Connections: Zbigniew Herbert, Pablo Neruda, Miroslav Holub…

… in responding to totalitarianism.

Zbigniew Herbert, Mr Cogito and the Imagination:

Mr Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors or dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
explanations
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth

Pablo Neruda, I am Explaining a Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics ?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?’

And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

Miroslav Holub
… and equally without allegory

without transcendence

and without fuss.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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“You just gave yourself to the dream in the rhythm…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The River Between’

“And she seemed to hold him still. Not with her hands. Not with anything visible. It was something inside her. What was it? He could not divine what it was. Perhaps her laughter. He thought there was magic in it because it rang into his heart, arousing things he had never felt before. And what was that shining in her eyes? Was there a streak of sadness in them? For a time Waiyaki was afraid and looked around. His mother was watching them. He turned to Muthoni. The magic was not there any more; it had gone. In the next moment Waiyaki found himself wandering alone, blindly away from the crowd, wrestling with a hollowness inside his stomach.”

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occupies pride of place as the post-colonial African novel dealing with the theme of the first contact between indigenous communities and colonial power, and the social disintegration that inevitably follows. But only seven years after Things Fall Apart, a young Ngugi wa Thiong’o published The River Between, his own novel dealing with similar themes. The River Between was Thiong’o’s first written novel (composed at university), and the second that he published. It is not as well-known as The Wizard of the Crow or Petals of Blood, and certainly not a novel that comes to mind when thinking of books that deal with the initial relationship between colonialism and community. This is a pity: in some ways, The River Between is an even more ambitious novel than Things Fall Apart, because it deals with an issue where the moral lines seem to be as clear as anything could be in our compromised world: female circumcision – or, as we know it, female genital mutilation.

The book begins like this:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their creator.

Between Kameno and Makuyu, both home to the Gikuyu people, there is an ancient rivalry, which is now exacerbated by the advent of colonialism, and the Christian religion that the colonisers bring with them. In Makuyu, Christianity has found a believer in Joshua, who has all the zeal of the convert. His proselytisation, however, creates as many enemies as it does followers; and rebellion, at last, reaches his own home. When female circumcision is banned as contrary to the Christian faith, Joshua’s daugther, Muthoni, refuses to abide by the decree, which goes to the heart of how the Gikuyu culture and way of life.

Into this milieu comes Waiyaki, the book’s ambiguous and conflicted protagonist. Waiyaki has been brought up to be the prophetic “saviour” of the people from the increasingly frequent depredations of the colonisers. Sent to be educated at the nearest missionary school – to learn the master’s tools to break down the master’s house – while retaining a firm foothold among his people, Waiyaki is the man marked to reconcile and unify the warring factions, and take on the colonisers. His chosen weapon is that of education.

However, Waiyaki will come to realise that reconciliation is not so easy. As Uzodinma Iweala remarks in his excellent introduction, while dealing with Muthoni’s own decision to undertake circumcision while remaining faithful to her father, “most utopias can accommodate only one grand vision.” Those who seek to expand them must either end in compromising, or in tragedy. And that is at the heart of The River Between.

The ambition of The River Between – as I mentioned above – is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o chooses as his site of conflict between colonial “modernity” and indigenous belief a practice that almost all of us would condemn unreservedly, both intuitively, and on careful reflection. What do the defenders of circumcision have to say for themselves? What can they possibly have to say for themselves? In Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (independent Kenya’s first President) might have written that “this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications… for the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” – but surely that is no justification for something that is so obviously oppressive.

