Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 19
A second story, ‘Rags and Bones’, fails to escape the trap of inconsequentially. It begins casually: ‘A woman named Beryl Fels recently picked up an old tin chest in a junk shop.’ And it remains desultory to the end. In the tin chest is a bundle of letters; they draw Beryl Fels into the story of an affair, in the 1940s, between a distinguished male scientist and an equally distinguished woman writer. The lovers feel obliged to keep their affair secret, because ‘we are both people in the public eye; it’s the price or the reward, God knows, of what we both happen to be.’ But when Beryl Fels looks into their lives, she can find no trace of either of them. The writer is unknown, not one of her books in print; the scientist has likewise vanished from the record. This is intended, I take it, as a cruel irony: the pain of the secrecy rendered absurd by the disintegration of their public status. But the story’s casual tone, its reluctance to allow any heightening of feeling, prevents the irony from being felt by the reader.
Fortunately, the other seven stories are excellent. ‘Blinder’ is about Rose, an old family retainer with a weakness for going on alcoholic binges, who suddenly has to cope with a different sort of befuddlement, a different ‘blinder’—that is, the death of her lover, Ephraim. This brief story is passionate, moving and beautiful. ‘A Correspondence Course’ describes the friendship that grows between a young woman and a political prisoner, through the letters they write to each other. But the important character is Pat Haberman, the mother of the young woman, Harriet. While the man is safely in jail, she encourages the correspondence, even talks about it proudly to others, as proof of her liberalism. But then the man escapes, and comes to the house and, in an extraordinary final paragraph, ‘Liquid flashes like the sweeps of heat that had gone through her blood at fifty took Pat to her bedroom. She locked that door, wanting to beat upon it, whimper … To do something with her hands she filled a tooth-glass at the wash-hand basin and, a prisoner tending his one sprig of green, gave water to the pot of African violets for what she had done, done to her darling girl, done for.’ The game has turned real, and, as we have seen, reality in Ms Gordimer’s world is a thing of which to be afraid.
The remaining stories can be read as variations on the theme of betrayal. (And, of course, in the Kafka story, Ms Gordimer’s Hermann is accusing Franz of betrayal, too: of betraying his family and his Judaism; and Pat Haberman in ‘A Correspondence Course’ comes to feel she has betrayed her daughter.) In ‘Sins of the Third Age’, the treachery is sexual. The carefully laid retirement plans of an elderly couple, Peter and Mania, are irrevocably altered when Peter has an affair; even when he chooses to put this affair behind him, the damage cannot be undone. Paradise has been lost. ‘Terminal’ presents another version of the treason of lovers. A woman dying of an incurable disease makes a pact with her husband that he will not prevent her suicide. Her last act is to leave him a note: ‘Keep your promise. Don’t have me revived.’ But he does; and when, after taking the pills, she has the ‘terror of feeling herself waking from it’, the traitor is holding her hand.
And inevitably there are the betrayals of politics. In ‘A City of the Dead, A City of the Living’, in which Ms Gordimer magnificently describes life in the black ghetto, a poor woman, oppressed by the tension of having a wanted man hiding in her cramped home, squeals to the police. Her treason teaches her nothing; she longs to tell everyone, ‘I don’t know why I did it,’ but nobody asks. Instead, people spit. In ‘Crimes of Conscience’, conversely, we see that betrayal can be a kind of education. The story is about a government-paid infiltrator, Felterman, who seduces a radical woman in order to spy on her group. He senses a reserve in her, as if she were waiting for him to speak some password. Finally he discovers it: ‘I’ve been spying on you,’ he confesses, and she takes his head into her hands.
‘At the Rendezvous of Victory’ is a classic cameo portrait—of the guerrilla ‘general’ for whom, after the success of his revolution, his old friend, now the Prime Minister of the newly liberated nation, has less and less time. Ms Gordimer’s portrait of Sinclair ‘General Giant’ Zwedu, the discarded hero who will not toe the line and who becomes an embarrassment, is very deeply felt and imagined; and from Che Guevara, kept at a distance by Castro after their triumph, to the revolutionary fighters of present-day Black Africa, it is a portrait with many echoes in real life. Like most of the stories in what is, in spite of a couple of false notes, a distinguished collection, it makes its point and creates its resonances not by any exaggeration or flashiness, but by the scrupulous depiction of what all Nadine Gordimer’s readers will instantly recognize as the unvarnished truth.
