Reading South Africa

This December, I spent three weeks in South Africa. Through the course of my life, I’ve been intellectually and emotionally involved with the country to an unusual degree. Growing up, I sneaked Donald Wood’s biography of Steve Biko from my father’s bookshelf, and read it at around the time when one’s sense of the political is just beginning to evolve. A biography of Desmond Tutu followed (somehow, I never got around to reading Long Walk to Freedom), as did Cry the Beloved Country, both while I was twelve years old. A Nadine Gordimer short story stood out in a turgid CBSE English school syllabus. In college, a friend introduced me to Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which (expectedly) had a singularly powerful impact. And more recently, in my work as a lawyer, the South African constitutional court has shaped my thinking in ways too foundational to articulate.

So I decided to try and skim the surface of South African literature as I traipsed around Johannesburg, Soweto, the Drakensburg mountains, Durban, and Cape Town. This is what emerged:

Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa: A historian-friend recommended this to me as the Howard Zinn of South African history writing. It’s a dense and accessible text that covers the history of South Africa from pre-colonial days to the Zuma Presidency. Zinn it is decidedly not – it reads more as a self-conscious attempt to appear balanced and objective, rather than a radical account (a particularly bizarre moment was its description of the British as having “withdrawn” from their African colonies in the 1960s). Nonetheless, it’s a very good book to read just before visiting the country, as it allows the visitor to contextualise locations and places beyond their physical appearance. It is also a good book to read before diving into famous South African literature, much of which is political, and contains coded references to some of the more notorious events of the apartheid regime. It was because I had read Thompson, for instance, that I could make sense of the references to the transition-era violence that is the centrepiece of Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, or the 19th-Century frenzy of cattle-killing that is the subject of the same author’s The Heart of Redness.

Zakes Mda, Ways of DyingSouth Africa’s transition to democracy was not peaceful. The years 1991 to 1994 saw widespread violence. Part of it was the apartheid’s regime continuation of its previous conduct towards the African population, but a significant part of it was also Black-on-Black violence, as rival factions jockeyed for position in the coming order (this episode of South African history is unsparingly depicted in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum). In particular, regime-supported violence by the Inkatha Freedom Party aimed at destabilising the ongoing political negotiations was particularly brutal, as was the “necklacing” of supposed political informants. 

Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying takes a scalpel to this immensely difficult topic, and what emerges is a haunting story that has resonances of Lord of the Flies (in its stark excavation of human atrocity) as well as To Kill a Mockingbird (in its refusal to abandon hope). The protagonist is Toloki, South Africa’s only “professional mourner” – a man who makes his living in an unnamed South African city by visiting (ever-increasing) funerals and mourning for the dead. During a rare Christmas-day funeral of a young boy, Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman he once knew in his village, and who has just lost her son to the ongoing violence. Through narrative flashbacks, Toloki and Noria’s lives intertwine and come apart, until together, they try to build a life and meaning amidst the continuing wreckage. With a combination of vivid imagery (“His memories have faded from the deep yellow-ochre of the landscape, with black beetles rolling black dung down the slopes, and colourful birds swooping down to feed on the helpless insects, to a dull canvas of distant and misty grey…”), wry humour (“Toloki joined some boys who were sitting behind the church, drinking the brandy that they had stolen from the house of the minister, while he was busy saving people from fire and brimstone in the church…”), unsparing political insight that refrains from descending into polemic (“Police bullets have a strange way of ricocheting off the walls of township houses, and when they do, there is bound to be a child about whom they never miss…”), and the intensely personal (“I want to create from dreams, like you…”), Ways of Dying is a unique artistic achievement.

Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness: One of the most controversial events in the colonial history of South Africa is the Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1856 – 1857, when, responding to the millenarian predictions of a young prophetess called Nongqawuse, members of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape region engaged in mass slaughter of their own cattle, and burnt their own crops. Some – “the Unbelievers” – refused to do so, and were accused of collusion with the colonisers. Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness explores two parallel events: Nongqawuse’s movement of 1856 – 1857 (placed in the context of the escalating conflict between the Xhosa and the colonial invaders), and a deep schism in a coastal village in the “new and democratic South Africa”, caused by the government’s plans to build a gambling casino and a water resort upon the traditional lands. In Mda’s novel, the conflict between the “Believers” and the “Unbelievers” plays itself out once more in the present day, with the descendants of the Believers now fighting to save the village from the government’s plans, while the Unbelievers celebrate the inevitable oncoming of modernity.