In The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s answer is to remove the authorial voice almost entirely from the novel. Female circumcision relies entirely upon its novelistic advocates for its justification, and one of those advocates is Muthoni as well. Echoing Kenyatta, Thiong’o describes how, for Muthoni, circumcision is what gives her membership in the tribe any meaning at all; without it, she is bereft, like an atrophied limb, cut off from its body. Now, we may dismiss this as false consciousness, as internalised oppression; but Thiong’o’s Muthoni is too fiercely intelligent, too reflective, and too human for any such easy resolution. And this is the singular achievement of The River Between: Thiong’o gives us a character whom we must take seriously, whose choices we must evaluate as choices. This is particularly important because, as recent scholarship has shown, the conflict over the abolition of oppressive gender-practices between the colonisers and indigenous societies was conducted on a terrain in which any kind of agency or voice was entirely denied to those whom it was ostensibly for: women. As an Indian scholar writes, the conflict “was not so much about the specific condition of women within a definite set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and a supposed ‘tradition’ of a conquered people.” In this context, Muthoni’s is the absent voice, now foregrounded front and centre.

Muthoni’s certainty and strength of will is a stark contrast with the ambivalent and unsure Waiyaki. Primed to belong to both worlds, he too falls victim to the totalitarianism of utopias, and finds himself struggling to belong to either:

“Again he was restless and the yearning came back to him. It filled him and shook his whole being so that he felt something in him would burst. Yearning. Yearning. Was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live, a strange hollowness pursuing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest? Waiyaki could not know. Perhaps nobody could ever know. You had just to be…

Waiyaki is a neat inversion of the familiar fictional trope, the “half-blood” who, straddling two worlds, emerges as an unlikely saviour. Through Waiyaki – who, again, like Muthoni, is too human to simply reduce to a type – Thiong’o demonstrates just how difficult a task that is in moments of extreme flux, where one order, backed by raw power, clashes with another, supported on nothing but memories and dreams. And it is only towards the end of the novel that we get a sense of where Thiong’o himself stands on the issue:

“A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua. He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, he had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him promised future… if the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost.”

Here we have that flash of insight, delivered in spare, clean prose, that is such a staple of the later Thiong’o. The River Between shows us a young Thiong’o, still honing and polishing his craft, the craft that would reach its peak in a novel like The Wizard of the Crow. But for a first novel, it is still an astonishingly accomplished work, subtle, complex, and above all, humane and empathetic.

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“All I had instead of a sculptor’s talent was quiet rage and three minutes of inspiration…”: Alexandra Berlina (ed.), “Victor Shklovsky: A Reader”

I first chanced upon the Soviet literary theorist Victor Shklovsky four years ago, gatecrashing an Oxford seminar which was ostensibly about literary interpretation and the classics, but taught by a young lecturer subversive enough to slip in a little Foucault between the Homer and the Virgil. He began his course with Shklovsky’s Art as Technique. Shklovsky’s concept of ‘defamiliarisation’ fascinated me then; I read in and around the subject whenever I could. And now, with the publication of Alexandra Berlina’s Victor Shklovsky: A Reader, there exists a painstakingly compiled – and edited – volume that serves as the ideal introduction towards understanding one of the more enigmatic literary scholars – and individuals – of the 20th century.

As Berlina points out in her introduction to the Reader, “Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution, and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental hospital, almost shredded by a bomb, and while torn between an unrelenting love object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia” (Berlina). Consequently, there is little sense, she argues, in trying to separate Shklovsky’s formal scholarship from his more autobiographical writings. His books – as he said – were not written with the “quiet consistency of academic works.” In The Reader, therefore, formal essays of literary criticism rub shoulders with books of letters, technical concepts jostle with existential musings. The division is broadly chronological, divided into six parts, and an attempt to present a representative samples of Shklovsky’s writings, as he evolved and changed over time. One significant omission – for obvious reasons – is the period during which Stalinist repression was at its peak, and Shklovsky’s voice had surely become distorted out of all recognition, especially after the publication of A Monument to Scholarly Error, his recantation of formalism.The writings pick up again after the thaw, in the mid-1950s.

Through the course of the introductions – and then in Shklovsky’s own words – we are introduced to the core concepts of formalism, especially that of ostranenie (which Berlina translates as enstranging – an amalgam of ‘strange’ and ‘estrange’). Shklovsky argues that in the course of our lives, are perception of things gradually becomes “automatic”. Therefore:

“… what we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make the stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “ostranenie” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is its own end in art and must be prolonged.”

