The Spark: Richard de Nooy’s The Unsaid
The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.
Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.
Richard de Nooy writes strange and beautiful novels, like literary puzzle boxes. He’s based in Amsterdam but he grew up in Johannesburg and draws on those experiences and what ifs for his books. His first novel, Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot won the University of Johannesburg Prize for Best First Book. He says he’s currently working on his fourth novel, a series of interlinked short stories about kindness, when he isn’t mucking about on Twitter.
In this week’s The Spark, he talks about how his novel was inspired by a very disturbing story about a man with an animal living inside him.
“There is a chain you can’t see running from my stomach to the bellies of all my brothers and sisters on other continents. We are all connected by this chain. But there is also a shark. He lives in my stomach and chews on the chain. You can hear him if you want.”
It has been more than twenty-five years since I heard a man speak these words at the Fort England Psychiatric Hospital outside Grahamstown in South Africa. I don’t recall his face, but his words – spoken with great conviction and intensity – live on in my brain. He believed them; his own thoughts, his hallucinations were as real to him as the walls of the prison around him. It was terrifying and fascinating.
It later dawned on me that the Shark Man might be at the dark end of a continuum, with me with me at the brighter end (relatively sane), separated by various degrees of psychopathy. What if all criminal behaviour originated from some form of psychological disorder? And if so, did it make sense to lock people up rather than treat them? As J.R. Deo, the protagonist in The Unsaid, puts it: “Imagine you had a friendly Labrador that attacked someone under extreme circumstances. Would you throw it into a pit full of mad dogs to check if it was really vicious? And if you did, would it be reasonable to expect him to display normal behaviour?”
In The Unsaid, traumatised war correspondent J.R. Deo, who also narrated my first two novels, is being held at an institute for forensic observation to assess whether he is accountable for a vicious attack on fellow journalists in a bar. Initially, he spends a lot of time writing in his cell, taking stock of horrors past and present. He also has to complete numerous tests and questionnaires that will help establish whether he is suffering from some form of psychological disorder. He regularly meets with a psychologist called Eugene to discuss these tests as well as his own writing, which he agrees to share with Eugene.
Things gradually begin to unravel. Sinister figures whom Deo has encountered in the past take control of his pen and begin dictating their confessions. Meanwhile, Deo has started interacting with his violent and often paranoid fellow inmates. His behaviour and that of the other men is constantly under observation as part of their overall psychiatric assessment. They all hope to make a good impression, because they would prefer to spend time in jail rather than suffer the uncertainty of being sentenced to treatment in a psychiatric detention centre.
Much like a dossier, The Unsaid consists of various components: Deo’s musings on the horrors he has seen, his conversations with Eugene, Eugene’s reports on Deo’s behaviour, the confessions of the sinister figures who populate Deo’s memory, and Deo’s reports on his interaction with fellow inmates. Together, these elements not only recount a story that readers will hopefully find fascinating, but also question the way modern society deals with psychopathy, crime, punishment and rehabilitation.
Holland is in the vanguard of alternative approaches to crime and punishment, looking beyond jail sentences, driven by questions such as: What kind of people will return to society? How will they cope? What are the chances that they will return to a life of crime? It will be interesting to see to what extent The Unsaid prompts similar questions elsewhere.
The Unsaid has been twenty years in the making. It is the third part of a loose trilogy that began with Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot and continued with The Big Stick. The books can be read separately and in any order.
Read the excerpt that kicked off the trilogy here.
“There are guys in here who make Charles Manson look like Mister Bean with a beard. They are feral and fickle and unshackled by conscience, but I do not fear them, for I am one of them.”
For more on Richard de Nooy:
Visit his blog: http://richarddenooy.bookslive.co.za/blog/
Follow him on Twitter: @RicharddeNooy
Buy Richard’s books on BookDepository: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/author/Richard-De-Nooy
Buy from Exclusive Books:http://www.exclus1ves.co.za/search/?logSearch=true&q=Richard+de+Nooy