Writing in South Africa, in that blighted country whose own rhetoric is fixed in droughty, barren images, one starts with the fact that language can become a kind of sabotage. White or Black or Coloured, English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking or speaking any one of a dozen native languages, one starts, even in the best of faith, in bad faith. The languages of South Africa have been consonant with race and caste, owner and worker, citizen and servant, for so long that language itself—the language one speaks and writes—is a weapon there, quite apart from those details of identity and ideology with which it happens to coincide. Words smother, sacrifices to apartheid, in the closed context of the expectations they arouse. They can sanction such perverse exaggerations, such profound contempt, that anyone who wants to write in South Africa is left with the home truth that language has lost its metaphoric flexibility and assumed, instead, a kind of brute, synecdochic power. By now, to write in South Africa is by definition political.
There are white citizens of South Africa but no “citizens” of the land itself any more. There are only claims on the landscape, made in words too loaded to be shared beyond the circle of one’s own kind, one’s own “people.” Writers in South Africa suffer more than censorship. They suffer the constraints of responsibility. Their subject (if they are any good at all) is given, and it is deadly serious. They know that they cannot in conscience play—take too much pleasure in the sound of words or tease meanings out of quirky grammar. This is not just a problem for Afrikaners, who have seen their fathers’ inventive country-Dutch speech reduced to the official “language” of a fierce nationalism and an even fiercer politics.
Today, most language in South Africa bears a kind of historical pollution, and most good writers admittedly make do without “freshness,” without the lyric energy of more Arcadian (or perhaps merely more effectively self-deceptive) times. The fiction South Africans cherish for innocence and freshness are the old genre tales of writers like Herman Charles Bosman, tales spun in some golden age a half-century or so ago when the Marico and the Karoo still yielded up the sort of crusty Afrikaner bumpkin whose solid country humor and solid country crimes and solid country madness were blessedly, ignorantly free from “politics,” when violence had mainly to do with ugly spouses chopped up and buried under the parlor floor.
What a painful journey from Bosman’s Marico countryside to Nadine Gordimer’s Johannesburg. For it is hard to find an image of love or lust or even landscape in a Gordimer story that does not carry some implication of moral fault, or imminent corruption. It is hard to find a conversation that does not strain and spoil under the political heat of today’s South African setting. Writers like Nadine Gordimer have a different tension in their work, a different set of imperatives, from Afrikaner writers—both those Afrikaners who write in English and those ecologists of language, not so different from the Bretons and the Basques in Europe, who want to force an “authentic” national literature out of a somehow purified vocabulary.
The Afrikaner who writes in English, as Athol Fugard does, or translates himself into English, as André Brink does, or moves from one language to the other within a book, as the novelist J.M. Coetzee does, has determined on an audience beyond the authority of the censor’s office. He is apt to be haunted by themes that mirror his own “betrayal” of the language that betrayed him and, of course, Africa. In a way, Afrikaners like Brink and Fugard and Coetzee (Coetzee, at forty-one, is perhaps the most interesting writer of the three, but he is published only locally and so is not much known outside South Africa) are under pressure of their predicament to explore what might be called the mutual uses of incomprehension in their country: the triumphant incomprehension of the master and the subversive incomprehension of the African.
The problem for an Afrikaner writer, finally, is how to accept the fact that the language of his mother’s songs and his childhood games and his own tenderness is also the language of his country’s cruelty—proudly, officially, identified with cruelty. Whereas the problem for white English-speaking writers like Nadine Gordimer is that English—I specifically mean “white” English, not the English of black South African writers like Steven Biko and Lewis Nkosi, who have another, different, relation to the language—has been so thoroughly the “colonial” language of South Africa, the language that did not root in the eccentricities of a new landscape or the experience of a trek, the language whose “South Africanness” has had mainly to do with coy details of dialect, the language carried up from the Cape by colonial cavalries, not covered wagons, the language that kept itself civilized and European, uneducated, unmoved, by Africa.
If Afrikaans is the language of intimate family histories put to terrorizing public use, the language of theological time and explanation, of spiritual claustrophobia in vast spaces, of cycles of land and season and crops and calvings and fixed, ordained station, the language of the trek and the end of exploration and the beginning of a dream about a land for people who now can neither leave that land nor inherit it, then English, for white South Africa, is the language that is to explicate that madness and that dream. It is the language of commentary and judgment, of an imperial vision trying to engage itself, of worldly, liberal values trapped in domestic irrelevance. And much of the literature of the English in South Africa has been not so much of wrong deeds purged as of bad faith exquisitely acknowledged—a literature for the modern chorus, for that hothouse space of bourgeois and enlightened values in which discussion is encouraged and indulged precisely because it makes so little difference to the world of realpolitik and real suffering, to the world of interrogation rooms on Jan Vorster Square and prison cells on Robben Island and a generation of voertrekkers come to political and economic power. That literature can express itself not in clumsy Boer claims to the land but in appreciation and sentiment, in colonial attachments. It has been about people reluctant to leave themselves and scared to let their children stay, about people who can leave, people who have hedged bets against the future.
