Tribute by Eusebius McKaiser


I cannot believe my very special friend, Konstantin Sofianos, died this morning. Even when you know someone is dying, death hits you like a ton of bricks. May you rest in peace, Konstantin, and, to quote from your last email to a bunch of us, ‘I hope to catch you on the other side.’

I know we had a few friends in common from Oxford, in the Rhodes Scholar community, and friends, colleagues and students of Konstantin at UCT where he was teaching English. I am terribly sorry for our loss, and particularly the loss and pain his family, and partner, must be experiencing.

And I am sorry for our mutual friends finding out the news here. Konstantin has, very bravely, been battling cancer for a long time now, and died in Germany where he had undergone final, risky treatment, that didn’t work out.

I will remember Konstantin as deceptively shy, and even timid, when you first meet him, looking, I don’t know, almost wistful; but a beer or three later and it is clear that you are in the presence of a very fine intellect, and an emotionally present friend, and interlocutor. It always almost embarrassed me to be in conversation with Konstantin because he was a very active, and close, listener; he really wanted to hear YOU, and your thoughts, and views. But the source of embarrassment is that when he spoke, you listened to someone with an enormous wealth of knowledge, and insight, into a vast range of areas from obscure, long-dead writers in his field of study, to contemporary South African politics, music, philosophy and more. And then you hope that, despite his generous listening capacity, you did not disappoint because clearly he knew twice as much as you about most subjects.

The reason? He was one of the most ferocious readers even among some very many clever, well-read friends and acquaintances. Even while Konstantin was dying, he was reading lots, buying books, and consuming art, film and the other things that gave him enormous joy, and defined in part who he was.

It was such a pleasure to have him on my radio shows talking literature, and those audio clips I will dig up, and cherish; as well as some fine book reviews, an essay on Franschhoek Literary Festival that was really insightful about festivals in general; a stinging piece about the flaws in and shortcomings of Xolela Mangcu’s Biko (which incurred Mangcu’s hasty wrath), and other literary and socio-political comment. I wish he had written more, but Mother Nature had other plans.

He wrote us emails periodically over the past year or so as he was battling cancer, and those emails will remain the private treasures of us who received it. But they were truly amazing: no self-pity, and yet incredible frankness, and humanity, about what he was experiencing, and all the while concern for his loved ones and friends; even so, the emails were never morbid, but filled with incredible parenthetical remarks about politics, books, music, and even cancer and illness itself. So while the emails were aimed at being updates about his medical journey, they were in fact more often than not mini-essays, and filled with cleverness. I must confess that I was simultaneously sad, and yet always at least once chuckling, when reading those emails, and EVERY single time learning about a writer or a concept or a musician I had never heard of because, well, he dug deeper into the world of books and art than I will yet be able to.

My last direct conversation with my friend was about 15 days ago. We talked about death, dying and living. And, after over a year of not daring to ask, I selfishly decided to ask Konstantin about his terrifying experience of being told by doctors he ought to have been dead already, and wondering what his source of strength was; I wanted to know but had self-censored because I thought he alone must decide what he wants to share as he fought this illness, but I could not keep the wondering to myself anymore; we even talked about assisted suicide, which he was – as I am – in support of. But it wasn’t an option for him, because of a beautiful reason. His remaining and persisting zest for life, he told me, was seeing the love of his partner and family throughout his battle with illness. He felt filled with their love, and the love of friends, and he said of what he observed, ‘It’s love in motion, exactly, and you’re nothing, nothing at all, but what they’ve made you, somehow. Faced with that, you have to keep your end up, and help, while you can.’

I was deeply moved by such profound selflessness.

But perhaps my fondest memories will be of me, him and Rebecca Davis in Oxford, getting drunk on cheap wine, and dangerously cheap Tesco’s pasta and stuff classified as food, while singing along to cheesy 80s music clips on YouTube, battling Oxonian discontent.

Rebecca and I plan to repeat that bit of memory when we see each other at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, which is also, aptly, where I last saw Konstantin before he started treatment.

Let me listen to one of your favourite tracks while sipping Vodka and orange juice, a track which I know you imposed on your students too, and rightly so! – Bob Dylan, Shelter From The Storm:

RIP Konstantin. Much love.