Monday, June 16, 2014

Griekwastad Book Wars: Steenkamp VS Kemp

When I wrote my review of Jacques Steenkamp's Griekwastad Murders, I googled "Griekwastad" and "In Cold Blood" just to make sure no one else had used the same premise.  I was alarmed when this article, written by the Afrikaans freelancer, Jan Taljaard, came up, published by Rapport.

But I needn't have been alarmed because if anything, Taljaard was slagging off both writers, saying Nie een van die skrywers is ’n Truman Capote nie en nie een van die boeke is naastenby ’n In Cold Blood nie.

I wonder if Taljaard has read In Cold Blood? Because this was the exact opposite contention in my review, which is titled: 'Griekwastad' is SA's 'In Cold Blood'.

And I went even further than that.  The Griekwastad murders, I wrote, comparing them to the 1959 Kansas murder Capote so famously documented by Capote (and kick-starting a new genre), are at another order of magnitude...

But then I provided this disclaimer:

If Griekwastad resembles In Cold Blood it is not as much in the style of the writing, but the content.  Jacques Steenkamp allows the story to reveal itself, and it is absolutely riveting. Steenkamp does well to balance facts with observation, and washes all this with some – just enough – personal commentary that really resonates with the reader. It is a satisfying read, down to the last page, if for no better reason than because our common outrage is acknowledged.

Taljaard then makes the opposite claim, saying Steenkamp's version is self-indulgent, and biased, and littered with inappropriate personal commentary.  Odd.  I found it restrained.  And when it was warranted, for example when Marthella's injuries were discussed in detail, I thought Steenkamp was justified in saying, as he does on page 162 of Chapter 13: 

I looked at those photos on the screen, and then I looked at the accused, who still appeared completely unaffected by the sight.  It made me very, very angry.  

Taljaard complains: Dit pla egter dat Steenkamp homself deurentyd op die voorgrond skuif in die boek en soms bloot net wilde aannames maak. 

Wilde aannames?

Now Taljaard is accusing Steenkamp who first broke the story (and let's face it, Steenkamp fields over 13 000 followers on twitter) of unprofessional reporting.  Really, Jan?  A lot of the folks - possibly many suffering from OCD - would have hauled a writer over the coals for inaccuracies.  Twitter offers the public a chance to do their own research and analysis, and so a journalist who is not up to speed on the trial can literally have his reporting cross-referenced with the live twitter feeds coming out of court.  All this is in the public domain, there's no cloak and dagger involved.  Which makes Taljaard's allegation spurious.And while Taljaard appears to basically shoot down both books (Steenkamp's and Kemp's), he clearly bats for Kemp's side in the end.  Look at this:

Terwyl Steenkamp groot dele aan verbatim verslae van die hofverrigtinge afstaan, som Kemp die gebeure bondiger op...Dit is moeilik om een boek bo die ander aan te beveel...Wil jy egter meer weet oor die slagoffers en hul familie en watter soort mense hulle was, is Kemp se Moord op Griekwastad dalk die antwoord. Laasgenoemde boek sal die leser ook net so bietjie nader laat kom aan ’n antwoord op die allerbelangrike vraag oor wie en wat die jong moordenaar eintlik is.

Strangely, I didn't have the same problem as Taljaard. It wasn't the two-horse race I expected.  I thought it would be.  Neck and neck.  For some reason I thought Kemp would go into more detail, find more on-the-ground gossip, and insight, perhaps uncover details of the boy's experience at Grey College, or add some depth and colour via the Steenkamp family. But Kemp got her 'inside' information via the Steenkamp family, the granny if I have my facts right - which creates an immediate bias (and reason for 'restrained reporting'.) If anyone is going anything 'verbatim', it's Kemp, who quote a few entire newspaper articles straight of Die Volksblad.  Also, I didn't realise Kemp is based in Kimberley, not Bloemfontein, and so I was disappointed that both Steenkamp and Kemp glossed over the Grey College details, although Steenkamp - in my view - provided a lot more detail on the thoughts of the then principal, Johan Volsteedt, and the arrest in his office. 

