The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé

The Alphabet of Birds

SJ Naudé

SJ Naudé

Price: £10 / $15.95 (print), £5 / $8 (ebook)

Trade Paperback with French flaps


eBook ISBN:

Original language:

Published by:
And Other Stories

Publication date:
6th January 2015

‘For any reader who would like to keep up with what is happening at the forefront of Afrikaans literature, this collection is truly unmissable.’ – André Brink

If death comes to a loved one, can we grieve alone? When all around is in ruins, can we confine our lives to one beautiful room constructed out of art, or love, or family ties? And when the words we know prove inadequate, can we turn to the language of birds?

In an arty mansion in Milan’s industrial zone, two men are shown one of the last remaining Futurist noise machines – an Intonarumore – and a painful old truth surfaces. A musician travels to three continents to see her siblings before returning to Johannesburg; her home is plundered every night around her as she composes a requiem. A man follows his male lover from London to Berlin’s clubbing scene and on to a ruined castle in which the lover’s family lives. He is looking for an antidote.

The protagonists in SJ Naudé’s South African Literary Award-winning short story collection are listening out for answers that cannot be expressed. Offering fresh perspectives on gay, expat and artistic subcultures and tackling the pain of loss head on, Naudé’s stories go fearlessly and tenderly to the heart of our experiences of desire, love and death.

Praise for The Alphabet of Birds

  • ‘Cool and intelligent, unsettling and deeply felt, Naudé’s voice is something new in South African writing.’ Damon Galgut (from his Introduction to The Alphabet of Birds)
  • ‘The connections between the pieces are resonant, and they gradually reveal themselves as a set of variations on themes, making for an unusually tight-knit and satisfying volume. Naudé’s debut was acclaimed in the Afrikaans literary world, marking the arrival of a questioning, cosmopolitan writer. This English translation will bring him the wider readership he deserves.’ Ivan Vladislavić, author of Double Negative and The Restless Supermarket
  • ‘The astonishingly diverse stories in SJ Naudé’s remarkable collection The Alphabet of Birds count among the best in Afrikaans, built on recurring motifs and elements such as music; departure and travel; fairy tales and myths; illness, dissolution, dying and death; cities; a search for provenance and origins; forgetting and remembering; instinct and reason; that which is said or described versus that which remains unsaid or incapable of description forever; and the places and shapes of love in human relationships.’ André Brink
  • ‘For the discerning reader the substantial stories in this collection provide a feast of rare originality and revelatory power. In exquisitely honed classical prose and with acute psychological insight Naudé shows how the social forces of our time bear upon the private lives of individuals. He is one of those rare South African writers who can subtly balance a relentless investigation of contemporary political conditions with an informed interest in the shape of mourning and desire in his characters.’ Marlene van Niekerk
  • ‘Here is the beginning of something extraordinary. Profound, complex, luminously written, and brilliantly orchestrated, SJ Naudé’s first collection establishes him indubitably as a writer who will reshape the contours of South African literature in years to come.’ Neel Mukherjee
  • ‘Beautifully shaped and often heartbreaking stories . . . At once unsettling and deeply moving, this collection announces the arrival of a writer of great humanity and style.’ Patrick Flanery
  • ‘Naudé controls the tone in a magnificent manner in all seven stories . . . it is as if, in the process of writing, he is giving texture to our increasingly strange planet. A new order has arrived, with its own laws of behaviour . . . This is fresh, calculated Afrikaans, and an equally fresh approach to things South African, somewhat similar to the approach to ‘the old days’ in the film District 9.’ Eben Venter, Volksblad
  • ‘Makes one truly excited about what else this author will produce . . . an extremely rewarding reading experience.’ Jacomien van Niekerk, Tydskrif vir letterkunde 
  • ‘Naude’s honest confrontation of [complex] questions is unsettling . . . the response he is guiding us towards in these disturbing yet uplifting stories is openness.’ Alison Kelly, Times Literary Supplement
  • ‘[C]ompressed and economical, it lends itself to moments rather than histories, to nuance and detail rather than “skimming over the surface of this country,”  . . . The stories themselves seem palpably to search for a new mode of expression, at least intermittently: music, dance, noise, and mathematics are just some of the avenues his characters explore in a place where language seems increasingly limited . . . in Naudé, openness and sincerity create surprising moments of great emotional authenticity.’ Anneke Rautenbach, L. A. Review of Books
  • Think Leonard Cohen without the “Hallelujah”, think Naudé. Your brain will have images emblazoned on it for some time to come . . . Lyrical, powerful and intensely moving. You will not readily forget this book.’ David J Dickson, The Journal
  • ‘Naudé’s tales are lyrical, but unsentimental and precisely focused on the essentials, dense with detail and references, but stripped of any excess . . . the collection creates an incisive portrait of the excitement and dislocation that are caused by modern man’s mobility in a global world . . . It is rare to find a debut with this degree of maturity and polish. Rush out to get your copy, but allow yourself the time to read it attentively. You will be richly rewarded.’ Louise Viljoen, Rapport
  • ‘Makes any serious reader excited about the future of the short story in Afrikaans . . . strongly recommended.’ Cilliers van den Berg, Die Burger
  • ‘South African expats confront dislocation and illness in this soulful, well-written debut story collection . . . whether examining the corrupt health-care system of South Africa or the “borderless world’s financial elite” in places such as London and Dubai, Naudé remains a breathtaking, tender writer.’ Publishers Weekly
  • ‘Elegiac longing hangs over these stories, as each character strives for a sense of place and purpose, which they struggle to name, even to themselves.’ Peter Whittaker, New Internationalist
  • ‘The collection of short stories offers an informed insider’s exploration of the country’s politics through its ostracised sub-cultures and communities . . . Themes of origins and travel, among others, are what link these otherwise diverse stories that are intelligent yet simple.’ Antonia Charlesworth, The Big Issue in the North
  • ‘As the stories progress, identities of gender and sexuality also begin to blur as Naudé skilfully evokes a brave new world where everywhere is everywhere and nothing is as certain as it might once have been . . . It’s a uniquely South African spin on a universal battle: the fight to understand who you are and what your place in the world might be.’ Ross McIndoe, The Skinny
  • ‘S J Naudé’s simple but elegant prose creates stories that are incredibly realistic yet the atmosphere is such that the reader experiences a slowly building terror of everything being on the verge of falling apart – that these characters’ lives are as fragile and brittle as the bones of birds, and possibly as hollow . . . It’s this kind of desperation to find communication and connection that makes these stories such a profoundly affecting read.’ Adam Ley-Lange, We Love This Book
  • ​’​Throughout The Alphabet of Birds, Naude manages to use individual stories to explore political situations, and therefore illuminates without preaching . . . The stories in The Alphabet of Birds maintain a consistently high quality, managing to be coherent in tone whilst also featuring enough diverse subject matter and locations to ensure that interest levels don’t drop. Overall, the collection exceeded my expectations – it looks like it could be another exciting year for And Other Stories.’ Thom Cuell, Workshy Fop
  • ‘There is no limbo here; only the sharp edge of a knife, and on each side equally strange realities. Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds display a dizzying array of textures, refracting the various facts and facets of our microcosmos. Naudé’s book becomes a meditation on the nature of loss, a striking series of portraits that reflects, with full honesty, without sentimentality, the constancy of the human condition.’ Jeffrey Zuckerman for The Rumpus
  • ‘Naude’s cool, incisive prose acts as a scalpel, laying bare the sinews and tendons of the stories he is telling. The Alphabet of Birds, translated here from the original Afrikaans by Naudé himself, is not a collection for the faint of heart but it does not leave us entirely without hope. The protagonists are ever searching for more in the face of disaster. And sometimes in this accelerating world of cascading information, we need to cut through the noise to get at the heart of the matter. In Naudé, we have an able surgeon.’ Cassie Hay, Literary Review (US)