Since the purpose of art, therefore, is to de-automatise perception and replace mere recognition with actual “seeing”, “ostranenie consists in not calling a thing or event by its name but describing it as if seen for the first time, as if happening for the first time.”

As Shklovksy himself recognised, of course, the thought behind ostranenie was not entirely original. That the task of poetry was to make the ordinary strange was a leitmotif of the romantic poets, of Gerard Manley Hopkins when he wrote “all things counter, original, spare, and strange” – and, later – the basis of Eliot’s “shudder”. What Shklovsky did was to systematise and develop the concept, and give it rigour through a range of examples, in essays such as The Resurrection of the Word, Art as Technique and Literature Beyond Plot:

“The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” (from The Resurrection of the Word)

And:

“Image tropes consist in calling objects by unusual names. The goal of this device is to place an object into a new semantic field, among concepts of a different order – for instance, stars and eyes, girls and grey ducks – whereby the image is usually expanded by the description of the substituted object. Synesthetic epithets that, for instance, define auditory concepts through visual ones or vice versa, are comparable to images. For instance, crimson chimes, shining sounds. This device was popular among the Romantics… This is the work a writer does by violating categories, by wrenching the chair out of furniture.” (from Literature Beyond Plot)

(Berlina also makes the interesting point that Shklovsky’s theories were opposed to Brecht, in that the latter believed that political consciousness through art could be raised only by alienating the audience from the work, while Shklovsky “did not believe that restricting feelings was necessary in order to promote critical thought” (Berlina).)

Shklovsky’s idea of de-automatising perception is linked with his stress upon form:

“The formal method is fundamentally simple. It’s the return to craft. The most wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t deny the ideological content of art, but considers so-called content to be a phenomenon of form.”

Hence, “formalism”, or a concern “with devices created by a writer to combat automatism, to make the reader sensitive to the “content”.”

This stress on form brought Shklovsky into direct conflict with the post-revolutionary Soviet regime. After an acrimonious debate on literary theory with Trotsky, he eventually found himself in exile, in Berlin. Berlina’s account of the Russian emigre community in Berlin – with Nabokov, Gorky, Bely and Pasternak, among others – makes it sound like a rival to the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al. Shklovsky, however, felt dislocated and alienated, a situation exacerbated by an unrequited love. It was at this point that he wrote A Sentimental Journey and Zoo: Letters Not About Love. The latter is particularly interesting, because it is a book of love letters that speak about everything but love. Shklovsky would say later:

“At the time when I claimed that art was free of content and beyond emotion, I myself was writing books that were bleeding – A Sentimental Journey and Zoo. Zoo has the subtitle ‘Letters not about Love’, because it was a book about love…”

Here we see Shklovsky the individual, torn from his form and his devices, cut adrift and struggling for words. The results are strangely moving:

“This book tells about a woman who doesn’t hear me, but I’m all around her name like the surf, like an unfading garland.”

And:

“Memory became rings on the water. The rings reached the stony shore. There is no past. I won’t say: “Sea, give me back the rings.” The morning of the song never ends; it’s only us who leave. Let us see in the book, as if on water, what the heart had to cross and to pass, how much blood and pride – the things we call lyricism – remains from the past.” 

Shklovsky was eventually let back into the Soviet Union, and the rest of the book excerpts his writings after his return. In works such as The Technique of Writing CraftThe Hamburg Score, and Once Upon a Time, literary analysis merges with autobiographical detail and even more general musings:

“It’s difficult to take leave of your own childhood. You feel as if you had entered your old apartment: you see the familiar sun-bleached wallpaper, the familiar round stove in the corner, its door unpainted, and the stucco with holes poked in it, all the way to the wooden planks. There is no furniture, and you’d rather not sit on the windowsill, but you linger. You cannot live here, but how can you leave your past, on what kind of transport.”