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, Places
Like most of her South African white contemporaries, the young Nadine Gordimer was a sort of sleepwalker: ‘I led an outward life of sybaritic meagreness that I am ashamed of. In it I did not one thing that I wanted wholeheartedly to do … My existential self was breathing but inert.’ She has, of course, left that somnambulist self far behind. ‘I live at 6,000 feet in a society whirling, stamping, swaying with the force of revolutionary change,’ she said at the New York Institute of the Humanities in 1982, demonstrating, as her editor and collaborator Stephen Clingman suggests, her full realization that the South African revolution was no longer merely potential; that it had already begun. One way of characterizing The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, Places would be to call it the story of an artist’s awakening; to literature, to Africa, and to the great ugly reality of apartheid.
In André Brink’s book Mapmakers, he tells us that his awakening happened ‘on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris’, where the meaning of the recent massacre at Sharpeville (this was in 1960) came home to him, and changed his view of his country for ever. For Gordimer, the process was more inward, more literary. The “problems” of my country did not set me writing; on the contrary, it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of the “South African way of life”.’ This volume of essays, skilfully selected and introduced by Clingman, is the record of that lifelong creative plunge. And if some of the early material can sound, at times, a little plaintive—‘Where do whites fit in in the New Africa? Nowhere, I’m inclined to say, in my gloomier and least courageous moods’—it is never less than wholly truthful. Nadine Gordimer has been radicalized by her time—or, rather, by her attempt to write her time—and it’s fascinating to watch history happening to her prose.
‘It is not for nothing,’ she tells us, ‘that I chose as an epigraph for my novel July’s People a quotation from Gramsci: “The old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms”.’ Now many people would include among these symptoms the fact that white experiences of the South African reality, as evoked by white novelists, playwrights and film-makers, continue to command a degree of international attention that black descriptions of black experience only rarely receive. Steve Biko’s story is subsumed, on film, into the story of Donald Woods; Chris Menges’s fine, humane new movie A World Apart is praised by the Observer’s John Coleman for forcing us ‘into some realization of what it must be like, day in, day out, for those middle-class whites there, brave enough to buck the system’; and while Brink, Gordimer, Breyten Breytenbach, Athol Fugard and J. M. Coetzee have well-deserved worldwide reputations, very few of their admirers could name more than (perhaps) one or two of their black counterparts.
Nadine Gordimer is fully aware of the paradoxes of her situation: a central figure in world literature who is also, in her own estimation, peripheral to her country’s political and even cultural life, dependent for the ethical validity of her position on the willingness of some South African blacks to concede that whites who reject apartheid have a genuine role to play in the struggle for freedom. It is a great strength of her writing that she recognizes this vulnerability, and yet (or perhaps and therefore) succeeds in writing with immense confidence, openness and an entirely unromantic cle
The literary value of these essays derives not only from their testamentary power, but also from the range and depth of their preoccupations. ‘Why Did Bram Fischer Choose Jail?’ (1966) deals with the communist leader around whom, thirteen years later, she built her finest novel, Burger’s Daughter. ‘One Man Living Through It’ is a moving portrait of the young black writer Nat Nakasa, who committed suicide in exile in the USA. The ‘Letter from Johannesburg’ (1976) is a brilliant description of the time of the Soweto riots.
However, some of the most potent pieces are not directly, or at any rate primarily, ‘political’. The section entitled ‘A Writer in Africa’ contains Gordimer’s reckonings with, among other places, Botswana, Egypt, Madagascar, and especially the Congo River. The quality of the prose is uneven: sometimes little more than conventional magazine travel writing, it can suddenly take glorious flight; for example when considering the beautiful Malagasy word lolo, which means both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’. Here she is, unforgettably, on the Congo:
Begin with a stain in the ocean. Three hundred miles out to sea, off the west coast of Africa, the mark of a presence the immensity of seas has not been able to swallow … the stain of land; a massive land, a continent, giving rise to and feeding a river great enough to make a dent in the sea.