More Information

  • The Alphabet of Birds has been translated from the Afrikaans original (Alfabet van die voëls) by the author.
  • The Afrikaans version of The Alphabet of Birds was awarded several prizes, including the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize and the First-time Published Author Award (South African Literary Award). He was awarded the 2014 Jan Rabie & Marjorie Wallace Writing Scholarship, the largest award for creative writing in South Africa.
  • Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize 2015.
  • Read on our Ampersand blog why our publisher Stefan Tobler loves The Alphabet of Birds.
  • Richard Lea writes in The Guardian about new trends in short story writing, focusing on SJ Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds as well as Colin Barrett’s Young Skins and Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers. See also Richard Lea’s Guardian Books podcast interview with Naudé (from 23 min.s 30 sec.s in)
  • SJ Naudé was interviewed by Nancy Richards on the The Literary Show on Sundays on SAFM (South Africa) during which they discussed the And Other Stories edition of The Alphabet of Birds (in first 18 mins).
  • S.J. Naudé reads from The Alphabet of Birds and discusses the Afrikaans language amongst young South Africans in the new South Africa in the excellent BBC Radio 4 series ‘Writing a New South Africa’ (at 18:38)  He writes for PEN Atlas here on the experience of translating yourself and in In Asymptote Journal he reflects on the odd literary status of Afrikaans and talks about Afrikaans literature today – read it here.
  • Read more about S.J.Naudé here.
  • If you had subscribed to And Other Stories before The Alphabet of Birds went to the printers, you would have received one of the first copies of the book – in which all subscribers are thanked by name – as well as up to five And Other Stories titles per year. Find out about subscribing to upcoming titles here.

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