Hierdie is die LitNet-argief (2006–2012)
This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
André P Brink - 2010-09-22
It is with particular pleasure that I am giving this Jan Rabie / Marjorie Wallace lecture today – for academic and professional reasons, but above all to say thank you to two people who for fifty years formed a very special part of my life. Each of them contributed in a unique way to the world of South Africa and decisively influenced my life. Marjorie through her painting, Jan through his writing. Marjorie with her joy of life, her frolicking on the colourful surface of a world below which one was always kept aware of the deeper, more ponderous truths about transience and death even while one was involved in the celebration of the fleeting; Jan through his pushing the boundaries of what was “acceptable” in writing and thinking and living, his exploration of surrealism and existentialism and history while I was still a young student only intuitively aware of all that.
I remember very clearly the day in 1956 when my friend Naas arrived breathless at the university residence where I was lodged to tell me: “There’s a book you’ve got to read immediately, a small yellow book called 21. I don’t want you to wait until tomorrow or the day after: you’ve got to read it today, it’s going to change your life.” I’m normally sceptical about books that, in Doris Lessing’s words, radically and totally change your life for at least two weeks. But 21 turned out to be, quite definitively, one that changed the course of my life. That same afternoon I got on my bicycle and bought the thin yellow book and started reading it on the way back and nearly fell off my bicycle and returned to the residence and never again saw life in the same way as before. Three years later I went to Paris because of what Jan had told me about that city of mystery and never looked back. And today I owe it quite literally to Jan and Marjorie that I can talk to you about the notion of renewal that 21 first brought home to me. Because I propose to talk – briefly and provisionally – about a new world that arose from the Ground Zero of South African literature left behind by apartheid. There are, inevitably, signs and traces of the old world we started peeling from ourselves like the slough cast off by a snake on the day Nelson Mandela strode out of Victor Verster Prison and led us into a new heaven and a new earth. But its newness was as radical as the newness 21 helped me to see on that distant day. That is why I wish to say: Thank you, Jan. Thank you, Marjorie.
Given that the political changeover in South Africa became manifest in the arts a few years before it was confirmed by the ballot box, one can safely say that we now find ourselves about twenty years into the new dispensation – still only a small step in the history of a country, but at least far enough to risk a cautious evaluation of where we find ourselves today. In many respects a remarkable amount has been achieved in this short time, which means that the mere extent of “amount and diversity” may already be said to constitute a significant characteristic of our new literature. So much, and such diversity, has probably never been produced in any other comparable period of South African literary history. At this stage I must already apologise for not going beyond English and Afrikaans in the present overview, as it would make the task unmanageably unwieldy – even apart from the fact that it would be beyond my linguistic competence. At the same time I am forced to restrict myself to fiction, with a very brief excursion into drama.
The traces of the old in the midst of the new South African literature are immediately noticeable in the constant revisiting of the landscape of apartheid but invariably in new ways. One of the most common motifs is that of the expatriate South African who returns after many years and tries to renegotiate his position in a changed world in her or his attempts to understand. An author like Karel Schoeman became aware of this many years before the social and political changes in the country, in Na die Geliefde Land, translated as Promised Land. Nadine Gordimer saw it in an almost visionary light in July’s People (1981). JM Coetzeesaw it coming inLife and Times of Michael K in the same year, 1981, Elsa Joubert recorded her apocalyptic vision in the hallucinatory Die Laaste Sondag (1983), translated as The Last Sunday, John Conyngham in The Arrowing of the Cane (1986). What is significant is that while white writers confronting the apocalypse interpreted it as the end of an era, a decline and even an annihilation, black writers engaging with it saw apocalypse as the announcement of a new beginning: in this way the double meaning of the concept of apocalypse acquired a racial fault line.
