Switchbitch – My Journey of Transformation from Sour to Sweet, by Chris von Ulmenstein. Tandym Press. 2018.
The problem with the internet and the permissive blogging this encourages is not so much it giving anybody with a pulse and a keyboard a platform on which to write. More disconcerting is that participation in the on-line space actually gives some people the belief that they can write, when there should be a universal law prohibiting their ambitions of stepping outside the temporary blogosphere wherein the viewer can be rescued by the delete button.
Evidence of this can be found in this book, the result of Cape Town-based blogger Chris von Ulmenstein’s misguided belief that she can string enough repetitive words, clumsy sentences and grammatical monstrosities together and call the end product a book. Or as she refers to it in the gluttonous stretches of self-praise with which Switchbitch’s development and publication are blogged about, “The Book”.
The title of this piece of vainglorious self-publication gives one an idea of what to expect, despite the pain of seeing it having been copied from Roald Dahl’s momentous short-story collection of the same name. Although the My Journey of Transformation from Sour to Sweet sub-title is original Von Ulmenstein, and about as creative as this publication gets.
There are two parts to the story of her life thus far which are, incomprehensibly, deemed writing about and, even more amazing, seen as being of interest to anyone. The first wad has a lot to do with a guy by the name of Graham Goble, who may be familiar to readers of the blog and to whom the first half of the book is actually dedicated. For it was apparently Graham’s charm and his generous offerings of “love and kindness” wrapped in “extreme honesty when needed” that triggered Von Ulmenstein’s transformation, both physically and on a deeper level that must have been spiritual: “I trusted the Universe in guiding me when the time was right to start writing The Book…..”, she writes.
In this first part there is a lot of visiting some kind of silent, spiritual retreats in the Cape, intermingled with dancing on Sunday night’s and receiving flattering compliments from friends and strangers – mainly about her change in appearance. Spiritually there are interactions with sangomas, bouts of self-reflecting and restorative meditation and the consuming of magic mushrooms.
But it was Graham’s copious flirtation and genuine-sounding flattery that caused Von Ulmenstein’s internal universe to begin fluttering, igniting the process leading to that physical and spiritual makeover that readers of the book are subjected to.
As things tend to happen in Von Ulmenstein’s universe, this infatuation and love does not last. Graham is unmasked as something of caddish Lothario who tends to be more attracted to Von Ulmenstein’s generosity with her wallet and her providing of material comforts than the nurturing loving care, sparkling witty conversation and boundless intellect she brought to this life-changing liaison. But at the end of it all, poor Graham is dismissed as a “manipulative dishonest charlatan”, a description that would no doubt have been much worse had he deigned to make a substandard dry cappuccino.
The second part of the book is My Memoir, which reads like a teenaged schoolgirl’s journal that had been jotted beneath the sheets in the bed of boarding school dormitory while chomping on Quality Streets. The prose is even more cumbersome than the first half, although not quite as boring as the life of the subject it tells about.
Growing up in the Boland, the young Von Ulmenstein and food-reviewer-to-be was nurtured on a diet of her mother’s Germanic cuisine, which would – admittedly – make acerbic and opinionated food critics out of most of us. Perhaps it was the cabbage, sausages and potatoes they were weaned on, but it quickly becomes evident that there are some serious family issues. As the following paragraph shows: “The first problem with my family came when Johann and Bettina (sister) moved to Noordhoek, in a large nice house, and I always thought that he (Johann) bought the house there to isolate Bettina as far as possible from the rest of the family and friends.” Later she describes her sister as having a “psychological disability.”
In another event, Von Ulmenstein had to ask another sister to stop her daughter from making “disparaging posts” about Aunt Chris on twitter, eventually resorting to a lawyer when the sister refused to intervene. (I guess the launch of this book was not a family affair.)
And then the kicker as she writes: “….it is comforting to hear that ours is as dysfunctional a family as there are many others”.
Things get heavier when our Von Ulmenstein moves into the teenage and adult world. Her Stellenbosch University boyfriend becomes husband, and fails to make their wedding night a sexually satisfying encounter. Perhaps the service was curt and the dry cappuccino remained dry.
Then there is divorce. A move to Johannesburg to work in the advertising industry and to entertain various lovers about, fortunately, not too much detail is given.
Back to Cape Town, and there is the creation of a child. I had heard of this conception but assumed it had occurred by means of a Nespresso machine, a balsamic vinegar container or an empty bratwurst wrapper. It was, in fact, through the instrumental intervention of one Rob, who according to Von Ulmenstein, was not only a fertiliser but great in the sack where she was “like putty in his hands”.
Of course Rob leaves the cosy unit, and the reader is subjected to moving passages documenting the hardships of single-parenthood while maintaining a profession in marketing, advertising and public relations. As a Cape Town guest-house owner, Von Ulmenstein becomes involved in the hospitality industry where her reputation as being contrarian is underscored with the beginning of the now infamous Whale Tales Blog.
The blog plays an important part in this book of hers. Not having enough material or being a competent enough writer to sustain a truly engaging and informative narrative, a large segment of the publication is pure regurgitation of already published Whale Tales pieces. These include those famous ponderous nit-picky restaurant reviews that led to the ego being expanded into a bloated enough form to create the false illusion that there would, somehow, be enough interest in her writing to warrant a book. Even if it meant Von Ulmenstein having to resort to self-publishing, as the general standard of the story and its disjointed, mediocre telling would not even be acceptable to a publisher of dog-food manuals.
But she is not entirely to blame. Schmoozing Cape Town PR types desperate for exposure, fawning restaurateurs scared of eliciting negative comment and phoney associates calling themselves friends have fed the monster into a state of inflated self-importance and illusionary belief that those words and opinions deserve to be heard on a higher plane.
Anyone planning to buy this book should be warned that this is not the case. And mine is now rested.
- Emile Joubert won the kykNET-Rapport Prize for Book Reviewer of the Year for 2017.