The Heart of Redness shifts continuously – sometimes dizzyingly – between past and present; this is exacerbated by Mda’s deliberate use of the same names for some of the protagonists. Underlying these shifts and overlaps is a now-familiar theme: the end of colonialism (and, in this case, apartheid) was less a transformation of an unjust order, and more a continuation of the same. This is highlighted by the repeated – and ironic – invocation of the “new and democratic South Africa”, and the Mda’s unsparing dissection of the conduct of the colonisers and the (colonial) conduct of the government, placed side by side:

“He had been a governor in Australia and New Zealand, they said, where his civilizing mission did many wonderful things for the natives of those countries. Of course he had to take their land in return for civilization. Civilisation is not cheap. He had written extensively about the native people of those countries, and about their plants. He had even given names to ten of their rivers, and to their mountain ranges. It did not matter that the forebears of those natives had named those rivers and mountains from time immemorial. When Ned told them about the naming of the rivers, a derisive elder had called Grey The Man Who Named Ten Rivers. And that became his name.”

And:

“After the chief has introduced the visitors, Lefa Leballo makes a brief speech. He tells the villagers how lucky they are to be living in a new and democratic South Africa where the key word is transparency. In the bad old days, such projects would be done without consulting them at all. So, in the same spirit that the government has respected them by consulting them, they must also show respect to these important visitors, by not voicing the objections that he heard some of the villagers were having about a project of such national importance.”

Much like Ways of Dying, Mda’s accomplishment is to yank off the democratic mask of a coercive State apparatus and the existing economic and political order, while preserving the integrity of the novel, and refusing the temptation of the polemic. And much like Ways of Dying, he does this with intensely-written characters, and deeply evocative prose:

“Qukezwa sings in such beautiful colours. Soft colours like the ochre of the yellow gullies. Reassuring colours of the earth. Red. Hot colours like blazing fire. Deep blue. Deep green. Colours of the valleys and the ocean. Cool colours like the rain of summer sliding down a pair of naked bodies… she sings in soft pastel colours, this Qukezwa. In crude and glaring colours. And in bright glossy colours. In subdued colours of the newly turned fields. All at the same time.”

Lewis Nkosi, Underground People: At one level, Lewis Nkosi’s Underground People is a political thriller. It is set in Tabanyane, a thinly-fictionalised village at the northern border of South Africa, in the period just before the transition (1988? 1989?), when the thinly-fictionalised “National Liberation Movement” is simultaneously pursuing guerrilla warfare against the apartheid regime, and attempting to engage in back-channel negotiations. Cornelius Molapo, a teacher and an ideologue of the NLM, is selected by the Movement to travel to Tabanyane (his birthplace), and take charge of an incipient armed rebellion against the regime, as well as the local chief. To facilitate his departure from Johannesburg, the NLM enacts Molapo’s “disappearance” from his home. As the disappeared teacher becomes a cause celebre abroad, the (even more) thinly-fictionalised “Human Rights International” gets involved, and sends Anthony Ferguson, a white South African who left his country fifteen years ago, to investigate the “disappearance.” The action shifts between the cloying environs of Johannesburg, and the forests of Tabanyane, where the long-suppressed contradictions of the apartheid regime are about to explode into catastrophic violence.

What sets Underground People apart from a regular political novel (and it is a very good political novel – fast-paced, intricate, and with a twist-of-the-knife ending) is the depth that Nkosi gives to his characters. Anthony Ferguson as the white liberal South African, uneasily attempting to straddle two worlds, and ending up utterly ineffectual in both; Joe Bulame, the NLM operative, a paradoxical blend of principles and opportunism; Princess Madi, an equally paradoxical blend of liberation ideology and conservatism; and of course, Molapo himself, who begins his career among the “Underground People” utterly unfit for the role, but gradually finds himself growing into it. For a novel that is unashamedly political, Nkosi’s characters – on both sides of the divide, even the police officers upholding the apartheid regime – are sympathetic, and cannot be reduced to caricatures. And nor are the characters’ personal lives submerged by the novel’s politics – quite the opposite. In fact, some of the book’s most beautiful passages are about the characters’ personal lives; these, for instance, about Molapo’s failed marriage:

“… he was overcome by a profound depression at the thought of the crouching beast of failure which slouched at the heart of every human affection.”

And:

“… like many husbands his whole life was built on an illusion and this illusion was designed to fulfil no other function save the propping up of a personality that was in the process of disintegration.”

