Justin Cartwright's new novel, Up Against the Night, opens with two contrasting quotes. One, from nature writer Robert Macfarlane, suggests we read landscapes not as neutral observers but in the light of cultural experience. The other, from South African journalist and author Mark Gevisser, talks about a society "that is violent, self- obsessed and contemptuous of the law".
“That’s South Africa for you,” Cartwright says. “On the one hand, it is this idyllic place; and on the other, there is this terrible risk.” Gevisser, he says, left South Africa after he was subjected to a horrific robbery and sexual assault in his own home.
The action in Up Against the Night takes place in the space between those two extremes. The idyllic bit comes early, as wealthy expat Frank McAllister brings his Swedish lover, Nellie, and her teenage son on holiday to his native South Africa. The author's affection for his country is evident as they ooh and aah at ocean and mountain vistas and have close encounters with antelopes and monkeys.
This being a Justin Cartwright novel, however, trouble is not far away. In fact, it's woven into the fabric of Frank's narrative as he flicks back and forth between the picturesque present and a past in which his daughter is a drug addict, his ex-wife can inflict lethal wounds via voicemail and his cousin Jaco, having survived a shark attack, is on the run from the Scientologists. Then there's his Boer ancestor, legendary Afrikaans leader Piet Retief, who was murdered by the Zulu king Dingane in 1838.
Cartwright, it turns out, is also related to Retief, which allows him to use one of his favourite fictional tropes. His novels often invoke fragments of history as well as real historical characters. The Song Before it Is Sung incorporates the plot to kill Hitler in 1944. Lion Heart is partly a biography of Richard the Lionheart and his search for the "True Cross" in Jerusalem. This is not just colourful window-dressing: Cartwright goes in for extensive and committed historical groundwork.
“I think my research on what happened in Zululand is probably as good as you can get; I don’t think there’s a lot more to know,” he says of the murder of Retief and 70 unarmed followers, which was followed by a retaliatory attack in which 3,000 Zulus were killed.
“It’s ignominious. The whole thing is pretty awful. My view is that Dingane had the perfect world. He had most of what is now Natal. He had thousands of concubines. He had over 1,000 warriors. They didn’t want anything that the Boers were proposing, and they certainly didn’t want the Boers to take them over.
“I have this theory that I haven’t heard aired before: that this might have been the start of apartheid. Not literally. But I think the Boers were terrified that if you didn’t keep black people under control this would happen again; they’d come and kill our wives and daughters and children.”
For Cartwright it’s clearly a short step from the exasperatingly domesticated Frank, with his house in the New Forest, his pad in Notting Hill and his blond partner – who is as creepily perfect as an Ikea kitchen – to the chaotic horrors we like to shove into the basket marked “history”.
"I do try to have some serious overtones, even when the book's funny," he says. "I like the idea of fairly serious ideas woven in somewhere, but not in a serious way. I think I took this from Saul Bellow; the idea that you can have a very funny and very down-to-earth kind of life as well as some serious concerns."
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of the man himself. Wryly witty and drily critical of the political powers-that-be, Cartwright – in person and on the page – hits his satirical targets with a satisfying “ping”.
Near the beginning of To Heaven By Water there's a rant by a character called Adam that is as good a literary-critical spoof as you'll ever see.
“I hate all novels written since 1940,” Adam begins. He goes on to castigate just about every novel published in the past century, from “novels which describe the awful problems of being a writer” to “what is called – can you believe this? – fantasy, which turns out to be fucking bollocks on a Homeric scale about people dressed in plastic armour with silly names like Snarfbucket of Zadok”.
And it goes on (and on). It’s funny. But at the end of the book it’s the same Adam who exhorts people to read until their eyeballs burst, in order that literary fiction should continue into the next century.
In Up Against the Night, there's a similar ambivalence built into the character of Jaco, who lurches into Frank's well- ordered world trailing unfinished business and violence in his wake.
Jaco is a terrific fictional creation, although Cartwright happily acknowledges that he lifted the details of his great white shark attack from YouTube. “There’s this huge shark coming at this guy, who is starting to scream. And he had a spear gun about this long [he indicates a length of about 14in], which wouldn’t have dented a mole, you know, let alone a shark. And he started to poke it in the eye, and he’s swearing and screaming to himself. I took that almost word for word.”
A past life in film
It’s interesting that Cartwright brings YouTube into the conversation, because he spent several years as a documentary film-maker, making all kinds of films, from a ground-breaking wildlife study of lions hunting at night to an investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. How does this tie into his writing?
“I wasn’t particularly good at the visual side of film,” he says. “But I was good at knowing what should go where: editing and so on.”
The same interest in structure and organisation applies to his novels. “I like my books to have a kind of elegance within themselves. I don’t want them to be wildly baroque or anything like that; I just want them to be nicely put together.”
In any case, he adds, filming can be a tedious business. “I remember one day we were doing the Dead Sea Scrolls film, and we got up at half-past three to park our car and our camera where we were sure the sun was going to rise, and it rained for the first time in 12 years. And you think, ‘I’m sitting in a bloody van in the middle of Israel’. Yeah. I much preferred when I was able to write books full-time. I absolutely love writing books.”
At least, he says, they get finished and on to the shelves. His 2008 novel, the banking spoof Other People's Money, was actually commissioned as a BBC film. "I wrote a four-hour script and nothing ever happened. The BBC somehow didn't want to do it."
Up Against the Night would make a great movie, I suggest. "Hmm," Cartwright says. "I dunno. Family in South Africa looking at the beach. And then elephants. You'd have to rework it in some way."
He grins. “If you know anybody who’d like to make it, I’m open to offers.”
- Up Against the Night is published by Bloomsbury
THREE WHITE SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSICS
- Wolf, Wolf (2015) By Eben Venter A takeaway in Cape Town; a porn addiction; a crumbling mansion in the suburbs. The old and the new South Africa jostle for supremacy in this lyrical study of a Jekyll-and-Hyde Afrikaner and his dying father.
- The Good Doctor (2003) By Damon Galgut An idealistic young doctor working in a remote rural area is the jump-off point for Galgut's furious critique of hypocrisy and inertia.
- Disgrace (1999) By JM Coetzee This forensic study of racial hierarchies after apartheid won the Booker and, arguably, the Nobel Prize for Literature for Coetzee. Its unflinching look at the human condition is as powerful now as ever it was.