The Afrikaner has virtually no choices left, no bets to hedge, nowhere to go—which may be why Nadine Gordimer put an Afrikaner at the center of The Conservationist (1975), her best novel until the recent publication of July’s People. Mehring—Miss Gordimer’s Afrikaner—is a rich businessman, one of those ambitious Boers who have alarmed the English South Africans over the past fifteen or twenty years by making money, breaking that unwritten agreement that gave the English the wealth and the Afrikaners the government. In fact, Mehring has made enough money to buy a four-hundred-acre farm in the commuter countryside outside Johannesburg. He can own that farm, but he cannot possess it and his greedy, helpless passion to possess undoes him. It is a lust that does not belong to the veld. It belongs to the mine dumps of a ravaged landscape, to those eerie heaps of excavated sand that line the highways to Johannesburg, and that finally claim him in release and terror.
Mehring is martyr to a fanatic drive that began on his ancestors’ trek and was written into the grim theology of the laager and of prayer meetings in the wilderness. The English do not produce Mehrings. They were right, of course, in claiming (as they chased the Boers across the bottom of the continent) that Mehring’s sort of fanaticism was “inappropriate.” They wanted the calm and decent values of the Crown preserved in Africa—transformed, perhaps, by the fact of so many millions of black Africans to contend with, but not abandoned. They tried, when they could, to wipe out Afrikaans and with it the fanaticism that displeased them. There are old Afrikaners who remember when English was the official language of the schools, when a child who spoke in Afrikaans had to wear a donkey’s tail until some other child repeated the mistake and took over the tail for him—a hot-potato game of shame that ended only on Friday afternoons with the child left with the tail standing punishment for the whole classroom.
The English catalogued what the Afrikaner believed and ultimately legislated—catalogued in sensibility if not in law the inhumane divisions and subdivisions of race and privilege of the colonial experiment. They created our proper Western consciousness of the Boer War—which was really a long series of Anglo-Boer wars—and that consciousness had it that the English were patriots and the Boers buffoons of brutality. They created, in Africa, the idea of white trash. They replaced the ferocious piety of laager with comely thatch churches and a good deal of correspondence about “mission” with the prelates of Canterbury. The Boers, in their way, belonged to Africa—even in their failed passion to possess its soul. The English neither possessed nor belonged. They ruled. And when ruling was inconvenient—because the Boers, after all, outnumbered them two to one by 1948, the first year of Afrikaner government—they stepped back, horrified to witness what one of Miss Gordimer’s characters called, if I remember correctly, “the end of the beginning of suffering.”
This has been Nadine Gordimer’s great challenge and her often startling achievement—to draw from her own language a prose grounded in the agony of the country, a prose referring passionately and strictly to that agony. White South Africa craves its literature. Listen to the voice—the mad voice of South Africa—in J.M. Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country:
I who plainly had the makings of a clever girl who might have atoned for physical shortcomings with ten nimble fingers on the piano-forte keys and an album full of sonnets, who might have made a good wife, industrious, frugal, self-sacrificing, faithful, and even on occasion passionate? What have I been doing on this barbarous frontier? I have no doubt since these are not idle questions, that somewhere there is a whole literature waiting to answer them for me. Unfortunately I am not acquainted with it…. I have uttered my life in my own voice throughout, what a consolation that is, I have chosen at every moment my own destiny, which is to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father’s bones, in a space echoing with hymns I could have written but did not because (I thought) it was too easy.
Nadine Gordimer is rare among English South Africans in that she can share with Afrikaners like Coetzee (and with Fugard and Brink and a new generation of younger Afrikaner writers) a desire at once to possess the landscape and to liberate the land, and a steely pity for the African that acknowledges, in great pain and shame, that “In knowing him better I seem to have lost all that I liked best in him.” She is ready for the moment when black Africa discards its white families who still nestle at the bottom of the continent, protected by their bombers and their pass laws and their immorality acts, and, more often than one admits, their genuine concern for a decent country—its white families roasting steak and sausage at their Sunday braai; making their pilgrimages to Kruger for the animals and Durbin for the beaches and to “homelands” that survive on the pitiful new colonialism of porn and gambling promoters; once in a while driving the children out along the Cape to see the blue Indian Ocean meet the green Atlantic Ocean in a line as vivid and improbable as the post cards paint it; and, finally, sending their sons to fight and die in Namibia and Angola.