Achmat Dangor, Bitter FruitIn Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, Elegy of Fortinbras, the eponymous Fortinbras ends by standing over the corpse of Hamlet and saying “what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.” In Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, as South Africa transitions from the extraordinary days of the struggle to the ordinariness of a post-colonial existence, the protagonists of the struggle find themselves fading into oblivion and irrelevance, and a crumbling family is denied even the comfort of invoking tragedy to give its disintegration a sense of grandeur:

“Perhaps history had dwindled away. Their lives, Lydia’s and Silas’s, the whole country’s, had become ordinary things. Not worth recording any longer, not worth the few precious moments of her busy day.”

In the fashion of Arial Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Bitter Fruit begins with Silas Ali accidentally running into Du Boise, a former policeman who had, many years before, during apartheid, raped Silas’ wife, Lydia. The revelation shatters the uneasy equilibrium that has long existed between Silas, Lydia, and their son Michael. Even as Silas struggles with South Africa’s troubled past in his capacity as trouble-shooter for the embattled Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he is unable to come to terms with his own history:

“He knew then, several years before he encountered Du Boise in a shopping mall, that Lydia really wanted to explore some hidden pain, perhaps not of her rape, but to journey through the darkness of the silent years that had ensued between them. He was not capable of such an ordeal, he acknowledged. It would require an immersion in words he was not familiar with, words that did not seek to blur memory, to lessen the pain, but to sharpen all of those things. He was trained to find consensus, even if meant not acknowledging the ‘truth’ in all its unflattering nakedness. Hell, he had an important job, liaising between the Ministry of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was his task to ensure that everyone concerned remained objective, the TRC’s supporters and its opponents, that they considered the law above all, and did not allow their emotions to sway them. What would happen if he broke his own golden rule and delved into the turmoil of memories that the events of those days would undoubtedly unleash?”

This paragraph is at the heart of Bitter Fruit, a subtle yet immensely powerful interweaving of the personal and the political, and an exploration of the overwhelming weight of history that can suffocate both an individual and a nation. Bitter Fruit moves seamlessly between the two, and uses each to illuminate the dark corners of the other. Through some extraordinarily evocative prose (“her joy pressed like a dead flower between her unsmiling lips“; “frontiers of emotion without twilight“; “Did the slow crumbling of their relationship begin there, the relentless tides of their different histories start their corrosive wearing away of love?”; “Affection flickers once more, a brief, candlewick flame that hisses and goes out.”), Dangor paints both a family and a country trapped in a web of constraint, primarily of their own making.

In its uninhibited – yet perceptive – exploration of sexuality, Bitter Fruit reminds one of Philip Roth; in its unsparing description of a family slowly – yet inevitably – coming apart, it has echoes of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night; and in the subtlety with which it explores human relationships, it makes one think of Julian Barnes. A combination of the three creates a novel, reading which is an almost visceral experience, and which lingers to haunt you long after you have put it down.

Damon Galgut, In a Strange RoomPossibly the strangest – and saddest – book in this list. In a Strange Room is not, strictly, about South Africa, although the narrator is South African, and a small part of the action takes place in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Rather, it is about solitude and rootlessness, both physical and emotional. In a Strange Room is a collection of three stories; in each, the narrator – switching between a contemporaneous first-person voice and a later third-person voice – begins with undertaking a journey of escape (from his country? himself?), while being ironically aware of the impossibility of such an undertaking:

“And maybe that is the true reason for this journey, by shedding all the ballast of familiar life they are each trying to recapture a sensation of weightlessness they remember but perhaps never lived, in memory more than anywhere else traveling is like free-fall, or flight.”

However, he soon finds himself entwined with the lives and journeys of others, whether as a “follower” (Story 1), a “lover” (Story 2″, or a “guardian” (Story 3). These relationships – which are contained, constrained, unfulfilled, and ultimately end in devastation – come to define both himself, and his journey (a hiking trip across Lesotho, a frantic dash across southern Africa, and a futile, weaving tour around southern India). And each relationship is characterised by a failure of language (“why is violence always so easy to imagine but tenderness stays locked in words for me?“; “He would like to say something, the perfect single word that contains how he feels, but there isn’t any such word“; “… perhaps everything comes down to one silence too many), the impossibility of closure (“… there are still times, walking on a country road alone, when he would not be surprised to see a dark figure in the distance, coming towards him“; “the journey hasn’t ended where he wanted it to, it has frayed out instead into endless ambiguities and nuances, like a path that divides and divides endlessly, growing fainter all the time“; “Whatever they say, it is in breezy phrases like these, phrases without content, or perhaps too much“;), and, ultimately, the impossibility of any kind of permanence, an idea that is reflected in the very act of traveling (quick glimpses of other lives that glance off his in a tiny collision of images…”):

“A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.”