Another perspective on apartheid reviewed from the awareness of post-apartheid, is offered by looking and living through the eyes of a child. And in recent years this approach has become almost done to death. In English there have been, among the best, Diane Awerbuck’s Gardening at Night (2004), Mary Watson’s magnificent dark stories in Moss (2004), Rachel Zadok’s richly imaginative Gem Squash Tokoloshe (2005), and in Afrikaans the profound and delightful Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie (1990), translated as Not All Of Us and later as We Are Not All Like That.
Even a cursory glance at the Ground Zero of our literature after apartheid inevitably leads one to the same conclusion any visitor to the country could draw within a few days of arrival: the perception that South Africa is a violent country. It is almost impossible to take part in any discussion in this country without every individual involved in the conversation being drawn into contributing her or his own experience of such violence. The briefest excursion into South African history would bear this out: in century after century, decade after decade, layer upon layer, one discovers that violence is the one experience that touches and even defines everything. In this country we are all conceived and born in violence. And in all our writing, from Olive Schreiner and Sol Plaatje and Leipoldt and Langenhoven, a trail of blood stains our literature – in numerous contexts: history, folk tales, war memories, anecdotes, hunting exploits, and detective novels. In a way, of course, this is true of world literature, which would be unthinkable without Gilgamesh, or the Old Testament, the Iliad, or Oedipus, or the Scandinavian sagas, or the stories about Charlemagne, or the Don Quixote, or the 1001 Nights, all the way to John le Carré and Maigret and Frederick Forsyth, and - in our own context – Sarah Lotz and Margie Orford and Deon Meyer and Karin Brynard. The trail runs through both “high” and “popular” literature leading to the fascinating intermediate space where Le Carré and Meyer meet and overlap, and become allies and colleagues of Pamuk and Jelenek, of Hemingway and JM Coetzee. We encounter it in both Opperman and Karel Schoeman, in the Robbe-Grillet of France or the Günter Grass of Germany.
And yet something new has been happening in the story of violence over the past few decades which is both unsettling and revealing.
That was what happened to our communal “soul”, and to our “worldview” during the 18th century. It became indispensable for our own survival to do unto others exactly as they were doing unto us. And worse. Because in a situation like that it becomes necessary at every step to move a step further into violence in order to justify one’s behaviour. Up to a point this was dramatised by the institution of slavery, a factor in our history that has never been sufficiently explored before our own time. Previously we preferred to believe that slavery in South Africa had been more “humane” than elsewhere in the world. To single out only one kind of experience: that of the mother driven to kill her own child in order to save it from slavery, as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Today we know, thanks to Yvette Christiansë’s Unconfessed (2006), that this happened here as well, making murder preferable to enslavement. My own research into slavery at the Cape over the past few years emphatically and shockingly confirmed this.
But here, as in Margie Orford’s disturbing Daddy’s Girl (2009), about the kidnapping of a young girl, one of a series, who runs the risk of being raped and murdered, the primary concern is not the revelation of social injustice or the collapse of a system of justice, but about shaping a metaphor for a world which no longer has space for the good. Because nothing in itself is any longer “good” or “bad”. Much more is at stake than a police force that has lost its integrity so that it can neither handle nor guarantee law and order: it is about a philosophical order, a mental space, in which something has gone permanently wrong. (And yet there are some individuals who are still trying, no matter how absurdly, to keep believing and hoping and knowing something. So perhaps, as Van Wyk Louw said in a poem, all need not be lost, although hope is dwindling. Yet hope is never in vain!)
Looking at the context of violence, however, may be a mere starting point. Because the depiction of violence involves more than the continuation of the age-old role of violence or crime and punishment in literature. On the Ground Zero we entered in about 1990, it is not only the content that is important, but the renewal in the way of narrating as such, that is, in the presentation of that content. In this respect, it is important to note another key shift in post-apartheid writing: a movement towards the inside. That is, a movement away from the purely social scene towards the human and the individual nature of what is narrated.