While Kemp's book is more descriptive, I also found it more disconnected, since it was written in the third person.  What bugged me the most about her book was the extent of her professional distance. There seemed very little comment or observation of the boy, on his reactions, and on her assessment of the whole debacle. Almost as though she was protecting the integrity of the Steenkamp family, or trying to stay within some self imposed journalistic agenda.  (Interestingly the accused's name is not referred to in either book, other than as 'the boy').  I think Kemp's caution is misplaced though.  Sometimes an Omerta is important, but not when your perpetrator is clearly guilty, as in this case.

On page 141 Steenkamp addresses this question, to my mind, succinctly: 

What concerned me was that those people who believed him to be innocent didn't form their opinion based on a lack of evidence; they were influenced by the fact that he was so young.  They simply could not comprehend how a child could pick up a gun and execute three people like animals.  People who think like that scare me. 

They scare me too. 

I thought I could dismiss Taljaard's odd (and mostly off) assessment as a one-off goof, until I came across this, which was published in Beeld and Die Voldsblad.  I've copied select extracts below:

Moord op Griekwastad deur Charné Kemp

Dié boek oor die gru-moorde op die Steenkamp-gesin van Griekwastad laat ’n mens se nekhare meer as een keer rys. Dit is van die begin af boeiend. Die skrywer, ’n joernalis by Volksblad, neem die leser deur deeglike beskrywings op die plaas Naauwhoek buite Griekwastad.Die gruwelike moordtoneel word in fyn besonderhede beskryf.
Die boek is ’n moet-lees vir mense wat deur die treurspel aangegryp is en van ware menslike dramas hou.

Steenkamp Boek

Sommige sal dink dit is interessant om te lees hoe die betrokke joernalis te werk gegaan het, maar die afleidings en menings pla.
Die boek sou waarskynlik meer geslaag gewees het as die skrywer se persoonlike aannames afwesig was. Die woord “ek” word te veel gebruik.
Dis ook jammer dat die skrywer nie oral in sy boek erkenning aan eksterne bronne gee nie. Op bl. 58 en bl. 59 gebruik Steenkamp dele van ’n onderhoud met die forensiese patoloog dr. Leon Wagner wat in Mei 2012 in Volksblad geplaas is sonder dat hy aan dié koerant erkenning gee.
Dit is nie al wat pla nie.
Op bl. 44 sê die skrywer hy sou baie naby daaraan kom om die Griekwastad-moorde op te los. Steenkamp was wel saam met Charné Kemp (wat die ander boek oor die Griekwastad-moorde geskryf het) aan die voorpunt rakende verslaggewing oor die sage, maar geen joernalis het die moorde opgelos nie.
In die geheel kon die boek beter gewees het.

Here you get very specific nitpicking on Steenkamp's book, including a direct snub asking why Steenkamp doesn't credit Kemp.  Steenkamp actually mentions Kemp a few times in his book, and I found his journey, through the eye of an investigative journalist, provided far more excitement and tension than Kemp's 3rd person disconnect.  In contrast I don't recall Kemp mentioning Steenkamp, but I may have skipped the chapter where she does. 

I also think the accusation that Steenkamp 'solved the crime' is a little misplaced.  If memory serves, he pieced together some of the circumstantial evidence and claimed the young girl was raped, before rape had actually been fully established.  He broke this story as well (or scooped it) and was very nervous that facts or evidence might call his, somewhat premature analysis, into question.  As it turned out, Steenkamp was right on the money.  The rape lies at the very centre of this case, the motive hinges on it.  So I think, again, the criticism of Steenkamp is strange given that he was ultimately proved right. 

In my opinion - and that's all it is - Kemp errs on the side of too little analysis.  On page 273, her Chapter So het dit waarskynlik gebeur starts halfway through the page, and it ends not quite at the end of the very next page.  Barely a page to describe the crime that she dedicates an additional 290 pages to discussing.  I'm being honest here, I skipped through sections in the body - especially the middle part of her book - because it simply didn't interest me.  One entire chapter was dedicated to the tourist highlights between Upington and Kimberley.  I can see what she was trying to do; create an atmosphere.  Unfortunately you can't have too much atmosphere and too little analysis. It's simply too tedious to read.