Athol Fugard, Plays (1) (Contemporary Classics Edition): This volume features five of Fugard’s plays: The Road to MeccaA Place with the PigsMy Children! My Africa!Playland, and Valley Song. It is an interesting collection, which showcases different aspects of Fugard’s work, at various places along the personal/political spectrum. The Road to Mecca is about the troubled relationship between an ageing woman and a young social worker, and is a powerful story about how art can be a woman’s means of escape from repressive social structures (‘Never light a candle carelessly, and be sure you know what you’re doing when you blow one out…’); A Place with the Pigs is a curious play, a take on the real-life Pavel Navrovsky, a Soviet army deserter in World War II, who spent the next forty-one years hiding in a pig-sty (“… leaden footed little seconds, sluggish minutes, reluctant hours, tedious days, monotonous months and then, only then, the years crawling past like old tortoises.“) My Children! My Africa! is the most explicitly political play in the collection, exploring a doomed friendship between a Thami and Isabel, a black and a white student, at the time when student protests against the Bantu system of education are reaching their crescendo (“The ‘revolution’ has only just begun, and you’re already word-perfect.”). Playland intertwines the personal and the political, consisting entirely of a conversation between a white Afrikaner who fought against SWAPO, and a black African who killed a white man for raping his fiancee (If I forgive you, then I must forgive Andries Jacobus de Lange, and if I forgive him, then I must ask God to forgive me… and then what is left? Nothing! I sit here wit nothing… tonight… tomorrow… all my days and all my nights… nothing!“). And Valley Song – the only play in the collection written after the end of apartheid – (unsurprisingly) deals with the slow erosion of the old ways, and the birth-pangs of the new, through the relationship between a grandfather and his talented grand-daughter, who cannot wait to leave the quiet backwaters for a life in Johannesburg.

One feature of Fugard’s play is the extreme minimalism when it comes to the number of characters. In each of the play, there are either two or three characters. Consequently, there is great stress on dialogue, on the slow unfolding of the inter-personal relationships, and on the characters themselves. For the most part, this works well, since Fugard is particularly good at building up to a crescendo through dialogue, and also at investing his characters with great depth. At times I was reminded of Brian Friel (especially plays such as Faith Healer, which has three characters and is written only in a monologue), although (most) of the plays in this collection are significantly more optimistic about the human condition than Friel’s work. For all that, the subtle exploration of individual human relationships in the backdrop of apartheid – which (apart from My Children! My Africa!) remains in the background, out of sight yet always sensed – makes this collection particularly valuable.

Dikgang Moseneke, My Own LiberatorA bit of non-fiction – a memoir – to wrap things up, but the story it tells is more than a match for any work of fiction. In 1963, Dikgang Moseneke was fifteen years old when he was convicted of sabotage against the apartheid regime, and sentenced to a ten-year prison term on Robben Island. At Robben Island, he completed a degree in literature and political science, and taught himself law. He was also part of a prison hunger-strike, which resulted in a substantial amelioration of prison conditions, one of which was permission to play sport – and he then became the head of the Robben Island prisoners’ football association. After serving his ten-year sentence, Moseneke was then subjected to a five-year long banning order that confined him to his parents’ home; nonetheless, he successfully completed a law degree, got married, and started the fourth black law firm in Pretoria. He sued the Law Society for refusing to admit him as an attorney, and won. He was a founder-member of the Black Lawyers’ Association, and as State repression intensified in the 1980s, he defended scores of anti-apartheid activists in court. Moseneke survived two assassination attempts, became the Deputy President of the Pan-African Congress (PAC) during the transition years, served on the drafting committee of the Interim Constitution, was one of the two chairpersons of the Electoral Commission overseeing South Africa’s first ever democratic election (alongside Johann Kriegler), then became the Chairperson of Telkom (the State-owned telecommunications company), represented Winnie Mandela against Nelson Mandela when he sacked her from his cabinet, and finally, in 2001, was appointed as a judge (and subsequently, Deputy Chief Justice) of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, where he served until 2016.

By any standards, this is a truly extraordinary life. From the daily prison schedule at Robben Island to last-ditch negotiations to persuade the reluctant Inkatha Freedom Party to participate in the 1994 elections, from fighting against preventive detention in the apartheid courts to writing an important judgment on joint criminal liability for the Constitutional Court, Moseneke’s memoir is a fascinating account of a tumultuous half-century by a person who not only had a ringside view, but was an active participant and a shaper of things amidst all the tumult.

