“Jacob” writes a story

Thursday, 18 April 1996

I have to keep myself busy to calm my nerves seeing that I’m still waiting for the green light to go to Korea.

So, here comes a story that has to be good, because it must make up for the fact that I am still in Pretoria. I ought to be able to comfort myself with the fact that if I were in Korea at this moment, I would not have written this story.

The story is of course entirely fictional.


Jacob has now been at his sister’s apartment in Pretoria for three weeks, waiting for something to happen so that he can go – away, to a foreign land. (His sister is the financial manager at a local construction company. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a neighbourhood of apartment complexes near the business district. As the oldest, she has learned to be patient with her two younger siblings, especially since they don’t seem to have a clue about what to do with their adult lives. It’s the second time in three months she’s had to provide one of them with her spare mattress, bedding and space on her living room floor.)

Standing back from the whole situation, Jacob can see it for what it is: him waiting for something bigger in life, something that may just provide him, too, with a place in the sun. He also knows the current situation is simply the next chapter in his story, a continuation of a phase in his life that began the day he wrote his last paper at university. The time had come for him to decide what direction his life would take, since his friend from varsity, Jane, had convinced him to postpone his ideal of becoming a hermit – to let his hair and beard grow, and to only now and then open the curtains to see what season it is. (Of course, even hermits need an income these days.)

A few months before graduation he had decided to shift the inevitable lifelong struggle for money, house and children off the agenda – until further consideration. He would first go travelling for a few months. He knew that would not necessarily give him a place in the sun, but as he explained to someone over a beer one evening, the landscape of a foreign country would hopefully give him a shot of courage for mainstream life and perhaps some inspiration.

So, off he went to Europe. His plan was to work somewhere for a few months, travel to a few countries, and then on a bright spring afternoon return to surprise his younger sister in the college town of Stellenbosch. He would wait for her at their favourite coffee shop and bakery on her way back from school. Then he would spend the afternoon telling her of all the things he had seen, and all the fascinating people he had met. She would listen like one whose world would widen with every word, right in front of her eyes. She would comment on his long hair and beard, and opine that people won’t even recognise him. He would be a pilgrim who had unexpectedly returned home.

Five weeks after he had left for Europe – not long enough to make much of a difference to the hair or the beard, he was back. To the few people who asked, somewhat bewildered, “Already?” he replied with the same illusion with which he tried to overcome his own disappointment: He had only returned to “get his things in order”. He was planning on leaving again “within the next month or three”.

Months of hardship and increasingly fading hope followed.

When people asked him why he was still in Stellenbosch, he replied with another half-truth: He had decided to help his sister through her final high school year since their parents were by now living in a different part of the country.

By Christmas, he was flat broke. His sister had by then already left for their parents’ new home in KwaZulu-Natal. He stayed behind in the municipal flat with months of unpaid electricity bills, and rent that was steadily heading in the same direction. To stay alive, he sold the furniture, until he was left with only a few blankets and pillows, and a borrowed black-and-white TV set. The power – as he had been expecting – was cut off early in January. He spent the evenings in darkness on his bedding on the otherwise empty living room floor.

“My life has started to stagnate,” he thought to himself one night. That he had to come up with a plan to get out of the mess he was in, was clearly not in doubt.

A month after Christmas he packed up his personal belongings, stored a few boxes with a friend, and offered for sale in the local newspaper his 1967 Wolseley that had been accumulating leaves and bird droppings for almost a year. A few days after he had sold the car, he took the train north. This year things would be different, he told himself. He was ready; indeed, he was hungry for new experiences.

Not long after arriving in the dusty town of Pongola, in Kwazulu-Natal, he got a call from a South African teacher living and working in Seoul, South Korea. He immediately recalled the day in December when he saw the advertisement for English teachers in the Cape Times (“Teach in Korea,” the headline said, with a name and a number). He also remembered how enthusiastically he rushed back to the flat in order to respond to the ad. The South African on the phone asked him if he were still interested. “It will take about five weeks to finalise all the arrangements,” the voice promised. Jacob was assured he was first on the list of new teachers.

“The answer to all my problems!” Jacob excitedly thought to himself.