That immensity is Gordimer’s chosen subject, and she has grown to match it. The writers she quotes and draws strength from—Brecht, Mann, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Achebe—have taught her that the only important thing for a writer is ‘to go on writing the truth as he sees it.’ Such an effort inevitably brings the artist into the arena of public affairs, and not only in totalitarian states; nor does such a fierce engagement with life necessarily involve creative compromise. Gordimer (who is good at quoting) quotes Turgenev: ‘Without freedom in the widest sense of the word—in relation to oneself … indeed, to one’s people and one’s history—a true artist is unthinkable; without that air it is impossible to breathe.’
And she adds her own, indisputable last word: ‘In that air alone, commitment and creative freedom become one.’
Los Angeles, 1979. A young South African, Rian Malan, who has fled South Africa because ‘I wouldn’t carry a gun for apartheid, and because I wouldn’t carry a gun against it,’ lands a job writing rock’n’roll reviews for a small music magazine. He is in the United States illegally and so, as a precaution, uses a pen-name. The pen-name is ‘Nelson Mandela’. Nobody recognizes it. ‘The ESTians who owned the magazine mistook the word for mandala,’ Malan tells us. It is one of the few genuinely funny moments in an otherwise enraged, remorseless (and magnificent) book, and like all the best comedy, it contains a truth. During his imprisonment, and even more so since his release, Mr Mandela has been elevated to the level of spiritual symbol. He really is Nelson Mandala now.
To worry about whether this is entirely a Good Thing is in no way to detract from Mr Mandela’s qualities of humanity and leadership. But Nelson Mandela is a politician involved in one of the cruellest struggles of modern times. The understandable Wembley euphoria should not blind us to the inevitable moral ambiguities of such a struggle. These gut-wrenching ambiguities, black South African as well as white Afrikaner ambiguities, are the subject of Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart.
Mr Malan is the black sheep of one of the very whitest of families in the White Tribe of Afrikaners. His ancestor D. F. Malan, who came to power in 1948, was the first architect of apartheid. And further back in time, his eighteenth-century forebear Dawid Malan lived a life which, we are told, remains a truthful metaphor for present-day South Africa. Dawid Malan fell in love with a black woman, gave up everything for her, and fled with his Sara into Xhosa country across the Great Fish River. He reappeared in history years later, without Sara, transformed into a white supremacist, with a white wife and sons, ‘willing to die rather than accord black people equality before the law.’ He was now one of the ringleaders of a Boer revolt against the British, who had been ‘interfering with their right to chastise and slaughter the dark-skinned heathen as they deemed necessary.’ This is the moment, Rian Malan suggests, at which the Boers became Afrikaners, ‘arrogant, xenophobic, and “full of blood”, as the Zulus say of tyrants.’ And he adds that nothing has changed, that ‘it all leads us back, in the end, to Dawid Malan and a law formulated on the banks of the Great Fish River two hundred years ago: You have to put the black man down, plant your foot on his neck, and keep him that way for ever, lest he spring up and slit your throat.’
The book that Rian Malan set out to write was altogether more conventional than the one he has written. It was supposed to be a history of the great and detested Malan family, as told by its kafferboetie (that is, ‘brother of blacks’, ‘nigger-lover’) renegade. But along the way he ran into, and faced up to, the truth that is the making of his book—that for all his nigger-loving, leftist views, for all his long hair and days smoking zol (dope) on the hillsides in the mystical Tolkienish company of ‘wise old Afs’, for all his daubing of pro-black slogans on the walls of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, where scarcely a black would ever see them, he was still a Malan; that he could only write about the atrocity of South Africa by admitting the atrocity hidden in his own traitorous heart.