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Connections: George Orwell and Zakes Mda

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”

  • George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

“She sings in glaring colours. In violent colours. Colours of gore. Colours of today and of yesterday. Dreamy colours. Colours that paint nightmares on barren landscapes. She haunts yesterday’s reefs and ridges with redness. And from these a man who is great at naming emerges. He once named ten rivers. Now he rides wildly throughout kwaXhosa, shouting at the top his voice, declaring to everyone who cares to listen, “Finally I have pacified Xhosaland!”

Pacified homesteads are in ruins. Pacified men register themselves as pacified labourers in emerging towns. Pacified men in their emaciated thousands. Pacified women remain to tend the soil and build pacified families. When pacified men return, their homesteads have been moved elsewhere, and crammed into tiny pacified villages. Their pacified fields have become rich settler farmlands.”

  • Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness

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“… overwhelmed by the dizzying madness of reality”: Yoss’ ‘A Planet for Rent’

The idea of the voyage was Jowe’s, and when he speaks of it, the words that emerge from his lips sound like beauty itself.”

Space-faring science fiction has often been associated with the narrative of colonialism. There is more than a kernel of truth to this assertion: Galactic exploration across the terra nullius of open space, chiseled pioneers opening the gates to the unknown, and Contact stories that invariably portray alien species as the impenetrable Other, incomprehensible at best and dreaded enemies at worst. Starship Troopers is a particularly crude version of this phenomenon, while Avatar is a more subtle account that ostensibly undermines the tropes while continuing to reinforce them.

Sooner or late, of course, each narrative produces its counter-narrative. In Embassytown, China Mieville writes of Contact gone horribly wrong, as cynical human attempts to exploit a species incapable of telling a lie descend into a bloody conflict. But if Mieville’s novel is still written from the perspective of colonizing humans, it is Jose Miguel Sanchez Gomez – or “Yoss” – in whose work we find a true “writing back” to the dominant register. Yoss is a Cuban punk-rocker science-fiction writer with a degree in biology, who knows a thing or two about being at the receiving end of economic and military colonialism. And A Planet for Rent is an incredibly powerful, haunting set of interconnected short stories of a Galaxy in which all earth has become a Colony.

The premise is simple. After watching the leaders of Earth take the planet to the brink of destruction with their ceaseless internecine conflicts, the benevolent space-faring species of the Galaxy intervene and take over. Like the “Mandate” system imposed by the Western “Great Powers” under the League of Nations, humans are kept in tutelage by “the Galactic community, into which they would be accepted one not very distant day, with the rights of full membership…” (p. 12) In the meantime, the landscape of Earth is regenerated, and the Planet transformed into a tourist destination for the well-endowed amongst the Galactic races, whether it is to embark on big game hunts, observe the local populace, or simply experience what it is like to be a different species, through entering the bodies of human criminals sentenced to the punishment of becoming “body spares” for a period.

“Body spares” is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this futuristic, inter-species colonial relationship, but the rest of it sounds rather familiar. It is. And so are the corollaries. Under the velvet glove of benevolent tutelage lies the grasping, iron hand of violent repression, cynical collaboration and futile resistance, tightly controlled emigration implemented by a brutal colonial gendarmerie, an economic embargo that suffocates any attempts at terrestrial development, and systematic brain drain to the many metropolises (“You didn’t invent the brain drain, but you perfected and institutionalized it” says an immigration applicant to his Cetian interrogators).

Yoss’ characters are human beings struggling to survive – and negotiate – their existences as colonial subjects at the bottom of the Galactic hierarchy. In a series of interconnected stories (interspersed with wry and savage interludes containing nuggets of tantalising information about the social and economic structure of the Galaxy), Yoss explores the lives of a sex worker trying to escape Earth by becoming attached to a “Grodo”, a performing artist eking out a living from Planet to Planet, an athlete dreaming of revenge by defeating a multi-species team in a game of “Voxl”, a guard at the space-port, a scientist trying to immigrate for a better life, a rebel dreaming of Galactic spaceflight, and an Earthbound girl taken under the protection of a “Colossaur”. What makes the stories of A Planet for Rent particularly compelling is that in Yoss’ world there are no heroes, no tales of organised resistance (whether triumphant or tragic), no grand conflict in the theatre of space, no sanctity or sublimation. His characters are so occupied with bettering the conditions of their existence, that they have no luxury of thinking through the deeper questions of the injustices of colonialism and the possibilities of resistance (and those who do either meet a tragic end, or disabuse themselves of such notions before things come to such a pass.)

