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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 42-66



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The Whole Country's Truth: Confession and Narrative in Recent White South African Writing

Michiel Heyns

I. Public Spheres

On 4 July 1996, Mark Behr delivered the keynote address at a conference in Cape Town entitled "Faultlines--Inquiries around Truth and Reconciliation." Speaking of his own novel, The Smell of Apples, Behr said, "as an act of creation The Smell of Apples represents, for me, the beginnings of a showdown with myself for my own support of a system like apartheid. [. . . I]f the book's publication has assisted white people in coming to terms with their own culpability for what is wrong in South Africa, then it has been worthwhile" (1).

This formulation reveals, perhaps unintentionally, the ambivalence of what we might call confessional fiction, an ambivalence hinging on Behr's phrase "coming to terms with their own culpability." He means, presumably, confronting that culpability; but his phrase could equally mean accommodating, establishing a comfortable relationship with it. 1 No doubt one's reading of Behr's statement is conditioned by the knowledge that he was about to confess to having been for years, while a student leader in the left-wing student organization National Union of South African Students, a paid informer of the South African security establishment; but even in less pronounced instances of complicity with the apartheid regime, the same questions arise. In particular, for my present purpose, the question arises of whether and in what sense confessional fiction [End Page 42] "comes to terms" with white South African culpability. A correlative question is whether confessional fiction differs significantly in this respect from non-fictional confession, and if so, how. André Brink has argued for the essential continuity of fiction and history: following Hayden White, he maintains that "in the process of textualizing the event it is also narrativized: that is, the representations of history repeat, in almost every detail, the processes of fiction" ("Stories" 32).

Taking actual confessions, then, to be, with whatever omissions and distortions, "representations of history," I want to place them next to "the processes of fiction," hoping thereby to learn something of the narrative principles underlying and shaping both. I shall use as my non-fictional examples some of the confessions and revelations emanating from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings (1996-98) and the concurrent Amnesty hearings. These have been absorbingly edited by Antjie Krog, who reported on the hearings for the South African Broadcasting Corporation; and not the least interesting aspect of her account is that it becomes, among other things, a rite of passage narrative of which Krog herself is the protagonist and author. Based on her daily attendance at these hearings, Country of My Skull, as the very title signals, is an intensely personal account of these hearings: the sufferings inflicted by one group of people (for the most part Krog's own people, the Afrikaners) on another are, for Krog, testimony to something in that country which is an inalienable part of her: "Week after week, from one faceless building to another, from one dusty, god-forsaken town to another, the arteries of our past bleed their own peculiar rhythm, tone and image. One cannot get rid of it. Ever" (37).

But Krog is a writer--admittedly better known as a poet than as a prose writer,but still acutely aware of the nature and capacity of narrative. And in the process of reporting, she also consciously shapes other people's narratives as part of her own:

"Hey Antjie, but this is not quite what happened at the workshop," says Patrick.
"Yes, I know, it's a new story that I constructed from all the other information I picked up over the months about people's reactions and psychologists' advice. I'm not reporting or keeping minutes. I'm telling. [. . .] I cut and paste the upper layer, in order to get the second layer told, which is actually the story I want to tell. [. . .]" [End Page 43]
"But then you're not busy...

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