A Revolutionary Woman
On August 10 this year, during clashes between Africans and Indians around Durban, South Africa, a mob invaded Phoenix Estate, the communal settlement founded by Gandhi, burning and looting. Among the houses wrecked was the Gandhi family house, which had been maintained as a museum.
Thus perished some of the last physical evidences of the twenty-one years Gandhi spent in South Africa, years during which he led the campaign of the Indian South African community against serfdom and exploitation, in the process forging the doctrine of Satyagraha (“truth-force”) and the tactics of nonviolent resistance. Though the mob probably did not think of itself as performing a symbolic act, we may read the sacking of the Gandhi museum as its verdict on the relevance of nonviolence to the South Africa of the 1980s.
Nonetheless, Gandhi remains an important influence on such clerical opponents of the South African regime as Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak. Gandhian nonviolence was a tenet of the African National Congress, the largest resistance organization, until the 1960s, when it became all too clear that it would achieve nothing against an implacable Afrikaner Nationalist government. In the life of Christina Ransome, the heroine of Sheila Fugard’s third novel, A Revolutionary Woman, Gandhi and his wife are not only an inspiration but abiding spiritual presences, more real than the world in which she moves.
The action of the novel takes place in 1920, six years after Gandhi left South Africa for the last time. A lone English-woman in a Boer (Afrikaner) community, Christina Ransome teaches at a school for Coloured (mixed-race) children in a small country town. Her particular protégé is an eighteen-year-old youth named Ebrahim, whom, against the opposition of the white townsfolk, she is preparing for an examination that will enable him to escape a life that is stifling him.
Infected with the prejudices of his masters, Ebrahim fantasizes that he is a foundling, that he is “really” white. His dream is to flee South Africa and live the life of a dilettante artist in the Italy or Switzerland he has read about. Christina sometimes supports him in his fantasies, sometimes tries to confront him with reality. Her vacillation is one sign that within her the wise Gandhi (who sometimes fuses with the god Shiva) and Kali, goddess of dark sensualism and destruction, are at war: for Fugard’s psychology is based on the archaic principle of the psychomachia, the contest of gods (or archetypes) in the soul.
In the contest for control of Ebrahim, Kali gains the upper hand. Sex enters his life, and with shock Christina learns who the woman is: Ebrahim is arrested on a charge of raping a simple-minded white girl of fourteen. He does not deny the facts, but argues that it was love, not rape. Determined to conduct the trial on political lines, Christina engages a liberal lawyer.
But when it emerges that the girl is pregnant, a troop of vigilantes, twelve of the town’s leading men, ride out to lynch Ebrahim, who is free on bail. Ebrahim takes refuge in Christina’s house. Asserting their right to speak for the Afrikaner volk and carry out the volk’s justice, the vigilantes lay siege to the house. Ebrahim declares his love for Christina, then rapes her, then commits suicide; Christina is left mourning over his dead body.
This synopsis gives, more or less, the sum of the action. In all, the narrative is so schematic, the setting so sketchily realized, the dialogue so stiff, the motivation so perfunctory, that we must conclude Fugard had entirely different ambitions in mind than to write a novel in a psychological–realist mode about a crisis in the life of a woman of passionate ideals in the age of (as she sees it) Gandhi and Lenin, fighting reactionary and death-driven social forces, a field that Nadine Gordimer long ago annexed as her own.
What Fugard’s ambition is—and here I must begin to guess, since the novel itself, at the same time so slight and so imperiously grand, gives little guidance—is to approach a tale emblematic of South African history through the Hindu conception of maya, the illusoriness of historical event; and yet at the same time to oppose the passive fatalism that goes hand in hand with the notion of history-as-illusion by putting forward the ideal of a classless society as a transcendence of history, a plateau on which history ceases to be. What happens on the ground in the town of New Kimberly is therefore barely worth devoting one’s creative energies to—in fact, to realize New Kimberly, its people, their words and actions, too fully would be to attribute to them a reality they do not possess. More real is the plane of the great trans-historical forces—personified in Shiva and Kali—whose eternal contest is played out in the world.
If this is indeed the direction of Fugard’s thinking, then we can see why the figure of Gandhi occupies the center of her book: as wise seer he looks beyond or through the illusions of history; as political activist involved in worldly affairs he brings nearer the classless society and the end of history.
