Arja Salafranca’s The Thin Line

  
 
 
Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. She has published two collections of poetry, A life Stripped of Illusions, and The Fire in Which we Burn. Her poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso). She received the 2010 Dalro Award for poetry and has twice received the Sanlam Award, for fiction and poetry. She selected stories for The Edge of Things, an anthology of South African short fiction, published by Dye Hard Press in 2011. She edits the Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing at Wits University. She blogs at http://arjasalafranca.blogspot.com and is a member of SA Pen. 
 
 
 
 

  
 
 
The stories in The Thin Line hook the reader from the first one, and reel you in on that thin line. You will be haunted by the carefully drawn characters: by Corinna trapped in her huge teenage body, by Cleo in love with a married man after all these years, and poor skinny Mark, as he sees his lover teeter away from him. Salafranca is an accomplished, award-winning writer, this long-awaited collection is a box of jewels.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
“These stories chart a new direction in South African fiction, where each line, each page – each story unfolds subtly, reaching deeper and more intimately into the tender spaces that exist in all our lives between love and doubt. Reading them kept me up late at night, wanting to know more about the characters’ lives. I was enthralled by the clarity and compassion of her insights; and moved by her obvious love for our fragile country and the fierce power of our unrelinquished hopes.”
 
– Hamilton Wende
 
 
 
“Salafranca’s style in this collection is best described as cinematic. Each story plays out like a camera lingering on minutiae which, brought together, tell the reader a great deal about the characters and situations which form the subject matter.”
 
– Tanya Farber, The Star
 
 
 
“Searingly honest, sometimes painfully so, for both writer and reader, these stories will pop up in your head to haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.”
 
– Kate Turkington, Joburg.co.za 
 
 
 
“There is a strong awareness of the structure of the short story and an implicit response to the tradition of the story.”
 
– Joan Hambidge, Die Burger
 
 
 
“Salafranca creates an almost other-worldly dimension as she takes the reader on a visceral journey into the lives of her characters. The stories range from explorations of modern relationships which do not have rules or traditions to guide their frail journeys, to examinations of characters from the past whose stories are shaped by the historical anomalies in which they found themselves. Whether you read about young South Africans debating their choices of staying in this country or looking for a less complicated future abroad, or whether you read about German Jews who have surnames imposed on them to make them more convenient to the regime in the 18th century, one thing is certain: Arja Salafranca is a short story writer at the pinnacle of her craft.”
 
– Janet van Eeden, Wordsetc and LitNet
 
 
 
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Couple on the beach
 
 
A middle-aged woman sits on the edge of the lagoon and watches a couple take photographs of each other. It is the beginning of a new year. It is low tide, and the waters of the lagoon have receded, leaving a vast expanse of wet beige sand. The couple stand in it with bare feet splayed, toes squelching into the coarse grains, taking photos with their expensive cameras.
 
It is nearly the end of their holiday together, and they are using up their film before they leave Knysna. They make an odd couple, as they take photos. The woman is wearing a smart jacket on this summer evening, it is too smart for this seaside town, too smart for this season, and too warm, too. The middle-aged woman wonders why she wears it, when her feet are bare and her jeans rolled up to reveal pinkly white legs. She can’t be cold. Although there is a breeze blowing, it is not a cold night, the day was warm, and the heat remains trapped as the sun goes slowly down. Perhaps it is to cover her body, perhaps she has gained weight and wants to hide behind her big black jacket. The middle-aged woman smokes a cigarette as she sits on the cement boulder and watches the couple. She knows all about gaining weight and hiding behind big clothes.
 
She has done it too. It is only now that she is older that she can afford to be freer, that she can wear anything and not be self-conscious and concerned that others, men, are looking at her, appraising her. She knows she is getting past the age of appraisal. She has read of the liberation that comes from middle-age – the loss of youth, menopause – she welcomes it.
 
Her hair is still mainly auburn, but lately she has been seeing the flash of silver streaks in it. They dart in and out between the dark strands, as though playing hide and seek, daring to be found.
 
The male part of the couple is tall and thin, as opposed to the female, who is shorter, slightly overweight, her gloriously auburn hair long and flying in the dusk’s breeze. He is skinny and awkward in his body, as awkward as the woman is in hers. He is uncomfortable in the casual T-shirt he’s wearing, and the middle-aged woman wonders why he wears it. Perhaps his partner, or whatever that girl is to him, asked him to wear it. The middle-aged woman has a feeling that he would be uncomfortable no matter what he wore. He is that kind of person, awkward in his body, in his life, hanging after this partner like a puppy dog eager to please her, compliant, pliant and soft, willing to do whatever it is that would make her like him, fall in love with him, something beyond this cold dismissive need of hers.
 
