Liam Kruger is Wonderful. And he wrote this piece.
My parents met in Swakopmund. My mother was born in Otjiwarongo, in the sixties. Once old enough to leave home, she would move to the coast, so as to meet my father, a South African apprentice at the Rössing Mine, and marry him. In the wedding photo that survives their marriage, they stand on the Swakopmund jetty with an uncommonly clear sky behind them, wearing clothes and hair and smiles that I have trouble mapping onto my parents today.
Two or three years ago, not much younger than the kids in the wedding photo boxed somewhere in my mother’s storage closet, I stood on that jetty – or at least a refurbished version of that jetty – and tried to figure out if I could see some residue of what they saw over the shoulders of whatever forgotten best man had been requisitioned for photography duty. It didn’t work, of course; I was there in the wrong time of the year, the fog making a mess of my already-dubious mental map of the place, dissolving whatever sad and thoughtful poise I’d been trying for. The Strand Hotel, where my parents had had their reception, was a construction site; I shrugged, in case anybody was watching, and headed on back to where I hoped my motel was.
One of the less-advertised pleasures of travel is encountering places to which it is difficult to assign significance. Some places give in to your first idea of them – the sleepy English town that puts you in mind of a half-remembered Conan Doyle story and does not challenge that comparison; the honeymoon in the Seychelles which allows you to read it as a series of beach resort photo opportunities from which to absorb nostalgia in your later years, and nothing else; the colonial port city that is just a colonial port city.
Other places are ready for you.
Being matrilineal, my connection to Namibia is obscured – I have inherited my name and my nationality from my father. But if I show up in the small towns that tourists only ever drive through, and say my mother’s maiden name, faces light up, and a plot of land, given over now to a different use, is pointed out, and things that an uncle said or a cousin did are dredged up for me to examine, to fold into my personal prehistory or to try and quietly ignore.
This is how I use the country; in those moments when I do not want to be associated with the ubiquitous trauma of South Africa’s history, I think of myself as half-Namibian, as belonging to a place less peopled, and so less hurt. It is self serving, an attempt at avoiding responsibility which convinces no-one.
In Flight from Byzantium, a long essay about Istanbul (which is where I write this from), Joseph Brodsky takes every possible opportunity to avoid dealing directly with the city before him – using it instead as an opportunity for pop psychology, for folk anthropology, to talk about the cities he’d rather be in. At one point he admits to treating the sights and sounds and people around him like ‘so much psychological dust in [his] eyes’ – but does not cease to do so. This is dangerous; if a city can be whatever you want it to be, what chance have we ever of meeting – of being sure we’re in the same place?
And just outside that town that’s mostly baked air and prefabricated cement, the town that’s proud of the new traffic lights, there’s a shallow, grassy ditch on the left side of the road where my mother’s father veered off the road to have his heart attack and die, decades ago now. I’m driving when my mother points this out, and then tells at me not to slow down, or else we won’t make it to the campsite before nightfall.
A few days later, pulling into Swakopmund from the north, wincing a little at the unfamiliar proximity of things, my father has me stop by Altes Gefängnis, where his father was once locked up for debt.
And these are part of my prehistory too.
It’s a comfort, then, when places insist upon a signification other than that which you put together for them – because if your interpretation of a place is clearly false, that implies that somewhere out there is a truth about the place, a way of looking at it that does it justice. A way of talking about it that allows us to be certain that we are talking about the same thing.
Namibia is not where I am from, not quite, but it’s where I first found that comfort; the comfort of being utterly wrong about a place.
What I wanted it to be was – not home, exactly; what I wanted was a place that would hold some germ of the circumstances which would later come to resolve themselves in me. A place that resembled the adolescence that my parents described to me. And of course no such place exists. So I would stand half-lost in Swakopmund on a street where there used to be a bar my parents liked, and hold both the town that was there and the town that was not in my head, with relative equanimity.
And now I’m in an unresolved city, which has had its names obscured, which is selective about its prehistory, and which I do not quite understand. At some point my relationship to it will have to unfurl and become something certain, definite, but for now it remains not-exactly-home –a place I first learned to live in in the town where my parents met.