I heard today that Drinking with Ghosts (2014) and A Taste of Bitter Almonds (2015) have both separately been long-listed for a national book award. I'll be more explicit if I make the short-list!
Although the two volumes are self-standing books with distinctly different areas of focus, they both deal with the overarching theme of change versus continuity in the transition from autocracy to democracy in South Africa. Drinking With Ghosts spans the period 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre and the resultant formation of uMkhonto we Sizwe, to 1994, the first democratic elections in South Africa, though the after-effects spill over into 2014, while A Taste of Bitter Almonds is neatly bookended by the period of 1994 to 2015, the first 21 years of the democratic era.
Drinking With Ghosts has a Southern African perspective in that it looks at the aftermath of the damage done by apartheid in the region, and examines the military-industrial complex in particular: the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes; the death-squads; military cross-border wars, raids and interventions; massacres, assassinations, the death penalty, and xenophobic pogroms; and the need to unravel our "Pact of Forgetting" the dark deeds of our immediate past. Although veteran anti-apartheid journalist Max du Preez kindly called it "the best reporter's notebook I've ever read," it was a pretty grim volume all told, the writing of which I found was something of a necessary exorcism, offering me some intangible relief of the spirit, after decades of reporting on the darkness that clings to our blighted country. Dr Ian Edwards, in the South African Journal of Science, called it "a powerful work dealing with South Africa’s violent political struggles, its political transition, and the ways dark and secret pasts continue to haunt post-1994 South Africa... Schmidt’s view is succinct: South Africans will neither reconcile nor develop a common humanity unless its many hidden and covered-up abodes of darkness and terror are exposed, confronted, and written into history... Schmidt could win prizes for this work. All South Africans will benefit by reading this book, episode by harrowing episode."
A Taste of Bitter Almonds is more narrowly focused on processes in South Africa itself, and does so through a more sociolgical lens in that it it looks at conditions of exclusion among the majority of our people: our racially interrelated - and sometimes genocidal - colonial past; the self-exclusion of Afrikaner nationalism; the strange survival of geographic apartheid; tribal "faction-fighting"; marginalised religious sects; the conditions of prisoners; the state of organised (and unorganised) labour; the attempts by the shattered Bushman communities to rebuild their unrecognised culture; the restoration of land to those it had been stolen from in rural and urban areas; the inexplicable plague of sexual assault on our children; the women and men who are challenging gender norms; the new generation of protestors; and the weird cult that has sprung up around a dead Nelson Mandela. Author and polemicist Eric Miyeni kindly wrote that "Michael Schmidt will challenge you in this book. He will enlighten you too. You will want to embrace him for going so far out on a limb with his truths. You will also want to punch him in the face for some of those revelations, and draw blood. There is, however, one thing you will never do. You will never say of this man: ‘Michael Schmidt never was any good as a writer.’"