Five weeks are now fast becoming three months. In the meantime, he waits, mostly on the couch in his sister’s apartment. He sleeps on the living room floor, smokes the cheapest cigarettes on the market, drinks coffee and eats sandwiches. He reads about fashion and relationships in his sister’s magazines, tries to follow what’s happening in the world on a TV that shows more lines and dots than anything else, and walks to the OK Bazaars every morning – for exercise, but also because sometimes it’s better to go anywhere than to go nowhere.

Jacob has come a long way since graduating from university. Perhaps, he believes, it would do him good to go for a walk through the familiar landscape of the town of his birth.


Okay, so it’s not a masterpiece … and it’s not entirely fictitious.

Maybe I should go and have coffee somewhere to create the illusion that I am not spending the entire day in my sister’s living room.


Back to 15 April 1996 at 19:56 and 25 seconds

Monday, 15 April 1996

I am almost 25 years old, almost halfway through what is described as the best years of one’s life. So far I’ve experienced glimpses of it, but also the downside – the restlessness, the uncertainty, and the financial and emotional instability. I am convinced that if I can survive my twenties, I’ll be okay.


I overcome my bleak moments with a cautious, optimistic faith in the future. And I’m not talking about a distant future; I am talking about the following five years, what remains of my twenties. I believe I’m going to see more of the world in the next few years. I am also going to work on my identity in creative ways. Maybe I will meet the ever-elusive love of my life. And I believe, or hope, that I will experience somewhere down the line, within the next five years, stability in my life.

Back to 15 April 1996 at 19:56 and 25 seconds, 26 seconds, 27 seconds, 28 seconds … 58 seconds. This is a passing moment and day in my life, and in this period of my earthly existence. It will pass. I will go through a metamorphosis and eventually I will wake up in a new period of my life. When I look back on 15 April 1996 one day, I will see that it was just a fleeting moment, just a small part of a greater whole, or a part of a larger portion that will eventually be part of an even greater whole.

To give up now just because I am going through an uncertain, unstable, somewhat lonely existence is not realistic. I have experienced many such days, and such times in my life. In fact, some of those times were much worse than now, and somehow I still survived! I’m glad I was strong during those times, even though I didn’t always have hope. Or maybe the following statement is closer to the truth: I am glad I never had the courage to give up during those times, because I was definitely not always strong.


Sunday, 31 December 1995

I feel compelled to say something about 1995. I’ll keep it simple and short. It was a year of extremes. Days like Tuesday, 14 March, searching the cold streets of Paris for an apartment where I was supposed to stay over for a few days (or weeks). Ecstasy, and then … uncounted, date-less days. Days filled with fading self-respect, vague dreams, delicate happiness … May all that is good await me in 1996.

* * *

“I know you are sceptical, but […] join in with the ordinary current of life, and it will take you somewhere. Whither, you ask? Have no care on the subject, you will land and take root somewhere yet! Where? I cannot say, I only believe you have yet long to live.”

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment


The writer’s will and testament, April 1994

I don’t have a specific plan for this piece. I’ll just start with a few ideas running through my mind. […]

What I write here is supposed to be my will, but not the kind that’s aimed at an audience that gets together after your death (at least not in the conventional sense of the word). What I’m going to leave behind in this document are not earthly possessions but words: my words, my thoughts.

You may immediately want to ask what gives me the idea that people will be interested in what I think. The answer doesn’t really matter. If no-one else read this, it also wouldn’t make much of a difference. Maybe it’s a way to prove to myself that I am alive. This piece will be proof that I am real, not just an illusion – a bit similar to what Descartes said: “I know I am, because I think.”

I know I exist when I write. What I write is a symbol of me. It also serves as external proof of my existence. I can return to my writing at a later stage and know that I had really lived those particular moments.

What I write is part of me, but it also has a life of its own. Words are alive. Blank paper is like clay: It waits for someone to shape it and transform it into a work of art. What the artist creates will serve as proof of his erstwhile existence years after his death. So it is with any piece of work someone creates. So it is with this piece I am writing. As long as these pieces of paper are preserved, a part of me will continue to live because what is written here, is part of me. I am in the words I use, in the way I construct my sentences, in my thoughts that manifest in the text. It almost reminds one of the idea that God allowed life to flow down from him, like a fountain, and where the rays fell, there was life. In this manner, all of life is part of God because God is the origin. In a similar way, it can be said that everything I write is part of me, because I am its source.


