South Africa has slid gently out of the media limelight over the past ten years. Apartheid ensured the country was always in the news, despite the regime’s best intentions. Then the transition from Afrikaner-dominated parliament to parliament of the people kept us enthralled for a good few years. But now South Africa’s trials and tribulations are not substantially different from many other countries. In fact, it has become almost mundane, ordinary.
It is this struggle “to learn to become ordinary” that lies at the heart of Achmat Dangor’s latest novel, Bitter Fruit, which was named as one of the five titles on the prestigious Booker prize short list for 2004. Unlike the collective struggle against apartheid, the individual personal struggles to forge a new identity, a place in a society redefining itself, have not always met with success.
Against the background of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Dangor focuses on the life of one family whose past was defined by the individual evils of a grandiose system, and whose cohesion is unravelling as history clambers beyond the confines of neatly constructed judicial processes.
“It is about personal struggles and frailties that a process like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot solve, only highlight”
The TRC, which sought to exorcise the evils committed by the foot soldiers of apartheid, to forgive but never forget, was a harrowing process. It brought torturers and their victims face to face, but perhaps more significantly it exposed the harm that had been done to South Africans, and so permitted an acceptance, even an embracing of the new system by even the most racist of sceptics.
The daily horrors which seeped out of the TRC have been marvellously documented by Antjie Krog in Country of My Skull [click here to read extract]. It is a book almost too painful to read because it turns the formal process of reconciliation into a personal process of acknowledgement of excruciating pain and simultaneous sublime indifference to such pain. Bitter Fruit is different. It is not about the noble intentions and embracing outcomes of the TRC: instead it is about personal struggles and frailties that a process like the TRC cannot solve. It can only highlight them.
While the TRC is central to Bitter Fruit it is almost invisible. Silas Ali is a lawyer and former ANC activist whose work in the Ministry of Justice as the minister’s right-hand man is crucial to the success of the TRC. But we do not see Silas at work, unless it is through third parties – television or colleagues. The unspoken need and unwilling quest for truth and reconciliation in the home of the Ali family are played out against the background of the country’s search for the same.
Dangor divides the book into three sections Memory; Confession; and Retribution. Through these sections he weaves a history of the Ali family, of the event 19 years ago which changed the lives of Silas and Lydia forever, both then and now, and he relates a history that is still in the making – of South Africa’s peoples forging an identity out of the horrors of the past and the fickleness of the present.
Silas and Lydia know that an ordinary life is beyond their reach, despite him going off to work each day as a lawyer, she as a nurse and their son Mickey/Michael to university. It is not just the violence that marked their history, and Silas’ role as an underground activist against apartheid, it is their place in South Africa as ‘bastards’. They are not just South Africans adapting to the new political regime, they are Coloured South Africans, a product of white male colonisers and their black subjects, hence bastards – ‘too black for the old South Africa and too white for the new’.
But there is also the personal struggle each of the three family members confronts in their interactions as the process and pain of memory leads to confession and retribution at the individual rather than collective level. Lydia turns her emotional pain into a physical one in the arms of her husband. Silas seeks solace in alcohol and flirting with younger women. Mikey, in his transformation to adulthood’s Michael, sleeps with his father’s colleague and his lecturer, taking sex from flattered women. The secret of his conception, of the private horrors of apartheid’s minutiae, and of his family’s dislinear ancestry drives him to seek solace as his great-grandfather did – in revenge and religion.
What makes Bitter Fruit so powerful, so exquisitely traumatic (where Country of My Skull was bluntly traumatic) is that Dangor unwraps the life of the Ali family, pricks our eyes with the anger, frustration, passion and pain of a family whose lives are so misaligned with each other that compassionate violence is the result. Dangor crafts their stunted relationships with such beautiful precision and compassionate indifference that we cannot help but take the next step, knowing that truth and reconciliation are working outside the home, but are left like muddy shoes at the front door. Reconciliation is only possible when the past is exposed with all its ugliness. The Ali family aspire to ordinariness, but know it is unattainable because reconciliation is not part of their home life.
The dysfunctional family could be universal in its application, but Dangor’s work is uniquely South African and has to be consumed, embraced and trumpeted in that context. At times, at a superficial level, I wondered if non-South Africans would understand the language. Take a simple example: “Even bushies need light occasionally, they must have schemed.” Bushies? It is explained much further on in the text, but we all know that a bushie is slang for a coloured person, on account of their hair of course. And schemed is also part of colloquial South African English that means to think rather than to plan, as in “So what do you scheme?” means “What is your opinion on the matter?”
Such language turns a universal masterpiece into a South African masterpiece, and at the same time raises questions as to whether the Booker judges, or any other readers for that matter, will really grasp the irony which bubbles out in the frequent uses of South Africanisms. And the irony goes way beyond the slang of South Africa’s Coloured townships – it is about seeking personal liberation when all about you are celebrating liberation.
Bitter Fruit is a difficult book because it confounds the good news, the jubilation and celebration that have come to be expected with the first decade of freedom in South Africa. It is so intensely personal, unashamedly opinionated that it forces a reappraisal of liberation. Do not misunderstand this. Dangor does not question the value of political liberation, nor does he look back with romantic nostalgia at the days of apartheid as many critics are wont to do. As Silas remarks to his friend:
“God, Alec, you’re always remembering how things were in the old days; not a week goes by without you telling one of those ‘when we were young in Newclare’ stories.”
Instead Dangor unites political and personal within the context of South Africa’s process of transformation from pariah to ordinariness. It is an ordinariness that may never be achieved. The society that resulted from apartheid is struggling to become ordinary and Bitter Fruit is a testimony to how difficult that process is, and how joyous it can be and may yet become.