But she won’t let him go yet, she needs him, although she does not like him. She needs him and that is her weakness, that’s what makes her hate him, and hate a part of herself too. The middle-aged woman can see this as she smokes into the pale blue dusk, and watches the lagoon recede from this couple. She watches the roar of the sea at the heads, as it foams and dashes, as though the seas were a caged wild animal wanting to get into this quiet piece of solitude, preferring the domestic peace of the lagoon to the endless, deep, unfathomable sea. Her boyfriend keeps wanting to take her on the sea, perhaps on a small yacht, time and time again she refuses. She is afraid of the sea.
 
She smokes on the cement barricade, clutching the cigarette in her finger, looking at the beauty spot on her little finger that a man once found so attractive years ago, a dark mark on the fleshy folds of her baby finer. She watches couples take photos as the sky darkens and fish burns in a house nearby.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Patterns
 
 
I dreamed about you again last night. You were warm and funny as you helped me with some problem I had. It was so real, it felt just like old times. Except, back then, you did not like to help me with my problems, preferring to stay out of whatever would disturb the stasis.
 
I wondered then about the patterns in our lives and what brings us to the decisions we make, the people we choose to know. Whether we do it consciously or whether the reason is hidden somewhere back in our brains, somewhere that’s not easy to find.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Schmalz
 
 
In 1781, Emperor Josef II announced an Edict of Toleration for the Jews which established the requirement for hereditary family names. Jews were required to assume German-sounding surnames.
 

Shlomo comes in and says, “Here, you’re a Schmalz.”
 
Thrusts a piece of paper at me – not that I can read it – and says, “Look, says it there. You’re a Schmalz. So if you need to tell anyone, not that you will, you tell them Schmalz.”
 
Schmalz. Grease. Chicken fat. Schmalz! “That’s not what Dora and her family got!” I go outside, the piece of paper with the scribbles in my hand. “They’re Goldfarbers! How did they end up with gold in their name and we’re just grease?”
 
Shlomo looks up at me, scratches his chin, runs his hand meditatively around his greying beard. He’s scraping some kind of shit off his good leather shoes; he carries on scraping in the weak sunlight, and ignores me. He’s hoping I’ll shut up, go away; runs a stick through the shit.
 
I hold the piece of paper under his nose, “How did we become Schmalz and Dora is a Goldfarber and Rosa and her family are now Diamond?”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
A man sits in a Johannesburg park
 
 
A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer’s afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his spaniel’s collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps she will even go for a swim again. The man will then take her home and turn the hosepipe on her, washing off the slime of the river water. The man’s name is Andrew Barker, a good ordinary enough name, a solid name that is easy to pronounce, easy to give over the phone. It’s an afternoon late in the week. The man is alone. His wife and children are packing, and this is the dog’s last run in his company. Tomorrow he takes her into six-month quarantine.
 
It’s hot, midsummer and Andrew’s face is red as he sits and waits for Lucy to finish bounding through trees and river. He sits, waiting, quite tired all of a sudden. He’s escaping the claustrophobia of the house, now almost emptied of furniture. His wife and children packing suitcases, still busy throwing out black plastic bags of rubbish, and still anguishing over what should not be thrown away. And Lucy, running through the litter of lives being packed up, tongue lolling to one side, excited, excitable.
 
 

*
 
 
 
Desire, with borders
 
 
It was a type of desire.
 
It was a desire without love, a desire with borders.
 
If you shut your eyes it could be any man, no names, just a man, fulfilling what a man is supposed to do. It was a hot February night in Johannesburg and the windows couldn’t be opened wide or the cat would get out. She didn’t want the cat to get out, her female tabby was a shy frightened thing, easily terrorised by the Toms in the neighbourhood.
 
And instead of a man with no name, he had a name. An exboyfriend, an ex-boyfriend who was now in the process of becoming involved with another woman, yet here they were, naked on her bed, hot, but still close enough for him to roll on top of her, to kiss her, to awaken something.
 
 
 
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The Thin Line (Modjaji Books, 2011)  is available from Loot, Kalahari, Exclusive Books and Amazon.
 
Visit Arja’s blog.

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