her childhood "the right way up".

Dinah grows up in tandem with the rise of high apartheid, "as the system moves from imperial-racist to criminal lunatic". And language, she realises, is an important weapon in instigating the fascism of human differences enforced by apartheid. Nonsense signs socially engineer segregated space, and statutory acts – such as the Mixed Marriages Act – "mean exactly the opposite of what they sound like". The book cogitates on the ways in which the regime holds language hostage to distortions of ethics and meaning that create brutal oppression. Education, too, is grossly constrained. Dinah's first experience of history at school is as longhand dictation memorised verbatim, and forbidden interpretation. Thought-policing, not learning. "Meanwhile, Lisa and Dinah are getting on with their ordinary little white schoolgirl lives." In that "meanwhile" lies the canny structure of this novel.

Without the context of broader political and historical events, Dinah's childhood would be one long "meanwhile". But Dinah-the-narrator is set free by Trapido's adult self to redress this alienation from knowledge. In the unforced voice of childhood, the novel documents some key political events of the period. Told from the viewpoint of a narrator to whom these facts were made invisible by repression, the effect of this counterfactual narrative position is devastating. Stated simply without the massaging of official language, the facts are a document to the extremities and violence of fascism.

Trapido offsets this dire vision with her delight in the small but telling details of cultural history. The book is packed with little gems like Trevor Huddleston arranging for Hugh Masekela to get his first trumpet from Louis Armstrong.

Dinah is adept at sewing her own clothes and this novel succeeds in stitching the ragged seam of the personal "meanwhile" into the deeply textured fabric of the historical events from which it emerged. Dinah's discovery of the love of her life – a tender, engaging portrait of historian Stanley Trapido – is also, appropriately, an engagement with the liberation encountered through access to history and the making visible of the real world around her.

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