First an important note. You need to understand yourself if you want to be a writer. You should at least have a vague idea of how you operate and what you really want with anything you do. […]

[This] is not a short story or a novel, or anything in between. Yet it should be in a form that will make it readable to my descendants and other interested parties. Earlier I mentioned that this is a will and testament. I think I’ll stick to this genre. A will is after all an official document that is supposed to be preserved, and when the author of the will is dead, it should be read to all who matter. I definitely like this idea.

It is now official. This is my will, and it will be read when my physical remains have been disposed of. I will live close to this piece for an indefinite length of time. It is something with which I can be in a relationship; something that depends on me for its development and growth.


What does it mean when people talk about the “rat race”? What do traffic rules and governments and organised sports and media mean, and going to school and getting an education? What are the benefits of fitting into the conventional state of affairs? What are the disadvantages? Does it provide satisfaction to fit in? Does it provide one with a sense that there is meaning to life? […]

What do people look for in life? Isn’t it just to feel okay about everything around them? To say to yourself, “All things considered, all the good and bad in the world and in my own life, I feel okay, and I think the world is actually an okay place.” Is that not what everything is about? To try to fit in with the order that society places on your doorstep like a newspaper every morning, and that you should pick up and make your own – and in your own way, you have to ensure that what you learn also reaches other people.

Are religious and political institutions not just honoured and maintained to enable a person to sink into his chair at the end of the day and say, “I’m okay”? Even if this is not really the case, but as long as you believe you are okay, it more or less works out! Then the suburban everyman existence is, in fact, a worthy option for all who are creators and maintainers of it, right?

But what about the masses that do not think life is okay? What about “emotional breakdown caused by fear, loneliness and spiritual impoverishment” [originally written about the theme of the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon]?

Are people in suburbia really happy? And how big is the difference between those who happily sink into their comfortable chairs at the end of the day and honestly believe life is okay, and those who try their asses off to believe themselves when they too say they are okay, but who never manage to convince themselves?


We are constantly looking for something we can be sure of. Sometimes you find it in an intimate relationship with another person. Sometimes you find it in the religious system you choose to adhere to, in your faith in the god you worship. I find my security in three things: Birth, Life, and Death. A person is born. A person lives. A person dies. These are unwavering beacons of human existence.


What value should we attach to the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect life? That what you currently have is perhaps the best you will ever get; that there is no perfect life to be pursued; that, in other words, there is no target that can be missed. Is it a false assumption that your life will improve the closer you get to a target of supposed perfection? Does life move in circles instead of in a more or less straight line? Does God have a plan according to which life on earth is developing?

What would a perfect life look like? Enough to eat, a house that cannot be taken away from you, love and acceptance, recognition from other people, a sense that you are in the process of realising your potential, an active aesthetic interest in your environment, and to crown it all, peace with all who share your living space and whatever exists beyond the senses? Are all of us taught to pursue such a life, and that perfect happiness will be the result if we can achieve it?

Can the lives that most people live be placed between two poles, namely perfect happiness on the one hand and total despair and wretchedness on the other? And we should try to get as far away as possible from the one extreme in blind pursuit of the opposite?

Are we too much goal-oriented? Is “efficiency” emphasised at the expense of equipping people to survive emotionally in a sometimes bitterly unfair world? Is it ethically justifiable to push people all the time to make the “right” choices, especially to make the “right choice” when it comes to religion – in order to avoid a situation where you might be consumed in a pool of fire for the rest of your immortal soul’s existence? Is it justifiable?


What’s the point of order? Why do you organise your life? Why should your desk be neat, your clothes on the right shelves in the closet and your bed made up? Why do we want to know what to expect? Why do we want to be prepared? Why do we want to respond in the “correct” way to people and events? Why do we classify? Why do we organise things, neatly pack things away, talk things out, arrange activities in order of importance? Why do we maintain principles? Why does someone write disjointed pieces to sort out his life? Has it to do with security? To know – or to believe – you somehow belong to the bigger order of things? Does it form part of your quest for identity and its maintenance in relation to everything and everyone around you?


Something else for the record: I don’t think I’m a writer. I don’t think I will ever achieve any degree of fame outside my circle of friends and close family members. I don’t think “my” ideas are original, or at all worthwhile reading. I just think it would be very lonely to die without having left a few words that can later be read by loved ones. My motivation is the same as someone who writes a note before he hangs himself with a sheet from the rafters – to explain myself.