If Planet for Rent tells the story of a colonized world, but consciously eschews a story of resistance, then what is it about? It is about the everyday interactions between the colonizers and the colonized, the exercise of power not at a grand level but in the organisation of thought, feeling and action that constitutes the lifeworld, the capturing of that nameless experience that structures an unequal relationship. This is where Yoss is a consummately skilled craftsman: his characters are of a type without losing their individuality: grafters, collaborators, pragmatists, opportunists, human; his encounters are familiar without losing their authenticity: the insufficiency of benevolent masters who nonetheless remain masters, betrayal in a world where loyalty offers no reward and has lost its meaning, the impossibility of ideals in a compromised relationship; and the clear political undertones do nothing to take away from the spinning of a jolly good yarn: Yoss is particularly masterful at that last twist of the knife that ends the story (sometimes literally), that leaves you shaken and grasping for support at the dissolving straws of hoped-for happy endings. All this is done in a wry, ironic tone, often with hilariously funny dialogue (or interior monologue) that draws the reader into laughter for that brief moment before she becomes aware of the darkness that lies beneath. In its review, The Nation has the best set of words to describe it: “riotously funny, scathing, perceptive, and yet also heart-wrenchingly compassionate.”

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Filed under Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized, Yoss

Connections: W.H. Auden and Miroslav Holub on the Dying Town as the Dying Body

“But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.”

Inside there may be growing
an abandoned room,
bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung,
a disconnected phone,
feathers settling on the floor
the encyclopaedists have moved out and
Dostoevsky never found the place,

lost in the landscape
where only surgeons
write poems.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Modernism: Second Generation, W.H. Auden

Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kis, Zbigniew Herbert

In his introduction to Danilo Kis’ A Tomb for Boris Davidovich – a collection of short stories about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarianism –  Joseph Brodsky writes:

“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”

While I am not entirely convinced about this seeming privileging of an aesthetic response to totalitarianism over a political response, the sentiment is portrayed with a particular impact in a poem that I came across today, Zbigniew Herbert’s The Power of Taste:

It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

I particularly like “chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails/ the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning/ syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive…”, for the physical sensation of the language, and for its sense of how the constriction of language is inevitably a precursor to the constriction of imaginative worlds and of empathy (the word “chains” is particularly well-placed).

I am reminded of two other poems. The slightly defamiliarising “necessary courage” recalls the fare more defamliarising “necessary murder” used by Auden in Spain, almost as a counterpoint: “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder...” Auden later disavowed this too-quick endorsement of revolutionary violence, and renounced the poem entirely. And “cartilege of conscience” brings to mind the “vertebraed with veracities” of Jorge Fernandez Granados’ Reconciliation, a poem about doubt and the end-of-the-rainbow quest for certainty. Both poems use an image of the body to capture that sensation that occupies that nameless space somewhere between firmness and rigidity.

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Filed under Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

“Such a meaningless thing as the judgment of history…”: Ahmadou Kourouma’s ‘Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote’

“You are now considered to be the breakwater on which founder the waves of international communism surging towards Africa. The media and public opinion in the Free World no longer have the right to criticize you. One does not demoralize a solder fighting at the front by criticizing the way he handles his rifle.”

There is a point in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote when the first elected President of the newly-independent Republique du Golfe is attempting to resist the coup that will soon cost him his position and his life. If he is killed, he says to his advisers, “it would mean that everything I have learned is sham, lies, that all my spiritual leaders have lied to me. It would mean that Africa is a sham, a lie; that talismans and sacrifices are worthless. It is unthinkable, impossible. It cannot be true.” There is something particularly poignant about “it would mean that Africa is a sham” at the moment of the strangulation of a fledgeling African democracy, a collateral casualty in Cold War politics, and a moment that occurs and recurs in the actual late-20th century history of the continent. If Africa, at that point, symbolises a long history of colonialism, resistance, and (ultimately) liberation, then the guns and soldiers that surround the Presidential Palace represent the “sham” that liberation ultimately turns out to be.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts is a story of that sham. It is narrated over six nights – “six vigils” – by Bingo, a griot and his “responder”, Tiecoura, in the presence of Koyaga, ‘President-Dictator’ of the Republique du Golfe, his ‘Minister of Orientation’, and seven most celebrated hunters of the Republic. Tiecoura, like the court jesters of the medieval European kings, “can do as he wishes, everything is permitted him, and nothing that he does goes unpardoned.” Through the course of the six vigils, then, the griot and his responder (with various interjections by the Minister) recount the personal history of Koyaga in the form of a donsomana (a performed epic) which, inevitably, becomes the history of the Republique du Golfe, and a searing indictment both of colonialism and of the betrayal of the post-colonial promise.