And thoughts on the revolution:

“I remember walking with Mayakovsky, whom even now in my mind I must call Vladimir Vladimirovich, and not Volodya, along the paved streets of Petersburg, the sun-speckled avenues of the Summer Garden, the Neva embankments, the Zhukovskaya Street, where the woman lived whom the poet loved. Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.  The poet was quiet, sad, ironic, calm. He was sure – he knew – that the revolution would happen soon. He looked at the things around him the way one does then the thing is about to disappear.”

Berlina warns us that in reading Shklovsky on the Revolution, we must remember that even after the thaw, he was writing under an atmosphere of fear and censorship (this is something that comes across very strongly in some of the writings of the Strugatsky Brothers as well); and so, even his writings from the late 50s and the 60s are bound to contain occlusions and evasions. Nonetheless, what is interesting is that from Shklovsky’s writings, we get a sense of the Revolution that is very similar to what we find in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: a transient moment that saw the overturning of order, the lifting of the stifling hand of fate from individuals’ throats, and the briefest of windows where the possibility of freedom seemed visible. But then, as Shklovsky writes, in what could be a fitting epigraph:

“He hoped fervently that delusions would never disappear. They are the tracks left by the search for the truth. They are mankind looking for the meaning of life.”

An epigraph to the book, and perhaps to existence.

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Connections: Victor Shklovsky and Mourid Barghouti on sadness and satisfaction

In the footnotes to the annotated edition of The Victor Shklovsky Reader, there is a footnote that comes at the end of this paragraph from Resurrecting the Word:

The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” 

In the footnote, the editor adds:

Sadness derives from the Proto-Germanic *sadaz (satisfied), with sated progressing to weary.

This fascinating etymological connection between sadness and satisfaction finds its poetic home, I think, in Mourid Barghouti’s The Pillow, one of my favourite poems:

THE PILLOW
The pillow said:
at the end of the long day
only I know
the confident man’s confusion,
the nun’s desire,
the slight quiver in the tyrant’s eyelash,
the preacher’s obscenity,
the soul’s longing
for a warm body where flying sparks
become a glowing coal.
Only I know
the grandeur of unnoticed little things;
only I know the loser’s dignity,
the winner’s loneliness
and the stupid coldness one feels
when a wish has been granted.
The last two lines, especially.

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2016 in Books

I cannot remember another year where I read so many books that made me sit back, close my eyes, and say to myself, “I haven’t read something like that in quite a while!

African Fiction

  1. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, The Wizard of the Crow (*****): A brilliant, satirical novel, set in a nameless African country, soon after its independence. A dose of the Latin American magical realists, but in its own unique way, and savagely funny. One of my books of the year. “Queues were a Marxist invention, according to the Ruler, having nothing to do with African culture, which is characterized by the spirit of spontaneity. Mass disorganization – pushing and shoving – was to be the order of the day…”
  2. Kossi Efoui, The Shadow of Things to Come (****): Like Thiong’o, set in a post-Independence African dictatorship, but much more pared-back, spare, almost coldly abstract. A great read, especially the bits about language and nationhood.
  3. Ahmadou Korouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (****): This was written before the two novels above, and you can see how they take some of its main themes, and build upon them. The story is told by an African griot. “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.”

South African Fiction (a separate category, since I was specifically seeking out South African novels)

  1. Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying (****): A powerful novel about South Africa’s first “professional mourner”, during the extreme violence of the transition.
  2. Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness (****): Moves between the Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s and post-colonial South Africa, where a village struggles to resist “development”. A savage and satirical take on the “new South Africa”, and the similarities with colonialism.
  3. Lewis Nkosi, Underground People (****): A political thriller set in the context of the armed resistance to the apartheid regime that exploded into violence a little before Transition – but also a deeply personal work.
  4. Achmat Dangor, Bitter Fruit (*****): One of my books of the year. An astonishing portrayal of the disintegration of a family in the years after the transition. Issues of race, colonialism, sex, personal relationships, and above all, the constant human need of myth-making and construction of meaning, are handled with deep and profound empathy.

