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 …
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Coetzee Is Available September 24, 1981