Fugard has written a novel, not a book about Gandhi, so it is unfair to ask whether her fictional Gandhi is the true Gandhi. But we can ask how Gandhian a book she has written, to what extent it reflects the spirit of the master. Satyagraha, confronting the oppressor with the overwhelming truth of the bodily being of the oppressed, seeks with fundamental magnanimity not only to defeat its adversary but to save him as well, as the history of Gandhi’s dealings with the British in India testifies, and as the British, in retrospect, realize and are grateful for. How Gandhian is the opposition of Christina to the Boers?
Here the answer must be inconclusive, for the simple reason that Fugard has not constructed an action in which one can see a clear distinction at work in the world between a personal distaste for violence and a political philosophy of nonviolence. I do not hereby wish to draw into question the sincerity of Christina’s beliefs (if one can indeed talk about the sincerity of fictional beings). I am pointing to something simpler: a failure of craft. Christina’s resistance to the Boers has no effect on the world in which she lives. Nothing changes in New Kimberly. If the Boer harbingers of death who ride the night in black coats and top hats (top hats?) quail at all, it is not before Christina’s truth-force but before the Mauser rifle Ebrahim snatches from one of them. Therefore the fable Fugard has invented does not demonstrate the force of truth-force. At best it demonstrates that passive resistance fails against men without conscience, or men locked into a particularly grim black-and-white view of the world. “You are a woman. We are men and know what is best,” they tell her at the end of the book, and ride off.
The fable does not even, strictly speaking, show us a conscientious choosing of the way of nonviolence: to Christina and Ebrahim, two against many, the way of violence is hardly available. Christina is Gandhian to her marrow—there is no question of that—but the book does not show in what respect Gandhiism is different from any other heartfelt private belief, like theosophy or vegetarianism, that gives its believers a feeling of being clean in a dirty world.
Whether pitting the liberal teacher against the racist Boers is an unproductive strategy, yielding a predictable physical defeat and a predictable moral victory, is a question that seems to perturb Fugard at one point and to lead to one of the more puzzling episodes in the book: during the siege of the house the members of the kommando step forward one by one and deliver short speeches, which reveal that some of them are sickened by violence, some as rigid and entrenched in their prejudices as ever. As I read it, the episode is meant to make these jackalmen human, to show that, far from being mere minions of Kali the destroyer, they too have souls in which life- and death-forces are at war. But the episode lacks plausibility and reads like an afterthought.
Christina Ransome proclaims herself not only a revolutionary but a revolutionary woman. As a woman in a patriarchal society that worships a patriarchal God, a society whose women are never visible, how does she situate herself in relation to Gandhi, against whom charges of patriarchalism—particularly in his family life—can plausibly be leveled? Here Fugard turns to the figure of Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, whom Christina claims as her spiritual mother. The problem here is that the historical Kasturba Gandhi chose to keep her feelings about her marriage to herself. Despite the license that fiction affords her, Fugard clearly respects Kasturba too much to violate her austere silence. Therefore, in presenting the woman who knew Gandhi best, she can do no more than suggest—or guess—that Kasturba, like everyone else, has contesting forces within her: on the one hand she is the dutiful wife and mother who has “abdicated from life,” on the other a woman with a “hunger for life” who “masks her hidden pain.” Kasturba remains “an enigma” not only to her “rebellious daughter” Christina but also, I suspect, to Fugard. “I believe there is a code that can unlock the universe,” says Christina. As both seer and woman she hungers to unlock Kasturba; but Kasturba resists her efforts.
At the end of the book, when she is struggling to understand the meaning of the events she has lived through, she turns one last time to Kasturba, whom she now links, as Gandhi’s child-bride, to all Indian child-brides, and to all Chinese women with bound feet, all mutilated African girls, all women in bondage to men. Has she herself been a pawn in a phallic contest between Ebrahim and the Boers, she wonders, and is that the truth of the fable? Perhaps, perhaps not: for the reader there is again too wide a gap between what goes on in Christina and what the story shows.