What is good about Kemp's book is she seems to have a slightly better handle on Christel Steenkamp, and even quotes from some of Christel's own writings.  (Christel sometimes wrote on Gymkana and other travel news for the Volksblad and Landbouweekblad).  And at times Kemp's use of Afrikaans is quite beautiful. E.g. die bakkies moet hul kou ken...Griekwastad is ru en draaierig..die krieke neem oor die sang by die voels...ysblou lug...die yuk van lee politieke beloftes  And little insights, such as Deon's habit of calling Marthella 'Sussie', sometimes 'Sussieeee' and the petite daughter calling her big Afrikaans dad 'Pappatjie.'  It adds a nice, familiar touch.  

I'm afraid I found Steenkamp's book a clear winner in a bunch of departments.  It's longer, more firsthand experiences and observations of the boy, more analysis, more personal investment, and as I mentioned earlier, you can sense the tension of a hungry writer, far from home, trying to scoop his rivals, but he's also a man whose world is turned upside down by his obsession.  So much so that he ultimately leaves his job at Rapport.  And herein lies, I think, something to think about.  I don't think either article, both published by Media24 (Steenkamp's ex-employer) is fair to Steenkamp's book.  Clearly both articles put these books head to head, and an experienced writer like me can see that - under the guise of equanimity - Kemp's work cracks the nod, but Steenkamp's doesn't. I think someone is trying to score a few points against an ex-employee.  Because in this battle of the books, Kemp's isn't the winner.  It's the other way round.

Is that an opinion or a reasonable assessment?  Let's test that. Kemp, an attractive brunette, and not a bad writer by any stretch of the imagination, only has half Steenkamp's twitter following, and her timeline has far less action than does Steenkamp's in terms of marketing her own book. Steenkamp's is also a bigger book - not only is the cover taller and broader, his text spans about 80 more pages (making it about a third longer).  In some of the national book ratings, Steenkamp's book is also up there, whereas I'm not sure where Kemp's is.  I read Steenkamp's book literally in 3 sittings, Kemp's book I struggled through.  I skipped parts in the middle.  It took me weeks to get through it.  A case could be made that reading the same narrative twice is going to prejudice whichever narrative you read second, but I don't buy that.   That didn't happen the last time I experienced Book Wars, almost 10 years ago.  

Remember Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air?  That book had to be rebutted by Weston DeWalt's The Climb.  I read both books, was rivetted by both and subsequently - almosty ten years later - my blog posts on the subject are in the lifetime top five most popular posts on this blog.

Have a look at these for reference:
Krakauer vs Boukreev
Boukreev's Letter
Krakauer's Letter
Krakauer's Response To Broukeev Letter
Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa Criticism Of Krakauer
Krakauer's response to Lopsang
Pitons Are Served
Messner on the Jon Krakauer/Anitoli Boukreev Everest Controversy
Mountain Madness

Was I biased?  I don't think so.  One of the authors went to far as to congratulate me on my summary of a debate which is still simmering almost a decade later.
DeWalt (author of The Climb), having come across some of my musings, responded as follows:

This afternoon, in a break from some ongoing research, I took a dive into the Internet to look again at some of the things that have been said about Anatoli. I wandered across your Blog and your description of the Krakauer-Boukreev controversy. It is the clearest exposition of the debate that I have ever seen. Thanks for remembering a consummate climber and one of the finest men whose company I have ever had the opportunity to share. Best wishes for the Holidays and the New Year
- Weston deWalt (author of The Climb, the story of Anatoli Boukreev)

I digress. Let's get back to Griekwastad. In the concluding paragraph of my GQ review (of Steenkamp's book) I say:

 It is good to see this sort of writing because it means people in this country want answers, and will work hard to get them... In my view outrage and accountability are both good and healthy for society. And yes, we should pay attention to these from time to time. 

My view is that it is great that both writers went to an effort to write books, and I think they are both important books.  Amazon clearly shows more interest in Steenkamp's narrative (28 reviews) compared to Kemp (1 review).  Interestingly, Steenkamp also has an Afrikaans translation to his book, and on Amazon's Afrikaans bestseller list, Steenkamp's book trails Kemp by about two places Steenkamp's book is ranked #4, and Kemp's #30.   Steenkamp's English book is rated 4 and something stars, while his Afrikaans book has only three and a half, and 4 reviews. The only review for Kemp's book is a two sentence review. Just like the two reviews published by Media 24, it specifically compares Kemp's book to Steenkamp's, saying hers is better.  Talk is cheap. Sorry, the proof of the pudding is in the reading, and the reviewing, and fact is, Kemp's ain't better than Steenkamp's. 

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