Arab Fiction

  1. Elias Khoury, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol (****): Khoury’s latest novel doesn’t quite scale the heights of Gate of the Sun (honestly, what could?), but it is still a fantastic work, and has all the elements of classic Khoury: yearning, failed love, failed revolution, the weight of history, and such beautiful language. “Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight.”

Asian Fiction

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathiser (*****): An absolutely brilliant novel about the Vietnam War, written by a Vietnamese-American. Nguyen’s way with words, and with sentences, is unalloyed genius at work. One of my books of the year. I reviewed it for The Wire.
  2. Yasushi Inoue, The Hunting Gun (****): A marvellously contained novella that explores human feelings in a uniquely perceptive manner.

European Fiction

  1. Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda (***): This book was a birthday gift in 2012, but a complicated relationship with the person who gifted it meant that I only got around to reading it in 2016. Certainly worth the wait: this fantastical story set at the time of the Inquisition and presaging the invention of the aeroplane, was notable for a heavy dose of magical realism, and a scattered and fragmented form that still somehow held.
  2. Colm Toibin, The Master (*****): Toibin’s wonderful reconstruction of the life of Henry James, and his sensitive treatment of the failure of relationships, of intellectual isolation, and of the futility of things enduring… one of my favourite books of the year, perhaps one of my favourite books ever. “Only sentences are beautiful.
  3. Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds (**): A dense, modernist style that completely passed me by (unfortunately).
  4. Jose Eduardo Agualusa (***): A surrealistic story about the Angolan revolution, told from the perspective of a woman who barricades herself in her house for three decades, starting the day prior to Independence. I’m not sure what I made of this novel at all!
  5. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (***): Nothing like a Francophile Englishman writing about Flaubert!
  6. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (*****): I have nothing to add to what has already been said about Ferrante. As someone once said of Wodehouse, she “exhausts superlatives.”
  7. Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (*****): See above, but even better.
  8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (****): Finally got around to reading this classic.
  9. Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (***): From a writer I love and admire, this was… disappointing.
  10. Diane Meur, The House of Shadows (***): Poland during the tumultuous mid-19th century. The catch is that the narrator of the novel is a house – an old country mansion, that sees change, transformation, and all the accompanying joys and sorrows.

Latin American Fiction

  1. Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War (*****): Beautiful. And with an equally beautiful introduction by Sandra Cisneros. “I select some lines that describe how lovely sudden anger can be.”
  2. Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of the World (**): Came highly recommended, but I found it disappointing. Must be a subjective thing.