Femininity indeed offers a prominent domain of experience in recent South African fiction. This works not only through the predominance of female writers, black and white: Sindiwe Magona; Lindiwe Mabusa; the peerless storyteller Gcina Mhlope; Eleanor Sisulu; Zoë Wicomb’s unmasking humanity; Yvette Christaansë’s unsettling interrogation of the heart of slavery by exploring it from a specifically female perspective; Mary Watson’s enquiry into female darkness; apart from reimaginings of history and the multidimensionality of Antjie Krog; the deep, still historical waters plumbed by Elsa Joubert; the cerebral lucidity of Wilma Stockenström; the awe-inspiring creativity of Marlene van Niekerk’s interrogation of the concepts of paternalism and colonialism, with new emphases and humour and dazzling linguistic pyrotechnics in Agaat; the muted ironies of Ingrid Winterbach; the unremitting analyses and sympathetic understanding of Nadine Gordimer; Pamela Jooste’s social conscience in the probing of the mind of a child; the sense of historical space and the influence of past and present in Anne Landsman; the delicate sensuality in Susan Mann’s portrayal of woman, man and most particularly child. There are so many manifestations of the move towards explorations of the feminine as a kind of prow figure in post-apartheid fiction that it deserves an entire study in its own right. These explorations may range from the enquiry into the essence of femininity in Njabulo Ndebele’s brilliant The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003), in which the entire history of colonialism is concentrated in the image of the penelopeian, waiting, suffering and eventually triumphant image of the eponymous character. And then there is, inevitably, JM Coetzee, whose explorations of the female experience range from the imaginings of Magda in In the Heart of the Country (1977) via the clairvoyance of the dying Elizabeth Curren in Age of Iron (1990) to the disconcerting multiple-eye-of-the-fly inquisitions of Elizabeth Costello (2003).
The reinvention of history is another major current in contemporary South African writing. During all the turbulent centuries of colonialism in Southern Africa, a specific – and all too familiar – pattern of historiography became prevalent, a master narrative (in every sense of the word) devised by white, male historians. Admittedly, the pattern was not quite as simplistic as in many other colonial situations, in that writing in Afrikaans presented a curiously ambiguous view. The Afrikaans language, shaped from the mid-17th century in the mouths of slaves (mostly Indonesian) and indigenous Khoisan peoples who could not speak the language of the colonising masters (Dutch) properly, of course brought about fascinating processes of creolisation. It became a vehicle through which, in Rushdie’s overused term, the empire could “write back”. However, at the same time Afrikaans gradually became more the language of the bourgeoisie, until towards the end of the 19th century it was appropriated by an increasingly nationalistic community in opposition to English and Dutch, and assumed a new position of power within the colonial situation. It evolved into “the language of apartheid’. In this way historiography became fully the property and the tool of the ruling white elite. But that “other” Afrikaans, the language of the deprived and the oppressed, still lurked behind the new Frankenstein monster.
So, in the literature of the new South Africa, a whole jigsaw puzzle of histories came into being. These include Griqua history in Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story (2001); the Xhosas’ cattle killing in Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness (2000; taken further in an as yet unpublished novel by the young Xhosa writer Siviwe Mdoda); a redefinition of Afrikaner history in the Boer War by Christoffel Coetzee (Op soek na Generaal Mannetjies Mentz, 1998); and women’s history in Elsa Joubert’s Isobelle’s Journey (1995; 2002). There is also an amazing overview of the early years of Dutch colonisation, as experienced by the Khoikhoi and Dutch colonists at the Cape, the Dutch masters in Holland, and the early settlers in Batavia and Mauritius in Dan Sleigh’s masterpiece Islands(2004) – a tour de force pursued in his recent retelling of Xenophon’s Anabasis in Afstande (2010). Many of these reviews of history return to a precolonial Africa, to a world of myth and magic which displays fascinating parallels with the very origins of Western historiography in the inventions of Herodotus.