In his essay on Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry highlights the “two voices” of the Roman epic: the dominant register, which celebrates conquest and imperium, linking Aeneas to Augustus, but also a counterpoint, a submerged register that questions and undermines that narrative. In Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, there are not two, but three voices that complicate the narrative. The dominant register is the griot’s donsomana, which is essentially a praise-song. Its form requires vaulting hyperbole and exaggeration, (deliberately) performed to such an extent that it overleaps itself and falls upon the side of disbelief. Koyaga is made out to be a man with superhuman powers, protected by the magic of his mother and a seer; his exploits while serving in the French army in Indochina, his violently successful ascent to the Presidency of the Republique du Golfe, and his surviving multiple assassination attempts, are all attributed to magic. The coup that ends with the murder of the elected President Santos is depicted as a clash between two powerful shamans, hurling magic at each other. But even as these stories are told, the griot also provides his audience the other, more prosaic explanations (political intrigue, betrayal, outright violence, chance), while ostensibly debunking them as the invention of bitter and jealous political opponents. And even beyond these two voices contained within the donsomana, Tiecoura takes advantage of the latitude offered him to – occasionally – disrupt the praise-song by speaking some blunt home-truths to power:

Koyaga, you have many faults, grave faults. You were, you are as tyrannous as a savage beast, as untruthful as an echo, as brutal as a lightning strike, as murderous as a lycaon, as emasculating as a castrator, as populist as a griot, as corrupt as a louse, as libidinous as a pair of ducks. You are… You are… You have many other faults which if one were to try to expound them all, catalogue each one at a stroke, it would surely tear one’s mouth at the corners. So specifies the responder, redoubling his jeers, which draw a good-natured smile from him they appear to insult.”

These three registers mingle, alternate and disrupt each other, never quite allowing the reader to settle. What emerges from them is a highly effective – and unsparing – critique of mid-20th century African history. Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o in The Wizard of the Crow (which was written ten years after Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), Kourouma is painfully aware of the ‘Free World’s’ Cold War-induced complicity in creating and propping up African dictatorships:

De Gaulle succeeded in granting independence without decolonizing. He succeeded in this by inventing and supporting presidents of republics who referred to themselves as fathers of the nation, architects of the independence of their countries, when in fact they had done nothing to win independence for their republics and were not the real masters, the true leaders of their peoples.”

This is a familiar theme, described eloquently by Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country. Recounting the manner in which the elections leading up to the independence of Nigeria were rigged by the outgoing British colonialists, Achebe writes that “In a sense, Nigerian independence came with a British governor general in command, and, one might say, popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from birth.”

And yet, Kourouma is also keenly aware of the risks in letting this origin story become determinative of the future, and of reducing causality to a linear sequence in a manner that absolves the leaders of post-colonial African nations from the burdens of moral judgment. This comes through with particular brilliance in the griot‘s account of Koyaga’s visit to four other African dictators, who have devised various stratagems for staying in power. In particular, this is how one of them deals with an alleged communist plot against his government:

“Remembering the precepts of the Qur’an, the Emperor ordered the regiment to beat them to death before cutting off their hands, as the Belgians had routinely done in Congo, and their ears, as the French had done in Oubangui-Chari…”

In one sentence, the griot locates the origins of this particularly brutal kind of political violence in colonialism, while making it clear that the moral culpability of the doer is in no way mitigated by this history. Not only that, there is also an equally keen awareness of how that history is invoked in discourse to at least attempt to hide, or distract from, that moral culpability. While maintaining a brutally repressive regime, Koyaga memorialises the day of his father’s death as “the Feast of the Victims of Colonialism“, a moment of heavy irony where historical trauma is pressed into service for propping up a social order that exhibits many of the same tendencies that it claims to repudiate.

There is a very similar moment in The Wizard of the Crow, where a regime member’s response to external criticism is to say “Racists… putting as much hatred as he could into his voice”. The transition from reckoning with colonialism and racism for emancipatory purposes to a veil for hiding oppression is brutal and unforgiving, made all the more starker by the wry, self-aware, bleakly humorous tone that characterises both Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and The Wizard of the Crow.

The story of the Republique du Golfe is a thinly-fictionalised history of post-Independence Togo, although Togo is never mentioned. And yet, lest the fiction appear too remote, from time to time Kourouma drops in real countries and real people, as if just to remind us that this is real, this actually happened. French political interference, American and British Cold War machinations, Gaddafi and Idi Amin’s ‘African solidarity’, all play walk-on roles, and even the IMF’s notorious ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ enter an appearance, making it all too clear that despite its allegorical style, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is anything but an allegory. It is the true story of an imagined future that turned out to be – in one of the many acute proverbs that line the tale –  “as untruthful as an echo.”

