The situation in South Africa is such that, by the time this review appears in print, the two books with which it deals may already belong to the past, both in their different ways witnesses to the haunted tensions, torture and bloodshed of the period of minority rule. The anthology of fiction, A Land Apart, was, say its editors, André Brink and J.M. Coetzee, ‘compiled amid the tumult of the uprisings of 1985’, although the writers they choose to represent had not then had the time to reflect upon that tumult in their work, and almost certainly have not had sufficient time since. Outside South Africa, A Land Apart will be read against the background of silence created by that country’s recently imposed censorship of its internal news. Inside South Africa, who will read it? The editors note that, at the outset, they agreed that ‘we would proceed as if the apparatus of censorship did not exist.’ This is an anthology for export only.
André Brink took primary responsibility for selecting the work translated from Afrikaans; J.M. Coetzee for that in English. They do not represent their own work. Both are novelists of international reputation, and the bias of the collection is towards writers little known in Britain, especially younger ones. All the Afrikaans-language writers and the great majority of the English-language writers live and work in South Africa at present. This is one of the points of the collection, that it is utterly contemporary.
Perhaps most black South Africans do not feel that their country is now entering upon its final tragedy: they may, rather, believe that their tragedy is finally coming to an end, even if it is doing so amidst great suffering. But the writing in A Land Apart is largely by white writers and, especially that translated from Afrikaans, is almost entirely pervaded by a deep sense of dread. The preface speaks of this mood in Afrikaans fiction as ‘an intimation of apocalypse, which implies not just the death of the individual or the end of his hopes, but the destruction of the entire known world or way of life’. All the same, it warns: ‘If the outline of a map of contemporary South African writing does seem to emerge, the map should be used cautiously’. This is a necessary warning: if the guilt, the self-loathing, the sheer demoralisation of much of this fiction were the predominant mood of the real South Africa, not just of its fictional representation in the pages of A Land Apart, Nelson Mandela would be prime minister before the year was out.
In the Afrikaans section, the narrator of Elsie Joubert’s story, ‘Back Yard’, says: ‘I live on the periphery of an existence which I don’t understand.’ She meditates upon the fact that even if she learned her black maid’s real – that is, African – name, she would be unable to pronounce it. In the servants’ room, outside in the yard, the tumultuous lives of the poor are carried on. However good the narrator’s heart – and she does have a good heart – their lives are unutterably alien to her. The deserted wife in Lotte Viljoen’s ‘Lament for Koos’ longs for human contact with her black servant, but ‘my domestic help is unreachable.’ Estrangement would seem to be the essence of middle-class Afrikaans life; poverty, misery, superstition, violence and an iron sexual puritanism are presented as the lot of the rural poor. E. Kotzé (‘Day of Blood’), Hennie Aucamp (‘For Four Voices’) and Pirow Becker (‘Under a Shepherd’s Tree’) offer glimpses of poor whites with lives almost as circumscribed and open to hazard as those of the Tennessee sharecroppers described in the Thirties by James Agee in Let us now praise famous men. Other stories reveal small-town life as a hotbed of hypocrisy. Sexual relations are poisoned and poisonous everywhere from the farmstead to the gleaming suburb. And, bitterest of ironies, young men must die in defence of all this. Several stories deal with the war against South Africa’s neighbours. The young paratrooper in Etienne Van Heerden’s ‘My Cuban’ broods: ‘Oh how we float, the flower of the Republic’s youth. Green our uniforms, red the flush on our cheeks, fresh the wind, Africa an open hand beneath us ...’
The Afrikaans section, 18 writers, is confined to prose fiction. The times have produced such an abundance of writers that the editors say this number could easily have been doubled, and doubled again had poetry and drama been included. Afrikaans as a literary language is barely a century old; its linguistic catchment area is not extensive. The need to record and interpret experience must be felt very urgently, although most of the fiction – Etienne Van Heerden and, less successfully, Fransi Phillips are exceptions – is written in a straightforwardly naturalistic style that offers scant opportunity for prophecy, denunciation or rhetoric of any kind.
The English section, which has 17 writers – Nadine Gordimer is represented twice – stretches itself to include poetry and autobiography. Because of the presence of black and Coloured writers, there is less psychological violence here and more of the ordinary, physical kind. Joel Matlou’s harrowing account of a spell of work in a platinum mine, ‘Man against Himself’, suggests there are worse things in life than an inability to pronounce one’s maid’s name. The excerpt from the tape-recorded diary of Maria Tholo includes a description of the local mortuary in 1976: ‘What happens is that they put all the unidentified bodies in one place and you have to search through them like a pile of old clothes to find yours.’ Most imaginative fiction would pale in significance beside this kind of direct and unmediated recounting of experience and the stories in A Land Apart are no exception.
