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Quagga Rare Books and Art

  • By Gemma Sieff
  • Issue 15
  • Shelf LifeApril 2016

Quagga Rare Books and Art opened in 1991, the dawn of the new South Africa, in Kalk Bay. Early settlers had burned mussel shells to produce lime (“kalk”) for building. The little fishing village and bay, caught in the giant lobster pincer of Cape Town’s False Bay, has a long pier, brightly painted boats, and fishmongers gutting the day’s catch on hosed-down stone slabs. Quagga’s understated storefront beckons with porcupine quills, curvy tusks, a splayed book of maps, and other curiosities particular to this neck of the mountains.

Father and son George and Simon Curtis own and operate the shop. When I visited, in March, Curtis Sr. was fending off a customer interested in the glass elephant in front of the cash register. “They’re not old,” he said. “I thought they were old, then I discovered you could buy them in the shop.” Though he had been hoodwinked, he would not hoodwink this tourist. A note next to the computer read: “George, email German guy to say the shells have been SOLD.” Curtis was keen to chat but incredibly sleepy, having played poker and read a dense biography of Stalin into the wee hours. A cappuccino and a slice of custard melktert revived him.

Quagga, named for an extinct subspecies of zebra, sells antiquarian books and artifacts—maps, prints, paintings—in two brick-and-mortar locations (there is a second shop in Stellenbosch) and online. International business is brisk due to the weak rand. Shelves are labeled Africana, Afrikaans, Anglo-Boer War, Botanical, Hunting, Military & Maritime, Natural History, and Strange Books. There is a title about the art of curare, the paralytic poison used by tribes in Central and South America. I see The Last of the Nuba, by Leni Riefenstahl, published in 1973 and depicting the Nuba of Central Sudan, “the most peace-loving people in Africa.” The photographs are shockingly beautiful; the book restored Riefenstahl’s reputation as an artist. Susan Sontag remained unimpressed, writing in the New York Review of Books that “[i]t is the final rewrite of the past; or, for her partisans, the definitive confirmation that she was always a beauty-freak rather than a horrid propagandist.”

Multiple volumes of the English artist and explorer Thomas Baines’s Goldfield Diaries tell of his 1869 expedition to Mashonaland—later Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe—where he was among the first to prospect for gold. (With David Livingstone, Baines had already followed the Zambezi River all the way to Victoria Falls.) I consult a digest “on the plumages, biological patterns and nesting habits of all the major sporting birds occurring in southern Africa to the south of the Cunene, Okavango and Zambezi Rivers,” and, overwhelmed by South Africa’s teeming life forms, turn to a dusty sixth edition of The Origin of Species: Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Curtis has lived a peripatetic life. He was born in Namibia, where his parents bred Persian lambs. He came to Cape Town for university, dropped out, and returned to Namibia to work for the diamond mines along the coast. He tells me about the ghost town of Kolmanskop, where houses abandoned by the Germans during the First World War have been overtaken by sifting sands; the blanket of tiny green shoots that bloom in the desert after a rainfall, which grow so quickly you see them unfurl in real time; the herds of running gemsbok and the snakes whipping diamond patterns into steep dunes; Halley’s Comet streaking across the desert in 1986. I ask him about books and he answers with sea stories. Back in Cape Town, before the bookstore, he skippered a boat and fished for shark. “You had to pull them in, whack them with a kierrie, and cut their tails. It was very gory and bloody and brutal.

“The problem with shark,” he goes on, “is they expel urea through their flesh, so you have to bleed them immediately. If a shark dies, it has a high urea content. It has to be pretty fresh when it’s frozen and it has to be bled. If you get the blood out, you get rid of the urea. You’d cut above where the tail is. On the deck of the boat. The shark would bleed all over the boat. If there weren’t shark around we would fish for other fish. We’d go up the west coast to fish for snoek. A factory ship would come up from Cape Town and we’d offload onto that. With snoek you also gut them and you have to do it very quickly because snoek goes pap. Soft. Snoek is a few kilos. Very sharp teeth. A fish you have to be careful when you catch because it has an anticoagulant in its saliva. Big fangs like a barracuda. When you pull it out of the water, you’re generally wearing an oilskin and you get it under your arm. You snap its neck. It’s slippery and if it bites you you bleed like anything, and because of the anticoagulant the wound doesn’t heal. So one tries to avoid being bitten.

“We would salt the fish and go up to Saldanha Bay and offload our fish. It was incredibly hard work, but it was beautiful up there. I used to love Dassen Island. It’s very small and you’re not allowed to go ashore because there’s a large jackass penguin colony on the island. The prevailing winds are southerly. We’d fish all day, and then if the wind was blowing from the south, we’d anchor where there were a lot of crayfish. I had a driver, the guy who looked after the engine and did the cooking. As soon as we anchored, he’d drop a net over and catch some crayfish. We’d eat crayfish and some of the fish we’d caught that day. Sometimes we’d spend up to ten days there. I got on well with my crew. I was the only white guy on board. In the wheelhouse I had a bunk. No one was allowed to drink. I didn’t allow any alcohol on board. It was bad enough as it was. And in fact, one of my crew fell overboard and drowned. I didn’t see it. I was below deck, and when I came up he was missing. I put out the alert for the coast guard. He’d been drinking. The terrible thing was, his family thought I had murdered him. The police didn’t care. I would get these letters from his mother, and one evening a big rough chap from the family came to see me. He took one look at me and I think he knew I wasn’t the sort to have murdered a man.

“Fishing was lovely—we were totally cut off from the outside world. We did long-line fishing. Right out onto the edge of the continental shelf. We had an old wooden-hulled boat. Forty-five foot, crew of ten. We never really caught enough to make it. We fished for three or four years, and eventually sold the boat. We sold it to a diamond prospecting company and they used it up the west coast for diamond dives—what I was supposed to do in Namibia all those years before. I love the ocean. Maybe because I was brought up in the desert."

About Sharks and Shark Attack by David H. Davies (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter, 1964) is in stock if you need it.

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Slideshow links - for visual effect only:

Photos by Philippus Johan for The Fabulist