My mother gets upset when I talk about death. She thinks I’m making a mockery of a serious matter. This is obviously not true. As I have already mentioned, death to me is simply the natural end of something that has also had a beginning. I don’t currently have a clear opinion about “life after death” but I am fairly sure that at the most elementary level death means that a person’s physical existence has ended. This means you no longer hear the person laugh or talk. You no longer drink coffee that was made by that person, and you no longer eat food prepared by him or her. The person does not respond to anything anymore, and no longer participates in conversations. The person doesn’t become excited with you anymore about something. The person doesn’t choose your side in an argument anymore. The person is no longer there to complain to or to ask for advice. And that is sad. It’s very sad. There is probably nothing as sad as when someone whom you loved dies. But even the sadness, like death itself, is part of the circle of life.

You start as a feeling between two people, and you end up as a memory in people’s minds. Your life starts long before you physically come into existence, and you never truly die when you physically cease to exist – you just fade in people’s memories. Your physical birth and your physical death are both dominant moments in your life. Just as joy and happiness accompany the first one, so sadness and melancholy accompany the other. The fact that these are natural moments of life takes nothing away from the emotion associated with these events. Regardless of how sad it is when someone dies, it remains a natural event in the life of a person to die. And even if it is a natural event in the life of a person to die, it will always be associated with sadness and grief. That’s all there is to say. Death remains a fixed point in life. (But why should your life begin with joy and end with sadness?)


On the 6th of April I decided I was going to become a writer. At that particular moment, I thought: I’m tired of all this insecurity. I don’t have a cent to my name. I haven’t paid my rent for this month, and it’s already the fifteenth. I pretty much live on maize porridge: with brown sugar and old powdered milk in the morning; for lunch leftovers from the breakfast; dinner at my parents’ apartment is usually maize porridge with sausage and bread. Or meatballs and potatoes. We usually swallow it down with the worst chicory mix on the market.

I wish I were a millionaire. I would buy a house for my parents and a jacuzzi for myself. I would live on caramel milkshakes and cream doughnuts, and I would spend my days watching TV.

That is what led to my decision on the 6th of April to become a writer. I had just devoured another collection of short stories by Andre Letoit when the thought occurred to me that I was taking life way too seriously and that I should apply my insecurities productively and become a writer. Writers, so I thought, lived insecure lives. It is precisely this insecurity that qualifies a writer to be one! Of course you get professional writers who have received training and who take a completely different approach. But the type of writer I want to be is the insecure type.


An ascetic. A monk. A monk without faith.

Will I live in a stone fortress – a remnant of a glory-less war from the distant past? Should grass be growing in places through cracks in the stone floor? Should the fortress have a wooden door that closes with a crossbar? And should it have a single room, with a fireplace? Should the loopholes be closed with shutters? And should I have candles everywhere to break the darkness? Should I have a hard, wooden bed standing near the fireplace, or just a mat with some bedding?

There will definitely be a heavy wooden table in the middle of the room. There will be an old threadbare carpet in front of the fireplace, and shelves filled with books on the walls. I would have a dog who’ll lay at my feet while I work. We’ll go for walks in the cool of the evening. I will let my hair and my beard grow, and I’ll wear a brown robe and leather sandals. I would read a lot and write every day. I will paint and create mosaics. And I will carve statues from wood.

I will be happy and not miss people.

My boundaries are so vague that I cross them without really being aware of it. And then, when I want to return from my venture on the outside, I realise there is nothing to go back to – just a vaguely defined world with little or no fixed landmarks.

It is said human beings are animals. The difference is that people have learned how to use tools and make fire, and then they built roads and buildings and cars and factories and banks and schools and universities and ports and parliaments and sports stadia and prisons and hospitals. As part of a generation that was born at a time when all these things have become established beacons of civilisation, and where it is expected to only fall in and conform to the standards of this society, it doesn’t help you much to wish you could live in simplicity like your brothers and sisters in nature.

Our society is too big and too impersonal. We and those before us have created a monster which has long gotten out of control. And if you don’t bow before the monster, you are devoured and your remains spat out.

I will die if I do not write. There are only two things that make life bearable for me – to express how I experience life, and to love.

We live on a planet of which there are millions. We stand no chance against the cosmic powers. We have long abandoned our original habitat where we just had to search for food and shelter like other animals and where we could find comfort in community with others like us. And we are all at the end destined to die, to pass away like vegetation. So, exactly what is this complex modern society in which we were born, and which we are doomed to maintain?