At this point the historical exploits of recent South African fabulists merge with another of the trends which has become evident in post-apartheid literature, namely what for want of a better term one might call a local variant of “magical realism”. This somewhat unfortunate appellation inevitably tends to bring to mind the late 20th-century explosion of Latin American fiction by such writers as Marquez, Donoso, Llosa, Fuentes and Amado. However, Africa has had its own form of magic realism in the long tradition of oral narrative which spanned many centuries before it erupted in the work of writers as diverse as Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri. What predominates in this tradition is the foregrounding of ancestors who continue to intervene actively in the affairs of the present, an easy gliding between the worlds of the living and the dead (see Cooper 1998).
Mda already handles this with easy grace in Ways of Dying (1997). In The Madonna of Excelsior (2004) he adds a further dimension, where through repeated acts of narrative magic he brings to life paintings by the Flemish-South African artist Father Claerhout. In this way he revisits – and in the process re-imagines – a dark and sordid chapter from the apartheid era when a large number of religious and political leaders in the Free State village of Excelsior were accused of contravening the notorious “Immorality Act”. In numerous other forms the fascination with the magical-realist becomes manifest, such as also in Anne Landsman’s Devil’s Chimney (1999), in which the ostrich feather boom in the Little Karoo at the turn of the 20th century is resurrected to establish an unsettling juxtaposition of the past and the present.
Whether realistic or fantastical, historical or contemporary, much of the vivacity and versatility of literature in the new South Africa is due to a heightened awareness of language: language not merely as a vehicle for storytelling, but as a remarkable encounter with meaning and truth at innumerable levels. Not just the story, but the process of telling it inspires our writers to a much larger degree than ever before, as we move from the reportage of apartheid towards invention, imagination and discovery. It is certainly a feature of much recent writing that the act and processes of writing themselves come under scrutiny. Dan Sleigh’s enquiry into the first years of Dutch colonisation at the Cape in Islands acquires an intensity and acuity because the scribe, the Dutch East India Company secretary Grevenbroeck, is observed in the process of committing his memoirs (even his inventions and hunches?) to paper (2004). It is the act of writing that gives shape to Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother (1999), as it does to the narrating of her stories in To My Children’s Children (1990) or Forced to Grow (1992). In Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior (2004) it is writing which transforms painting into a new discovery of reality and its origins. Most of the fascinatingly complex text of Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat (2004) is presented in the form of diaries, letters, poems, memoirs or the transcription of unuttered thoughts. In the work of JM Coetzee, much of the subtlety of Waiting for the Barbarians (1990) may well lie in imagining the Magistrate as the narrator of his own story, not simply after the event but as part of the event, constitutive of the event. Certainly, in Foe (1986), the narrative action (and the interaction of narrators from this text and from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Roxana) resides largely in the processes of verbalising. And in Elizabeth Costello (2003) the text of the main character’s lectures determines the dynamics of the narrative and its evolution through question-and-answer sessions with her audience to its communication with readers “outside” or “beyond” the book. In the dazzling Wall of Days it is precisely the “transparency” of language which dramatises most startlingly the riddles and the mysteries of the story.
The stunning variety of new trends in South African writing which have begun to manifest themselves in recent literature (what I have so briefly mentioned here is a random indication of possibilities) suggests that the country finds itself on the verge of a veritable explosion of creativity. This is evident not only in the work of established writers, but in an impressive spectrum of new voices; and in the almost frenzied pace at which students in creative writing courses at various institutions are moving into publication. Even in stark or dark tales there lurks a sense of wonder and of discovery: the sheer adventure of writing, whether flowing from the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or emanating from a multitude of other stimuli and sources. It is no longer inevitable, as it was so largely the case under apartheid, to be gloomy or dour in one’s exposition of horrors and depression. Writers appear to have (re-) discovered the simple truth that there are also reasons to celebrate and to affirm. Concomitantly, it is no longer necessary for commentators to evaluate a writer in terms of what she or he is against. What is relevant now is the quality of the writing as such.