The source of it all is fear. Lest he spring up and slit your throat. Even for a radical journalist like Rian Malan, walking in Soweto at night can be terrifying. When the day comes, you’ll still be whitey. And along with the fear comes incomprehension: of the necklace killings, of the burning alive of thirty-two black ‘witches’ by fellow-blacks in Sekhukuniland, of the things which human beings, black and white, are capable of. Malan is excellent and unforgiving about the naiveties and hypocrisies of white leftists like himself. ‘When the chips were down … and the killing started, there were no whites on the black side of the barricade. None. Ever.’
For all Rian Malan’s clear-sightedness and truth-telling, his testament is not without unresolved problems. ‘We white people couldn’t really talk to Africans,’ he writes. ‘They lived on the far side of a barrier of language and culture, so when we tried to look into their hearts, all we saw was darkness. Who knows what lurks in darkness? We feared the worst.’ One of the strengths of My Traitor’s Heart is precisely this portrait of South Africa as a place of mutual incomprehension, of struggling languages. But if one perceives that the issue is at bottom linguistic, might one not make some effort to learn black languages? If such an idea has ever occurred to Rian Malan, it isn’t evident from these pages; which is puzzling and one of the book’s few false notes. (The repeated protestation about ‘loving blacks’ is, to my ear at any rate, another.)
However, the presence of a few ragged edges does little to undermine the book’s immense power. Perhaps that rawness, that sense of a cri de cæur too painful to be controlled fully, is actually the source of the writing’s energy. And, in truth, one of the book’s greatest triumphs is linguistic. Here, as in nothing I’ve read before, is the demotic voice of black and Afrikaner South Africa. In Malan’s pages, blacks and whites go jolling (‘a very important South African concept, connoting kamikaze debaucheries’), indulging in ‘drank, dagga, dobbel en vok’—‘drink, dope, dice and fucking’. They speak the street patois, tsotsi-taal: to buy dope from a black dealer, you ‘gooi [give] the double-horned devil’s hand sign and charf [say], “Level with the gravel, ek se”.’ An English South African is a soutpiel, ‘salt dick’, because he has one foot in South Africa and the other in England, ‘a straddle so broad that his cock dangled in the sea’. Most evocative of all, perhaps, are the terms used for the two rival black camps: the ANC/UDF supporters who ‘say Mandela’; and the remnants of the Black Consciousness movement, the ones who ‘say Biko’. The Biko people are called
Malan is excellent on the still uncompleted war between the Zim-zims and Wararas; but the main thrust of his book is its attempt to reach the heart of the South African tragedy by exploring ‘tales of ordinary murder’. Murder is different in South Africa, Malan says. In most parts of the world, murder is an intimate crime; killers and victims are usually well known to each other. In South Africa, murder is a relationship of strangers, brought about by race, or ideology, or darker, crueller motivations (the witch-burnings of Sekhukuniland) for which all explanations seem inadequate.
The central section of My Traitor’s Heart is full of such tales. Two stand out. A black man, Dennis Mosheshwe, is savagely beaten to death by a poor white, Augie de Koker. Malan calls this ‘a completely traditional South African death. There is even a traditional word for it in Afrikaans: kafferpak, meaning a “kaffir hiding”.’
And then there is the story of Simon the Hammerman, the multiple murderer of Empangeni, who struck terror into white hearts until he simply surrendered. Rian Malan’s investigation of the Hammerman case is superb. First he tells us of Simon’s prison quarry days, where Simon witnessed the deliberate beating to death of fellow-prisoners, and found that, as he smashed rocks with a hammer, ‘it is not long before the rocks are the white man’s head.’ But Malan does not stop here. ‘Something is hiding in this story.’ He discovers crueller truths. Simon the Hammerman was the child of an incestuous union, an outcast, a source of horror among his own Zulu people, because incest ‘causes harrowing turbulence in the spirit world.’ His hideous crimes were as much a response to his experience of rejection by blacks as of maltreatment by whites. Ambiguity: the kind of truth that is beyond politics, that is hard to tell because people don’t wish to hear it. My Traitor’s Heart is full of such invaluable, awkward, unpackaged truth.
Other author's books:
- Midnight's ChildrenThe Satanic VersesShameJoseph Anton: A MemoirLuka and the Fire of LifeStep Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002The Enchantress of FlorenceEast, West: Stories
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