 

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Filed under African Writing, Ahmadou Kourouma, Ivory Coast

Round-Up: Inoue, Barnes, Roberts, Liu

 

Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun is my first foray into Japanese literature. A novella, The Hunting Gun uses a narrative device that I recently came across in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer: the same set of contemporaneous events is described by three individuals, one after the other. Not only are there three different perspectives, three different sets of facts, but with each successive (re)telling, the story unfolds a little bit more, casting fresh (even contrary) light upon the previous narration. In The Hunting Gun, it is three letters written by three women to a man, triggered by a tragic death. What is most striking about The Hunting Gun is – like the Japanese art of bonsai – its sense of containment. In the three letters, you have betrayal, love, heartbreak, loss – themes that threaten to bubble up and spill over beyond the pages, but which always – somehow – remain there, within bounds. An instance:

“I knew love was like a clear stream that sparkled beautifully in the sun, and when the wind blew any number of soft ripples skittered across its surface, and its banks were gently held by the plants and trees and flowers, and it kept singing its pure music, always, as it grew wider and wider – that’s what love was to me. How could I have imagined a love that stretched out secretly, like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who knew where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?” 

Or:

“As you cooled, with the speed of a red-hot piece of iron plunged into water, I matched your coolness; and as I grew cold, you drew circles around me in your plummeting frigidity, until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world, in a household so cold one feels ice on one’s eyelashes.

There is a sense of balance, an almost preternatural poise in this language, where the most powerful emotions are distilled into language, but never reduced. To use Inoue’s own words, “transformed into [something] as limpid as water…“, and retaining the sense of “a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room.”

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time left me rather conflicted. On the one hand, Barnes’ exquisitely crafted sentences, his wisdom and his insights, and his ability to crystallise those insights into limpid prose. The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous 20th-Century Soviet composer, controversial because of his alleged compromises and complicity with the Stalinist regime. Barnes’ subject, then, compels him to explore some of those fundamental questions about the human condition, and especially, the human condition in the 20th century: the meaning of artistic and moral integrity, how totalitarianism can make the heart betray itself, and the ethical contortions compelled by tyranny. There are individual moments – captured, as ever, in perfectly complete sentences, which distil a thought just so – that are breathtaking. For instance: “we expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present…“; “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense...”; “... not shattering, because that implied a single great crisis. Rather, what happened to human illusions was that they crumbled, they withered away. It was a long and wearisome process, like a toothache reaching far into the soul…”; “The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old.

As a novel, however, The Noise of Time is acutely disappointing. The crushing of the individual under the ostensibly-communist, actually-totalitarian post-1930s Soviet (and post-1950s Eastern European) regimes has been a heavily written subject, from numerous angles. Kundera has written about the regimes’ attempts to control art and music (The Joke), Danilo Kis has written about individual moral degradation (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), Koestler has written about the horrors of surveillance and interrogation (Darkness at Noon), and there are many more. Reading The Noise of Time, one feels that this is ground that has been covered many times over, and by writers who had access to a more unmediated set of experiences than Barnes.

This issue might have been mitigated had Shostakovich’s character been at the front and centre of the novel. However, Shostakovich himself is painted in generic colours, a placeholder for the ordinary individual whose none-too strong character and none-too courageous heart wilts underneath Stalinism. Unlike Colm Toibin’s Henry James in The Master, for instance, who is utterly unique, Barnes’ Shostakovich is almost an allegory.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself  combines science fiction, Kantian “categories”, time travel, and a bewildering variety of stylistic variations (including one very successful one after James Joyce) in a heady mixture. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Roberts’ premise – that time and space are categories that structure and mediate our perceptions of the world, but can also be transcended – is a remarkably complex and difficult one to pull of in an actual science fiction novel, but he manages it in a quite virtuoso manner. The only downside to that is, that at times, the book is a little… difficult!

In a similar vein, Cixxin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem takes another fairly complex concept (i.e., the three-body problem!), and constructs an absolutely thrilling science fiction novel out of it. Friends have been recommending Liu to me for a couple of years now – and it was certainly worth all the hype. A novel about first contact (but not quite), The Three-Body Problem reads like old-school SF – James Blish’s Cities in Flight comes immediately to mind –  in its sense of wonder, of space, of the most haunting of questions; but it simultaneously avoids the blunders of old-school SF (the white-male-coloniser-centric worldview – it’s set in China, for a start, and has at least two female protagonists).

 

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Filed under Adam Roberts, Cixxin Liu, Inoue, Japan, Julian Barnes