Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book 60, South Africa: "Burger's Daughter" by Nadine Gordimer

Hey look! It's almost exactly a year since I started this reading journey! Sure, it's not 80 books, but 60 ain't bad either.

And South Africa's a good country to be in for our anniversary. Besides the fact that it's an important nation with an epic political and literary history (I've read Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, Athol Fugard's , and J.M. Coetzee'sWaiting for the Barbarians and Summertime before), I'm actually going to the country in June! Johannesburg, Cape Town and Kruger National Park! How cool is that?

But on to the monumental Burger's Daughter now, a book written in the wake of the Soweto uprising, initially banned in South Africa and requested as prison reading material by Mandela himself.

The Wikipedia article says the book was banned for "propagating Communist opinions", "creating a psychosis of revolution and rebellion", and "making several unbridled attacks against the authority entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the safety of the state", but 17 years after the fall of apartheid it comes across as far more complex. The truth is, it contains not only the urgent and obvious need to bring down the racist laws of unequal justice but also the contradictions of the characters' ideologies: Lionel Burger and his daughter Rosa are white Communist South African activists (he by conviction, she by inheritance), but their comrades and hangers-on argue over the misplacedness of a white African identity, never mind that your ancestors have been there for 300 years; the impossibility of ever rectifying for the privilege you have by race; and then what about the fact that Communism's worst abuses have been revealed by Solzhenitsyn; what kind of utopia are you chasing after that?

(Really; it just goes to prove again that only the most insecure governments will censor political art. Artis always polysemous, but a narrow-minded policy-maker will be unable to see that.)

It's funny; the story begins with the life imprisonment of Lionel Burger so I thought this was going to be one of the political detention narratives I've been reading so much of recently. But of course the tale's about the eponymous daughter: how she deals with being reared for struggle against the government while not being of a heroine's disposition herself - she knows the system's wrong, she's just very lost as the last of her line.

It resonates. I mean, I've been involved as a volunteer against our own unjust system of government, and people think I'm bad-ass 'cos I wrote poems about it but the truth is I mostly use my ass for sitting on; I could name you about two hundred Singaporeans who do more activism than I do off the top of my head. And I'm not even doing much writing either: just as Rosa spends her time hanging out with dissolute young white academics who build yachts in their backyards or study Spanish literature, or else with passionate activists who accept her as one of their own but argue over her head.

And what does she do to heal herself? She gets a passport (no easy thing for the scion of a political scapegoat) and leaves the country. And is renewed, somehow (the book is terribly rhizomatic, perspectives shifting from first person to third and even to her father's biographer and the state that's investigating her, but there is a wonderful climax) and returns home and things change, maybe not of her own doing, but she seems to have figured out a little more of herself by the end when she's in prison hearing her fellow comrades singing Miriam Makeba's click song (hey, that's a link with the author of our Swaziland stop).

Everyone's telling me I need to do the same. Get off this island and write properly. See how, see how.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

In the meantime, may I point out that I don't think I've ever seen the experience of a beautiful young woman being presented with such intimacy and complexity by a writer before - a perspective neither defiant nor heroic nor victimised; a clear intelligence that has dignity yet a frustrated agency, haunted by a past that should empower her - a bit of a female Hamlet, really. The book requires patience, but it is quite, quite remarkable.

Representative quote:The middle-aged cosmetic saleswoman and the few customers not too self-absorbed to glance up saw a kaffir-boetie girl being kissed by a black. That's all. They knew no better. That house was closer to reaching a kind of reality through your kind of reality than I understood. You and I argued in the cottage. Sex and death, you said. The only reality.

Next book:Mpho Matsepo Nthunya's Singing Away the Hunger, from Lesotho.

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