We are our omissions. Or, to put it more precisely, we—ultimately and alas—become our omissions. At least, if we are writers of serious fiction, we run that risk. Because literary biography and criticism, already strongly inclined to forensic approaches, are now operating well beyond the familiar territory of the standard authorial shortcomings and sins of commission, out in the horizonless region of the social lacunae discoverable in even the most celebrated oeuvres. No need to belabor the point. Here’s a random sample of such lacunae: Jane Austen (plantation slavery), Joseph Conrad (race), a good part of the nineteenth-century pantheon of American writers (slavery, race), George Eliot (deficiencies in women’s educational access), Henry James (the injustices of the class system), most postwar German writers (the horrors of the Allied bombing campaign).
Contemporary writers, going forward, will prudently wish to become as comprehensive in their acknowledgment of prevailing evils as they can manage. And how can that be a bad thing? But applying the category of omission to fellow writers in real time feels awkward and unfair. I know because I’m about to do that to two novels out of post-apartheid South Africa—two accomplished, vivid, skillfully made novels by Zakes Mda, wherein, it seems to me, a great omission intersects detrimentally, profoundly detrimentally, with Mda’s achievements and objectives in writing these books.
Speaking of unfairness, too much is expected of post-apartheid black literature. The community of serious readers, and bien-pensants everywhere, eagerly await the works that will dramatize truths about the spectacular dismantling of the old regime, about a victory won and consolidated with so much grace and forbearance, about the new society under construction. We want the voices of Gordimer, Brink, Coetzee to be matched, surpassed, by new black voices. So it’s to be expected that the first fruits by writers creating in the new era will be candidates for overpraise driven by the emotion of welcome, or underpraise if they are seen to fall below certain standards. Great events don’t necessarily produce great literature, but we want this one to. It’s useful to keep this in mind in assessing Mda’s work and the great acclaim it has received to date. He has won every major literary prize South Africa has to offer. And, of The Heart of Redness, the front flap copy concludes with, “It is, arguably, the first great novel of the new South Africa….”
Mda’s novels, Ways of Dying (1991) and The Heart of Redness (2000), could be described as fables. The first is set in East London, on the Indian Ocean and Cape Town, more than five hundred miles away, during the early stages of the final transition to black rule. The second is set in the hinterland of the Eastern Cape, after the accession of the African National Congress to government. It isn’t exactly an omission, but it is a disappointment that only one narrow aspect (violent conflict between Zulu migrant workers and …