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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 13-41



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Truth, Telling, Questioning: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, and Literature after Apartheid

Mark Sanders

I. Public Spheres

Now listen very carefully, because I'm telling you the story now

--Testimony of Lekotse, the shepherd 1

In a conversation near the end of Country of My Skull, the Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog's book on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Krog's interlocutor, an academic who has been reading to her from a book of twentieth-century German verse, explains to her that "[a]fter the Second World War it was said in Germany: it is barbaric to write a poem after Auschwitz." Without linking the dictum to Theodor Adorno, who is well known as its author, the academic relates to her how Paul Celan, having found his poem "Fugue of Death" "too lyrical" and "too beautiful," asked that it be left out of future editions of anthologies which had included it (237/312). This was, it is supposed, his response to Adorno's polemical proscription. 2 For Krog, as a poet, the [End Page 13] conversation provokes the question of whether it is not barbaric to write poems after apartheid: "That is why I say maybe writers in South Africa should shut up for a while. That one has no right to appropriate a story paid for with a lifetime of pain and destruction. Words come more easily for writers, perhaps. So let the domain rather belong to those who literally paid blood for every faltering word they utter before the Truth Commission" (237-38/312). Krog's interlocutor meets her proposition with the question: "Are you saying this because you yourself can't find a form for dealing with your past?" This, he tells her, was the failure of German writers after World War II. "No," she replies, "I often write pieces down from memory, and when I check the original tape it is always, but always much better than my own effort" (238/312). Their conversation traverses the terrain between an impulse to leave the domain of words and utterance to those who testified before the Truth Commission, and the possibility of finding form, as a writer, specifically as a poet, for a collective memory in which she herself is implicated. Then it departs in another direction. When the poet doubts her ability to lend form to the testimony she recalls, yet wishes to let the domain of telling belong to the witnesses, whose efforts always outdo hers, she must find a way, other than memorial reconstruction, of being host to their words. As formulated by Krog, the question of poetry, or literature, after apartheid concerns less an excess of lyricism or beauty, from which its creator stands back, than a writer's facilitation of the utterance of others. If the question of literature after apartheid is a question of advocacy, of its dynamics and its ethics, then the Commission shares a set of concerns and conditions of possibility with literary works. In interpreting its public hearings as occasions for advocacy, the Commission reveals that the structures of identification and substitution, on which it relies when it solicits the testimony of victims, are as integral to its own operations as they are to a literary work. Krog's book makes itself host to testimony in ways which allow us to understand how this is the case, and how even lyric poetry, in a sense ignored by the Adornian proscription, is able to display this joint partaking.

On 29 October 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented President Nelson Mandela with its final report, complete save for the findings of its Amnesty Committee, which will appear in an addendum once that committee has completed its work. Having begun its operations in April 1996, the Truth Commission had been charged with investigating "gross violations of human rights" committed during the [End Page 14] height and aftermath of the apartheid era, the years 1960...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 13-41
Launched on MUSE
2000-03-01
Open Access
No
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