Indian Fiction

  1. Easterine Kire, When the River Sleeps (***): I picked this up at the Book Fair. An enjoyable (and a different kind of) novel about one man’s quest among the Naga forests.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings (***): Book 2 of Walton’s Thessaly series, about the quest to set up and administer Plato’s Republic (and the ways in which it goes wrong, and right). This one didn’t quite reach the brilliance of Book 1, in my view. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  2. Patrick Flanery, I Am No One (***): A story of surveillance and loss of identity in the 21st-century world, that flickered promisingly, but didn’t quite succeed (in my view).
  3. Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges (****): A thrilling – and deeply political – novel about an alternate South Africa in which apartheid never ended. A twist of the knife at the end. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  4. Dietmar Dath, The Abolition of Species (***): An absolutely wild futuristic SF novel that I picked up at Seagull Bookshop in Calcutta. Brilliantly clever and inventive, talking about themes that you’d think need a new language and vocabulary of their own – but at times, almost consumed by its own cleverness!
  5. Nalo Hopkinson (ed.), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (***): A solid collection of short stories, aimed at decentering the SF canon.
  6. Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber (***): An inter-planetary SF novel marked by dialogue in Caribbean American-English, and a very different way of storytelling. Very enjoyable.
  7. Patricia A. McKillip, Kingfisher (****): An almost-Brechtian SF novel by a writer who is normally known for her lush high fantasy. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  8. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (***): Finally got around to reading this chillingly dystopic story about a dying Earth.
  9. Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself (***): There should be a new genre called “Philoso-SF”, for books like this. Roberts’ novel is based on Kant’s argument about the nature of reality.
  10. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (****): The best of SF in this book: hard science combining with all the doubt and questioning about our place in the universe.
  11. Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning (****): A sprawling and complex SF novel in a future utopia; maybe a trifle too complex at times!
  12. Jo Walton, Necessity (***): The final instalment of the Thessaly series, with Plato’s Republic now on another planet, and featuring time travel.
  13. Anil Menon, Half of What I Say (***): An interesting, genre-bending novel about a new-futuristic India with a tyrannical, all-powerful and militarised anti-corruption government unit. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  14. Yoss, Super Extra Grande (****): This Cuban SF writer was one of my finds of the year, courtesy Strange Horizons. This book is a rollicking space opera, with seven space-faring species, a lot of inter-species sex, “Spanglish” dialect, and a smash-and-grab in the tradition of the best space opera. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  15. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City (****): The Soviet SF masters’ darkest, most enigmatic work about an imaginary city in which the Sun is switched on and off, and there is a “purpose” that nobody knows. They did not dare to publish it when it was first written (1973); it was published in 1989, and the translation came out this year.
  16. Yoss, A Planet for Rent (*****): See above, but even better. A Planet for Rent is a set of short stories in which earth has been colonised by superior spacefaring species, and turned into a holiday destination. The stories here are savagely funny and darkly beatiful.
  17. Hassan Blasim (ed.), Iraq +100 (****): A set of short stories imagining Iraq a hundred years after the American invasion (2103). Moves between genres and themes.

Historical Fiction

  1. Robert Harris, The Cicero Trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator) (****): Robert Harris is a wonderfully atmospheric writer, and these three books about the life, rise, fall, and death of Cicero are evocative and deeply moving. Cicero’s epigram – “nothing dries more quickly than a tear” has stayed with me ever since I read the books almost a year ago.

Theatre

  1. John Paul Sartre, No Exit and Other Plays (****): I can’t follow Sartre’s philosophical writings, but I enjoyed his short stories in Intimacy, and I loved No Exit for its remarkably acute, almost forensic, excavations of the human character. Whether it was the eponymous play (three characters together in a room after death, and the famous phrase “Hell is other people“), a retelling of the Oresteia, or a wonderful drama about a Communist Party assassin whose interior landscape and moral assessment about his own actions is subservient to the Party’s ever-changing versions of history, these plays were gripping, evocative, and haunting.
  2. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (*****): Every once a while, I come back to read this play, to be shaken inside out and to feel tears. Frayn’s play is set in heaven, where Niels Bohr, Bohr’s wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg meet again, and relive Heisenberg’s trip from Nazi Germany to meet Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, at the height of World War II, and talk about… what? The play is a speculation about what happened at the meeting, but is so much more than that: about science, about friendship, and about humanity.
  3. Brian Friel, Plays: Volume 1 (*****): Brian Friel’s plays struck me like lightning bolts. I had never heard of him until a friend recommended his work; his plays are a masterful blend of the public and the private, the political and the personal, and they put you through an emotional wringer. Translations, in particular  – a play set during the time when the colonial English were bent upon renaming Gaelic names in Ireland, and dealing with love across linguistic and political boundaries – was haunting. There’s something about the Irish…  “Maire: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?’ Hugh: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s a silly word, girl.”
  4. Brian Friel, Plays: Volume 2 (****): See above.
  5. Athol Fugard, Plays: Volume 1 (****): The famous South African playwright, whose works are set in the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape, blends the personal and the political in distinctive and empathetic ways. His characters are diverse and all memorable.

