Reading this book I was thunderstruck, with all that it implies: humidity, lightning, sweat, frissons of fear, the commanding of attention. Look at me, hear me.
Reading SJ Naudé’s 'The Third Reel' pinioned me throughout, exhausting, exhilarating.
It is a magnificent, brilliant feat of writing, visceral and unflinching, and marks the point at which Naudé moves to the front line of the best of South African writers.
'The Third Reel' is a post-post apartheid book, using South Africa only as a springboard into the cosmopolitan, complicated world of Europe in the 1980s.
It is the pitiless time of Thatcher’s Britain. Etienne Nieuwenhuis has fled the patriarchal dynamics of his home country only to encounter another form of harshness abroad.
While studying film in London in 1986, a time of Aids, the last years of the Cold War and the radicalisation of divisions between rich and poor, he lives in semi-poverty in London, persuading himself that anything is better than an obsession with rugby and the macho culture of the “Total Onslaught”.
He is also gay (though it would be foolish to label this superb novel merely as a “gay book”): it’s explicitly homosexual content is a bedrock reflection of Etienne’s determination to live his life as an artist, a lover, and also a seeker of the elusive “third reel” of the book’s title. This refers to a missing film made under the worst possible conditions in 1933 during the run-up to the Holocaust in Germany: shot largely in secret, forbidden, and split apart to secure its survival.
It also means that it is almost impossible to find, given that many involved in its creation have died, or disappeared, and also that some of the film’s footage is almost certainly behind the Iron Curtain, in East Germany.
A ghost film, says his lover Axel, a German artist who he meets in London, who points him to the film during Etienne’s research. They fall in love, a relationship of blazing intensity, but then Axel must leave for East Germany and Etienne, who has hesitated to go with him, is impelled to follow, putting behind him safety, taking the risk into the unknown, just as he has cut off all contact with his former homeland, including his mother, whose pile of sad, unanswered letters continues to grow. East Germany is a Blake-like nightmare.
On a scholarship there (but really to find Axel and to continue his search for the missing reels), he discovers the blunt instrument of brutal propagandist films. He recognises their complicity, and feels as if he is back in South Africa.
'The Third Reel' is a roman on a large stage, though much of its finest work lies in the tight, interior depth of Etienne’s personal seeking.
'The Third Reel' is the engine that drives the story forward, positioned within the huge pain of the Holocaust, but also a metaphor for lives unlived, and quests that must be undertaken (like that for the Holy Grail) due to what is unveiled during the search. Few books in the past years have I thought of more highly, or affected me as much.
'The Third Reel' is available in Afrikaans, as Die Derde Spoel. Naudé is the author of the prize-winning The Alphabet of Birds. He was awarded the Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace Writing Scholarship for 2014, which enabled him to write this novel full-time. He lives in Joburg