- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005


By Achmat Dangor

Grove, $13, 288 pages, paper


Metaphors can be handy shortcuts when pithy summations of complex situations are needed. But, like all powerful material, metaphors need careful handling, especially in political novels where the temptation to define the past in such simple terms is often irresistible.

Would that it were so easy to encapsulate troubled pasts and complex histories, like South Africa’s, in a graphic metaphor, as this finalist for the 2004 Man Booker Prize tries unevenly to do. Achmat Dangor, an ANC supporter, was also briefly detained by the Security Police during the apartheid years, and these personal experiences give the story of the Ali family a welcome authenticity. But his choice of sexual aggression — a rape and an act of incest — as a dramatic metaphor for the apartheid era traps his characters in roles and situations that define them as narrowly as all the old notorious race laws did.

The novel begins as the exhilaration of liberation is succeeded by the reality of governing: President Nelson Mandela, “the saving grace of the older world” is about to hand over power to Thabo Mbeki, a manager rather than an icon, who must deal with more mundane challenges. It is a fitting moment for both personal and national reckoning, and the Ali family soon find themselves confronting the past both at work and at home.

The Alis, Silas, Lydia and son Mikey are a mixed-race family, who now live in a formerly whites-only suburb in Johannesburg. Silas, a former activist, is an assistant to the minister dealing with the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is scheduled soon to deliver a report on its findings.

Lydia is a nurse, and Mikey, a college student. Their friends, white and black, like them, were all involved in the struggle. Life now seems pretty good even if Silas, like many of his fellow ANC supporters, is professionally troubled by the commission which seeks to bring closure to the past.

The famous commission is inherently another symbol, one of healing and redemption, created to bring abuses of the apartheid era to light, but then to forgive the perpetrators, if they confessed. The Ali family is caught between the two objectives of the commission as Lydia cannot forget, and Silas, a civil servant, must defend the commission’s objectives. As Silas perceptively observes, “the problem is we want to forgive, but we don’t want to forget. You can’t have it both ways.”

And the past is not that easily erased. A chance sighting at a shopping mall of a former white Security policeman, Francois Du Boise, reminds Silas of the damage Du Boise did to his own family. Twenty years ago, after detaining Silas and Lydia for their ANC connections, Du Boise raped Lydia, while Silas, locked in a nearby police van, had to listen to her screams.

Now, when Silas tells Lydia about the encounter, they quarrel. She accuses him of not being a real man, of not killing Du Boise, and then she deliberately cuts her feet on broken glass and is hospitalized. Silas is an everyman with a political conscience, who prefers to comment, rather than act.

It is an attitude that is no help to his family, who increasingly want to act and not to forget. He is worried by Lydia’s reaction as well as her hostility to him. She seems to regard him as a rapist, like all men. He is worried too about changes in Mikey, who seems to be deliberately avoiding him and Lydia. Mikey, with his moody good looks and pretentious intellectualism is the least credible character in the novel.

Driven by plot rather than temperament, his response to what he learns when he reads in Lydia’s secret diary while she is in hospital is dramatic but essentially mechanistic. No longer certain that Silas is his father, he coldly engages in affairs with older white women, while he considers how Lydia’s rapist should best be punished. The confession of Vinu, a fellow student, that her father had seduced her while the family was in exile in Holland, makes his decision easier.

Deliberately choosing a violent response to the past, and preferring retribution to reconciliation, Mikey embraces radical Islam, and buys a gun, which he soon uses. These crude if melodramatic acts graphically signal that the past will, and must not be forgotten. And though public confessions of past evils are cathartic and admirable, Mr. Dangor suggests they are not enough. Apartheid was so profoundly destructive of society that forgiveness and forgetting are inadequate response to such a massive psychic injury. Time may heal eventually, but not yet.

Mr. Dangor is to be commended for dealing with post-apartheid realities in vivid prose but his characters never seem more than one dimensional evocations of abstract concepts — the good, usually black, are very good, and the whites typically evil. Though timely, it is more a novel of ideas and ambitious literary sound bites than a painstaking attempt to plumb the recalcitrant workings of the human heart.

Judith Chettle is a South African born writer, now permanently living in the United States.

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