Many of us, I suspect, have been flirting with apocalyptic anxiety over the past 18 months, in the face of both the Covid pandemic and the contemporaneous worsening of the global climate. For my generation, that dual whammy has been the first real wake-up call after decades of post-WWII stability, growth and relative peace. All of a sudden, in our old age, we are having to contemplate the possibility of the end of the world.
One person who didn’t need an epidemic poke-in-the-ribs to begin concerning himself with the Apocalypse was the journalist, author and poet Peter Wilhelm – my mentor and friend – who spent the past three decades conjuring up extraordinary visions of a dystopian future and the post-apocalyptic world that might follow.
Peter died earlier this week, after years of deteriorating health and increasingly bleak prognoses for the future. A few months before he died, I helped him self-publish his latest – and last – novel on Amazon; apparently the mainstream publishers who had once vied for his manuscripts no longer had the stomach for the cosmic realms to which Peter’s boundless imagination had taken him.
Titled The Way of the World Works [sic] Peter’s last novel tells of a quest through the remnants of towns left behind by a series of post-apocalyptic events that have devastated the known world. The protagonist is a young boy sent to discover a mysterious body washed up thousands of miles distant. He is accompanied and guided by an AI drone – called Beatrice, shades of Dante Alighieri’s journey through the underworld – who guides him and explains the strangeness he encounters. His life is in perpetual peril. The theme is the unraveling – and solution – of a mystery that holds out hope for the remaining humans.
Before The Way of the World Works, Peter published Whirlwind in the Thorntree (shades of Psalms 58:9 and, knowing Peter, Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’), the odyssey of two dogs through a devastated and dying country in search of their previous masters. Prior to that, he published The Mask of Freedom, which poet and author Lionel Abrahams described as “a visionary novel that sweeps across the landscape of a post-revolutionary South Africa devastated by war, starvation and pestilence.”
No surprise, then, that Peter is often regarded as a science fiction writer – a label that he probably wouldn’t have argued with (he wasn’t the argumentative kind) but I do. Peter devoured science fiction, just as he read just about everything else, but the depth of his compassion and the breadth of his vision went way beyond what is commonly regarded as science fiction.
For me he was a metaphysical writer – though he would probably hate that description – who chose to locate his explorations of being and substance in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings – settings in which ontology itself is challenged and nothing can be taken for granted. Science fiction in form, perhaps, but deeply profound studies of the nature of reality and what it means to be human.
What is most striking about his characters in their apocalyptic settings is their familiarity, despite the bizarreness of the situations in which they find themselves. They remain human as we know it: weak, confused, often overwhelmed – but almost always with hope. Peter – as thoroughly South African as any – was concerned with the concept of freedom and interrogated it in all its aspects. His conclusions (or those that I reach, based on what he has written) are not always comfortable.
Peter was a philosopher with a golden pen. Not for him the deadening prose and tongue-twisting jargon of the professional thinker. He chose fiction as his medium and he wrote like an angel on psychedelics. I have read quite a few great writers in my time and Peter doesn’t give way to any of them. Lionel Abrahams correctly regarded him as “one of South Africa’s most powerful and original story-tellers.”
I first met Peter Wilhelm in 1979, when I was a sub-editor on the Financial Mail in Johannesburg and he (about eight years my senior) was a senior editor. We clicked, despite the age gap – or perhaps because of it. We bonded over filthy humor, such as that of Derek & Clive (in reality Dudley Moore and Peter Cook – see an example here), literature, politics and salacious gossip. Peter was a superb gossip and the libidinous activities of the Financial Mail staff gave us no end of material.
Peter taught me to write – both journalism and long-form – though the pupil, as often happens, fell far short of the teacher. He also introduced me to the books of Philip K Dick, probably the most influential science fiction writer ever, and to the early music of Madonna. I disliked both, but it didn’t ruin our friendship. From Peter I learned to look behind the image or the preconception, though I didn’t always find the result appealing.
Peter was the embodiment of the saying that great things come in small (or plain) packages. His mild persona and diffident manner shrouded a Gog & Magog inner battle against his demons, a formidable intellect and incredible journalistic skill. Jeremy Gordin described him, during his days at the Financial Mail, as “the still center of a maelstrom. He patiently interrogated and re-worked countless articles brought to him by the Current Affairs staff – never, as best I know, causing offence.”
I second Jeremy’s depiction; Peter was a superb, old-school journalist. But what most appealed to me about him was his subversiveness. Behind his two-inch thick glasses (before he had laser surgery) and inexpertly concealed bald patch was a raging anarchist. He had no god (that I’m aware of) and he could see through just about everything – though he kept most of his thoughts to himself. One understood his seditious thoughts from a wry smile or a cryptic comment.
Peter was like a sleeper agent, put amongst us by the gods of scepticism to ruffle our complacency and puncture our conceit. He did that in his journalism – no pretentious bullshit ever got past his red editing pen – in his uncompromising, unerring fiction and in his everyday contacts. He was bitingly funny and maddeningly inscrutable. I didn’t always understand what he was getting at but I was invariably uplifted by my interaction with him.
A few years ago, long before I went into deep hibernation, Peter inquired about the sporadic nature of what was meant to be my regular blog.
“I haven’t seen your wise column for a while,” Peter wrote in an email. “Are you still there – if not, why not?”
“Still here,” I responded. “Just depleted, enervated, washed out.”
‘I know exactly how you feel, the ennui and all,” he replied. “A sense of futility against the world. Over here Pat and me are trying to cope with our ailments: Parkinson’s slowly advancing in her, a concern about strokes or heart attacks in mine. I was hospitalized recently but nothing was seriously wrong – though my physician gave dire warnings about ‘a lifetime of drinking and smoking’. However, I have not drunk seriously for many years and have at least cut back on smoking (though finding it difficult to cease). Otherwise it’s fucking freezing – but that too is because of climate change.”
He expanded on his hospitalization in a devastating but typically cryptic essay that was published in the Daily Maverick under the title “In the House of Death & Terminal Anguish”. “For many weeks I have seen the barely-living waiting for the end,” he wrote. “I have been very ill and (for lack of a bed, and possibly serial medical miscalculation) was housed with those whose deaths are inevitable from advanced dementia, strokes, cancer, and the general collapse of internal organs that awaits too many of us. I have not been reprieved – my doctors are not quacks – I should not have been there.”
Peter Wilhelm died in his home in Cape Town on October 17 of what I understand to have been massive organ failure.