More satisfying than the exploration of Kasturba is the exploration of the significance of Gandhi himself to a woman in revolutionary times. Again and again Christina returns to images of Gandhi in Ahmadabad: Gandhi taking an Untouchable girl by the hand, teaching her her lessons; Gandhi at his spinning wheel, spinning his thread. In middle life Gandhi decided to abjure sexual intercourse (in fact, decided unilaterally). Adjuring intercourse, Gandhi seems also to relinquish phallic power, though, in the fascinating letter to Gandhi that forms the center of his book Gandhi’s Truth, Erik Erikson asks the Master whether he did not in truth simply continue to wield the phallus in his family circle in more devious ways than most husbands and fathers. In Tantric thought, abstention from orgasm becomes a way for the man to direct seminal forces to spiritual ends. Toward the end of the novel, Christina finally “catch[es] the thread of Gandhi’s semen,” which, via a chain of similitudes, becomes linked to the sesame seed he placed in her hand at the Phoenix Estate and thus to the engendering of revolutionary Satyagraha within her. The thread (of thoughts, of cotton) and the seed: the metaphor is an obscure one, but perhaps we are entitled to see in the androgyny of the spinning man-mother the seeds of both social and sexual revolution. Particularly so when we reflect that what Christina opposes in New Kimberly is not only the phallic power of the patriarchs brandishing their Mausers but the phallic answer of Ebrahim, who in the grip of anger “assumes the form of a Kaffir warrior” and threatens to meet violence with violence.
I have already referred to the stiff formality of Fugard’s dialogue. In fact the avenging burghers of New Kimberly are not twelve individuals but a chorus, and they break at times into a prose equivalent of choral speech. Thus Fugard places a second—Greek—mythical overlay over the story. The countryside is suffering from a curse: drought. In the reading of the townsfolk, Ebrahim has polluted white purity and must be sacrificed. But Christina reads the drought in another way: “Prejudice pollutes everything, and only the rain can wash it away. This is the rain that ends a drought: Gandhi’s rain-like tears of compassion.”
The curse on (or of) South Africa is racism. But whose tears, whose compassion, will end it? The tears of Fugard’s jackal-Boers? Among them, the strong show no trace of mercy, the weak no sign of fight against the institutional chains into which they are born. The tears of Christina wept over the dead Ebrahim? The tears of Fugard’s readers? What does the image mean, if anything? There are times when one suspects that, simply by repeating the words Satyagraha and Gandhi over New Kimberly like a mantra, Christina hopes to change the town and what it stands for; though, to be just to her, there are also moments, many moments (for the gods continue to wage war in her), when this revolutionary woman foresees only a future of revolutionary violence.
It is tempting to resort to one of the clichés of the trade and call A Revolutionary Woman an “ambitious failure,” meaning a book that fails only because it tries to do too much—the implication being that it would have succeeded had it only attempted less. There is certainly a degree of nobility about Fugard’s heroine, nobility that derives from what is clearly a deep admiration for Gandhi. But one must be frank: Christina’s vision of Gandhi may be noble, but it is also adulatory, sometimes sentimentally so. Furthermore, in a book that, with a great deal of passion, advocates the way of ahimsa (nonviolence) in resistance to tyranny, a book that is bound to be read in the context not only of the 1920s but also of the 1980s, there is a real failure to construct a fable which embodies ahimsa as a living force.
I have left for last the feature of A Revolutionary Woman which I find most inexplicable and which, I fear, will discourage many readers. The book is written in a highly stylized English the like of which I have never seen before. The characteristic of this language—to be technical for a moment—is that syntactic subordination is systematically eschewed in favor of coordination. Linguists have long debated how dissimilar two sentences dare be before joining them with “and” produces a bizarre effect. Is “Nitrogen is a gas and Richard III had scoliosis” an acceptable English sentence? Fugard does not write sentences of quite that order of bizarreness, but she does write long paragraphs whose syntax is based on nothing but the conjunction “and”; and when such paragraphs are strung together relentlessly one after another, the effect is one of stunning tedium.
What we see here may simply be an experiment that failed. But there are many other moments of indifference to detail (anachronisms, for 1920, like “energize,” “gell,” “supportive,” “shoot-out”), implausibility (would librarians at Leyden University really allow undergraduates to handle crumbling Egyptian papyrus?), and muddled thinking (why base an indictment of racism on the questionable argument that intercourse with a fourteen-year-old simpleton is not necessarily rape?). A Revolutionary Woman does not read like a book that has been labored over long and lovingly.