Or perhaps it is fiction itself that is the problem: perhaps the fiction of bourgeois realism, the fiction that was invented to order to let the middle class inspect itself in its mirror, is inappropriate to the representation of the historic crisis of white South Africa, even if the need to try to represent that crisis is pressing in the extreme, even if the work of Nadine Gordimer suggests the moral stature which the uncompromised writer may achieve in such circumstances.
There is a rare kind of hopefulness about Jeremy Cronin’s splendidly and unashamedly sentimental prison poem, ‘Walking on Air’, about a white, working-class Communist, that comes from the South Africa of heroic struggle rarely hinted at elsewhere in the book. He says to his wife:
– Dulcie, I will never betray my comrades.
And with a frog in her throat she replied
– I’m behind you. One hundred per cent.
The John Matthews of the poem ends up with a sentence of 15 years. Norma Kitson’s husband, David Kitson, was sentenced to 20 years for work connected with the early days of the ANC. Like Dulcie, she was a hundred per cent behind him and remained so. Her spirit is unquenchable, even if she is something like the little boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, and something like Cassandra – she keeps on shouting out loud that the Emperor is stark-naked but nobody will believe her. She recalls:
There was very little support among the white people for the liberation struggle in the Fifties. I though that the minute I informed them about the things I knew, about the injustices and the laws, they would be sure to join in. But they looked at me blankly. They didn’t want to know.
When Norma Kitson, or Cranko, as she was then, was a little girl, she lived in a big house in Durban. The small son of her mother’s maid Sarah was allowed to come and stay for a few weeks every year; the Crankos used to call him ‘Sixpence’. The rest of the year, Sixpence lived miles away in Zululand with his brothers and sisters. Whenever Sarah lost her temper with the Cranko kids, Norma wondered whether it was because she resented looking after them instead of looking after her own children. Sixpence’s real name was Zolile, which Mrs Kitson knows very well how to pronounce. Her own daughter has been given a Zulu name, Amandla.
The first chapters of Where Sixpence lives are the raw material for a certain kind of colonial novel: the grand house with its huge staff, the spoiled, capricious, beautiful mother, the liberal father with his bedtime stories about the French Revolution and his repressed homosexuality, the scapegrace brother – all pulled this way and that way by the turbulent undercurrents of a failing marriage. All the glamorous misery of a novel of sensibility.
The family, especially on her mother’s side, was flush with new money. Perhaps it was the awareness of the money that helped to tune Mrs Kitson’s eye so finely to questions of cash and class. Edith, their old black housekeeper, had been passed on by Aunt Ettie, who had ‘graduated to getting a Coloured woman, who cost more’. The children’s status was confirmed by a stern Anglo nurse. Affection came from the blacks. When Mrs Kitson’s mother arbitrarily abandoned her marriage, separating her children from one another and scattering the constellation of servants to the four winds, Philemon the chauffeur doubled up with ironic laughter: ‘You white people make so much destruction you even do it to yourselves!’
That is where, if it were a novel, Where Sixpence lives would end, although the story of a life spent in opposition to white privilege is the real story and is only just beginning. But, though her book is emphatically not a novel, Mrs Kitson hasn’t been able to resist the use of page after page of reconstructed dialogue and a fiction-like presentation of events. As when, during the Kitsons’ London courtship: ‘One Saturday night at the Finsbury Park Odeon, when I was six months pregnant, David handed me an orange ice-lolly and said: “How about getting married?” ’ Yet her jauntiness and guts are so engaging that these tricks seem the natural buttonholing devices of an incorrigible raconteuse rather than a deliberate reinvention of the past.
Another tactic is less engaging: she frequently employs a device familiar from the didactic fiction of my youth, in which ideological problems are introduced in the form of debates in the homely setting of a family meal or in answer to the innocent query of a bystander. This sometimes gives her memoir the flavour of a tract, when its matter-of-fact and unsentimental account of torture and violence ought to make its own points.
Shortly after her husband was imprisoned in South Africa in 1964, Mrs Kitson and her young children returned to Britain, where her son had been born, continuing to devote herself to the struggle from abroad. This led to her founding the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, who conducted the notorious non-stop picket in front of South Africa House in London for 86 days and nights in 1982. One of the (successful) aims of the picket was to embarrass the South African authorities into moving David Kitson from Death Row, where he was spending the last months of his confinement. The picket is out there again, as I write; this time it says it won’t budge until Nelson Mandela is free.
It is during this period of exile that the tale goes murky, as Mrs Kitson recounts, in a tone of startled innocence, her experience of the internecine factionalism of the exiled South African Left. But at the end of the book, her husband free again, Mrs Kitson’s hope for Africa’s future remains radiant, her faith in the inexorability of natural justice absolute. The Kitsons are looking forward to being able to go home soon. It is still possible that they may not have to walk through a sea of blood in order to do so.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.