Rating: 5 stars
I don’t know how to describe how I feel about this book. It’s beautiful. I feel almost as though I’m in love with it. It’s not the book that I was expecting. I thought it was going to be deeply political in the way protest novels usually are, and it is deeply political but not as a protest. It is political about the self. It rejects as central the political situation of the time and country of its setting, and instead places it in the background, incidental to the story of Rosa Burger’s self.
The book has a balmy feel, as though I’m on an extended holiday with no responsibilities, no sense of urgency. It feels like a great big pause of a novel. Rosa has hit pause while she sorts herself out.
I’m interested by Rosa’s lack of self in the wake her parents’ deaths. It’s making me think about my own sense of lack now that my dad is gone and mum not really present. It’s making me think about the way we define ourselves in relation to others. When my dad died I tried to explain it to my husband as a feeling of being cut adrift. My dad and I didn’t always get along. We had differing social and political viewpoints. I partly defined myself in opposition to him. If I knew where he stood on something, I knew where I stood, sort of thing. But we loved each other, and I miss him every day, still. Since dementia has stripped away most of who my mum was as a person, I feel a different loss. As the person who bore me in the womb, looked after me as a child, and heard my worries and confidences through childhood and adulthood, who knew me without needing to learn about me, I feel the lack of her intensely. When I talk about my worries and frustrations now, people want to fix things, offering up advice about what I should do. I don’t need fixing, things can’t be fixed so easily. I need someone to hear me out and reassure me that I’m understood, like my mum did. From the book, I get the sense that Rosa didn’t have that kind of relationship with her parents, and that her lack, while still a cutting adrift, is more of an opportunity to reinvent herself and cease being Burger’s Daughter.
The book offers a different viewpoint about anti-apartheid activity. Rosa has lived life as the child of white communists seeking to bring about revolution that will free black South Africans from their state of oppression. To an extent, she has also experienced oppression, she has had her share of persecution by the state through nothing more than the family she was born into. And yet she has no experience of being black. She goes to a party about a third of the way through the book and meets a young black student who rejects what her father and, by extension, she stands for. But more than that, he rejects the blacks who work with whites to bring about change.
“Dhladhla stated and accused impersonally and passionately. — The chance — you know what your chance is? You know what you’re talking about? Race exploitation with the collaboration of blacks themselves. That is why we don’t work with whites. All collaboration with whites has always ended in exploitation of blacks.”
I found that statement shocking. Anger like that, rejection like that makes me uncomfortable. It feels like racism because the language of necessity fixates on skin colour. It feels like bloody minded perversity, because the comradeship in adversity is rejected through prejudice, itself born of prejudice. The passage made me think about what some black British people might feel, the alienation from people who want to help change society with them but don’t understand that the colour of their skin brings a difficult politics to the collaboration. People like me, I guess, who don’t have to think about the colour of their skin on a daily basis. People like me who wouldn’t in a million years consider themselves an exploiter of race.
The section set in France reads more like a straight literary fiction about artistic people who live a bohemian existence. It could be a separate book, about a woman who goes to the South of France to find herself. Similar to a book I read recently by Victoria Hislop, called The Island.
Gordimer using Bernard Chabalier as a mouthpiece for opinions on academic research into the cultural history of the Languedoc, L’Occitane, that French/Spanish/African hotpot of cultures is also like something out of standard literary fiction. After part 1, it made me smile. This is what Rosa needed to experience in order to find herself? Okay.
Even the tribulations of the socialist bourgeoisie are dealt with through Chabalier.
“I’m a school teacher. If I don’t get a PhD I won’t get a job at a university … To take a chance on a book — you have to be poor, you have to be alone, you can’t have middle-class standards … You don’t know how careful we are, we French Leftist bourgeoisie. So much set aside every month, no possibility of living dangerously.”
It’s not like that in UK literary circles. At least not the being poor bit. To take a chance on a book, you have to be connected, and your book deal will support your middle class standards.
The romance between Rosa and Bernard is tender. Rosa was forced rigid in order to escape South Africa. Now she permits herself tenderness. Bernard is forced rigid in his pursuit of security for his family. He is indulging in tenderness.
The moment at the gallery party, where a group of men are flexing their intellectual muscles, dissecting Sovietism and Solzhenitsyn, at a remove from actual experience, is a turning point. As I was reading the discussion, I was pondering how smug we are in the West, how safe from the actualities of oppression, how entitled we feel to critique what we have not experienced. I found it incredible. Then Rosa launched in with her incredulity. The men’s reaction made me tense in the way debates with people who do not really care on subjects that matter to me also make me tense. You want to make your point well, but you know they don’t care. As Chabalier says “For them, it livens up a party.”
The crash of Rosa’s re-encounter with Baasie, with Zwelinzima. The truth outside an existence she didn’t realise was so protected from hatred. An echo of the conversation with Dhladhla, but more vehement, more raw, more destructive because of all its layers of meaning. Brutal.
And here is how I am different to a white South African who has grown up in the anti-apartheid movement and known persecution. My reaction to Zwelinzima’s anger is to say, with the history of guilt behind me, ‘Yes, you are right to be angry. What right do I have to say what your future should be?’ Rosa is brought to life by it, rejects it, despises it.
“I’ve heard all the black clichés before. I am aware that, like the ones the faithful use, they are an attempt to habituate ordinary communication to overwhelming meanings in human existence … They become enormous lies incarcerating enormous truths, still extant, somewhere.”
She reflects on her reaction and identifies the history of guilt behind it, too. She is floored by it, tries to reconcile it with the liberal reaction of understanding and forgiveness that she thinks she should have felt, realises that everything she was planning for her new life is finished. She realises that she is no different to any other white South African. She is not like her father or her mother. She is willing to compromise to serve her own purposes. That is why Zwelinzima’s bitterness aggravates her guilt and fuels her anger.
And everything leads to the Apartheid I remember from my childhood. The embattlement of Soweto. The murder of people gathering to fight for their freedom. The police state. The in-fighting and recriminations. The endless waiting for Mandela to be free.
I’m exhausted. This book is incredible.