- Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place
In a poignant paraphrase of J. M. Coetzee's commentary on Nabokov, Rita Barnard suggests that “one must look at the past with a cruel enough eye to see what made its joy and innocence possible” (32). Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place, Barnard's critical reading of five of South Africa’s best-known contributors to the narratives—and its drama—of both the struggle against the legendarily oppressive regime of apartheid and its incipient probing [End Page 915] toward novel renovations, both textual and socio-political, takes just such a “look at the past.” While the critic’s own eye is not a “cruel” one, her review does offer an unflinchingly piercing retrospective on what have become the classics of that long, still being drawn-out, story: Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and Burger’s Daughter among others, Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi and A Lesson from Aloes, Miriam Tlali’s Muriel at Metropolitan, and Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness. Barnard makes clear in her introduction that she is reconsidering the period from 1948 to 2000, from the election of the National Party to the millennium—forty-one years of apartheid (1948–1989), five years of negotiated transition (1989–1994), and six years of South Africa’s new post-apartheid, or “beyond” apartheid, democratic dispensation (1994–2000).
At stake in Apartheid and Beyond, however, is not only that historical scenario, but also its geographical axes as well, the “politics of place,” as the subtitle indicates. Barnard emphasizes, in her literary critical analyses, the “way in which writing for or from a particular location makes a difference in the form and significance of a text” (3). Apartheid and Beyond, in other words, proposes nothing short of a “geographical history of South Africa” (9). That “geographical history” is formatted along largely conventional literary-critical lines: following the introduction and its focus on the “impact of apartheid on literary critical production” (3), the six subsequent chapters treat five individual authors and selected works from their oeuvre. The very selection is critical and, indeed, the apparent symmetry is tellingly interrupted by, for example, the two chapters on Gordimer and the inclusion of Athol Fugard, best known perhaps for his dramatic productions. Chapter 1, “Dream Topographies,” focuses on Coetzee, with special attention on two novels by the Nobel laureate and twotime Booker Prize winner: the apartheid Life and Times of Michael K and the post-apartheid Disgrace. While noting the “somewhat hypertheoretical Coetzee industry” (25), Barnard’s own interest is in Coetzee’s “fictional and literary critical engagement with the tradition of the South African pastoral”, thus creating the landscaped setting for the next two—urban renewed—chapters on the work of Nadine Gordimer, “Leaving the House of the White Race” and “Of Trespassers and Trash.” The first of these chapters treats the space of the “house, or, more specifically, the white suburban home,” in The Lying Days, July’s People, and My Son’s Story, before turning in chapter 3 to the “fundamental South African injustice: the fact of territorial dispossession” as exemplified in The Conservationist (81).
Following the three chapters on South Africa’s Nobel literary laureates, chapter 4, “A Man’s Scenery,” turns to internationally reputed dramatist Athol Fugard. The discussion of Fugard’s novel Tsotsi [End Page 916] (in which interest has been renewed by its Academy Award-winning film adaptation) notwithstanding, Barnard examines, in particular, the ways that the dramatist’s controversial art, his “engagement with matters of space and place” (99), makes use of the “public arena of the stage” (100) to raise again the “question of viable space” (106) for South African citizens. Barnard’s “Beyond the Tyranny of Place” in turn brings to the fore perhaps the least known of the literary classics under consideration: Miriam Tlali’s Miriam at the Metropolitan (recently reissued under an earlier considered, but then discarded title, Between Two Worlds...