Essays/Other Non-fiction

  1. Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (****): So much wisdom, such depth and breadth of knowledge, such an acute sensitivity, and such self-awareness. This book of essays on various poets is a joy to read. “The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour.”
  2. Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe (***): A very well-written, enjoyablem and accessible introduction to existentialism, albeit with some irritating interpositions of the author’s political biases.
  3. Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (***): An off-track travel-guide to Paris liberally sprinkled with doses of history and politics.
  4. Sue Roe, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art (***): A companion to The Private Lives of the Impressionists, this is an accessible and enjoyable introduction to that era in Montmartre when Picasso, Matisse and the rest lived in close proximity and created a whole new set of art forms. Guilty of a few omissions that might reflect a little less flatteringly on its protagonists.
  5. Edmund White, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (**): Entertaining at times, but a little too much name-dropping for the uninitiated.
  6. Dominique Eddie, The Crime of Gean Jenet (****): A very perceptive account of Genet.
  7. Tom Paulin, The Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (*****): A brilliant collection of essays taking various poets and discussing their work in the context of language and nationhood. Features mostly English and Irish poets, but there are also excursions (Zbigniew Herbert). His evisceration of Geoffrey Hill was particularly enjoyable.
  8. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Secure the Base (****): A fascinating set of reflections on colonialism, nationalism and language. These essays are made particularly interesting by the fact that Thiong’o consciously gave up writing in European languages in the 70s, and then wrote only in his native tongue, based on his view that language had to be liberated from colonialism as well.
  9. Bashir Abu-Manneh, The History of the Palestinian Novel: 1948 to Present (*****): a very accessible introduction to Palestinian novelistic literature after the nakba, that places it in the context of Pan-Arab politics (featuring Kanafani, Habibi etc.). Some truly eye-opening facts and analysis about the relationship between literature, politics, and revolution – highly recommended.

History

  1. Eric Hazan, The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps (*****): Eric Hazan’s historical reconstruction of one of the most enigmatic cities of the world is a joy to read; much of it is a work of political geography – taking us through each street, each neighbourhood, and telling us about its place in the economic, social, political and cultural history of the city. There are also brilliant sections on the history of revolutions in Paris (Victor Hugo does not come well out of this), and the invention of photography.
  2. Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (***): A fairly comprehensive – and basic – introductory text.

Memoirs/Biographies/Autobiographies

  1. Henri Alleg, Algerian Memoirs (*****): Picked up at The Seagull, a beautiful little bookshop in Calcutta, Algerian Memoirs is a wonderful account of the life of Henri Alleg, an important figure in Algeria’s liberation struggle against colonial rule. Alleg, originally a Frenchman, came to Algeria as a young man, and was a co-founder of its most important pro-liberation newspaper. Alleg was imprisoned and tortured by the colonial regime, and his account of his torture – La Question – was an important book and marked a turning point in the struggle. Algerian Memoirs is a great story of a tumultuous time, told with a clear eye and no sentimentality.
  2. Leopold Infield, Whom the Gods Love: The Story of Evariste Galois (*****): This is a beautiful biography of Evariste Galois, the great mid-nineteenth century French mathematician and political revolutionary, who was killed in a duel at the age of 21. Through the extraordinary and tumultuous life of Galois (expelled from school for pro-revolutionary sentiments and imprisoned twice), it also paints a gripping story of France in the throes of violence and revolution.
  3. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (***): Hemingway’s spare – yet moving – account of writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s. His description of Shakespeare and Co – the bookshop – stood out.
  4. Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land Between (*****): A beautiful and haunting book about a son’s search for his father, who was vanished by the Gaddafi regime. I reviewed it for The Wire.
  5. Dikgang Moseneke, My Own Liberator (*****): From Robben Island to Deputy Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court, via a successful law practice, surviving assassination attempts, and overseeing the first democratic election in South Africa. This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary life.

Poetry

  1. Tom Paulin, Love’s Bonfire (***): An interesting – if somewhat uneven – collection.
  2. Alastair Reed, Weathering (****): Small, contained, and wonderfully shaped poems. A poem about his dying father was among the best (My Father, Dying)
  3. Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems (*****): I discovered – and fell in love with – Zbigniew Herbert, and his contained poetry that disavows romanticism and grand narratives, but takes no refuge in cynicism. Elegy of Fortinbras is my personal favourite. “What I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.

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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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