Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly has utterly mesmerised France, selling a record 1.1-million copies. The novel tells the story of how an Air France flight from Paris to New York lands safely after having been damaged in a biblical storm. One hundred and six days later, the same plane with the same damage and the same passengers arrives in the US.
It’s a book that explores the inversion of time — in a time when time has warped and slowed down; speeded up and stopped.
The exploration of different time paths that we could take, experiencing a variety of scenarios — different lives if you like — is something that Le Tellier has artfully exploited. And the pandemic “locked-in” French guinea pigs have lapped it up, as will the rest of the world, I’m sure.
If having to prepare for two different futures is a new requirement for life going forward, we South Africans are ready for it.
Yet again we — and our neighbours Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi — have been cast as “Typhoid Mary” (the Irish American cook who, being an asymptomatic carrier, unwittingly infected 53 people with typhoid) and cruelly banned by the world.
Our clever scientists discovered this new mutation of the coronavirus, now ominously called Omicron and informed the world; the world panicked and unfairly shut us out — experts say you cannot stop the spreading of a virus by closing your borders.
After some mumbling about why information about this new variant was announced so early, South African Medical Research Council chief executive Professor Glenda Gray said scientists have a duty to make their confirmed findings known as soon as possible.
The consequence of the identification of this new variant has caused global chaos, but has had particularly devastating repercussions for South Africans with travel plans, me among them.
An in-between space
There are, it seems, two versions of events: real and possible, and we are trapped in the in-between space.
It’s my birthday week and a lifelong, chin-jutting defiance takes hold as I claim it as the time of year when I am boss of everyone.
It’s the only time of the year when I am this bold, although there is some disagreement on whether it’s the only time from members of my diminishing family. Once we were six; now we are three — a factor of older age and a pandemic is that people in your life die, expectedly and unexpectedly.
Pre-pandemic, my birthday was a time of reflection; examining the trajectory of the year just passed, evaluating what I’d done, ticking off boxes of the things I planned to do, and did; placing Xs next to things not achieved.
I took note of missed opportunities, set out new goals, made new promises.
I didn’t do that last year, numbed as I was by a nothingness that morphed into inertia.
I promised myself that 2021 would be different. It wasn’t. The dormancy continued and with it a lassitude that saw a downward spiralling in which all the things that keep me sane — early rising, exercise, church, healthy eating, meditation; all the good stuff — became a chore.
And then the cloud lifted, for a brief respite and, as the numbers fell, we felt safer. We made restaurant bookings and saw our friends in their houses and things felt lighter and more hopeful.
We made plans — travel plans.
I rented out my apartment and decided it was time to be uncomfortable for a while; homelessness would mean enforced travel, suitcase living, being pushed out of my comfort zone into having to ask friends if I could spend a night on their sofa …
It was the not knowing, but of my own making rather than the nebulous uncertainty that we have been living through, that appealed to me.
Get out of the rut, many of us thought; shake off the ennui of the recent past; have an adventure. It was time to do something different, change gear and get a new perspective.
My sixtysomething friends began making ambitious 2022 plans.
Monica, 61, renewed her sailing papers and plans to be part of a crew taking a yacht to Grenada in the Caribbean. Jules has taken up painting and is renting a tiny house at the coast to explore watercolours.
It being the week of my birthday, I’d booked a ticket to Nelspruit, intending to head to a dear old friend who lives in a little town on the edge of the escarpment with a magnificent view of the Lowveld.
He’d promised that we would go to the Kruger National Park, to God’s Window, the Blyde River Canyon. I was dreaming of lunch in a litchi orchard near White river, and a beauty day at a Hazyview spa.
Then news broke of B.1.1.529 that became Omicron. Oh my God: panic.
I didn’t get on the plane to Mpumalanga.
The knock-on consequence has been dramatic, putting the kibosh on everyone’s carefully laid plans. The friend going to London can’t go anymore so his Cape Town flat is no longer available to me. My English tenants have cancelled. Bang goes my buffer cash.
And that’s just me. Multiply all the cancellations, the non-refundable deposits, the lost income by thousands … Think of all those holiday bookings invalidated, those empty restaurants, un-hired cars, empty hotel rooms. It’s pitiful to imagine yet another cold, comfortless Christmas for hospitality and tourism industry staff.
And so we move back into our “anomaly” life, in which the other version looks like this: more of the same as this year; and last year.
I was recently asked what my favourite childhood holiday memory was.
Mine was sleeping on thin, roll-up foam mats on my aunt and uncle’s living room floor, in their Merebank home in Durban.
We were six children — four of us and our cousins — lined up against a wall, sharing space with a plastic shrink-wrapped red dralon couch, an imbuia coffee table and a large ornamental brass elephant whose trunk tripped you during night-time loo visits.
This heady adventure was different from my normal life and thrilling: my cousins lived slick city lives, different from us country bumpkins. The food my aunt served was different — they lived at the seaside, so fish was on the menu. A lot. They ate vegetables like bhindi (okra) and Methi Bhaji and various gourds — what my father called Indian vegetables, grown in large quantities, because there was demand for them in this large Indian neighbourhood.
The gloriously exotic look of my aunt, resplendent in her brightly coloured saris, her hair swooped up in a chignon at the top of her head was different in every way from my mother, whose style icon was the queen: suits with sturdy, no-nonsense shoes, although she did wear gloves and a curiously turquoise bonnet to mass on Sundays.
It was the time of year I most looked forward to, counting days and creating lists of new secrets to share with my cousin.
Packed in like sardines, the modest two-bedroomed house heaved with the 10 of us all sharing a small space and, inconceivably, one bathroom.
Black and brown South Africans, forbidden from booking into hotels, lodges or resorts, spent holidays with family or friends.
When I was nine, our annual Easter trip to Durban was cancelled when my dad fell and broke his ankle. I had an asthma attack.
Home for the holidays, then.
Home for the holidays, now.
Is it any wonder that the French have latched onto Le Tellier’s sci-fi upended reality? The Anomaly is apt precisely because we live in such anomalous times.
And there’s precious little we can do about it.