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  • South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss
  • Laura Winkiel
Shane Graham. South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss. New York: Palgrave, 2009. xi + 235 pp.

Shane Graham’s book offers a crucially needed guide through South African post-apartheid fiction. He organizes this critical mapping around the aftermath, shortcomings, and radical innovations of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) whose work was done between 1995 and 1998. Taking his cue from victims’ public testimonies before the TRC of human rights abuses committed between 1960 and 1994, Graham argues that the predominant motif of recent South African literature is one of spatial disorientation, particularly the experience of being lost, both literally and figuratively. This sense of being both physically and psychically lost allows Graham to connect space and place to memory and body. And while cognitive mapping, spatial disorientation, and historical amnesia are well-worn critical commonplaces of postmodernism (Graham draws explicitly on work by Fredric Jameson, Andreas Huyssen, and others in this regard), the linkage of post-apartheid literature to the TRC gives such postmodernist criticism a historical and political specificity that powerfully charts new avenues of thought through South Africa’s recent literary history.

The first part of the book examines literature from across a wide range of genres that directly comments on the TRC and its main functions of gathering testimony, granting amnesty, determining the truth of human rights violations, and providing reparations and rehabilitation. He discusses two testimonial dramas, The Story I Am about to Tell and He Left Quietly; a surrealist-inspired drama, Ubu and the Truth Commission; journalist Antjie Krog’s memoir Country of My Skull; Ingrid de Kok’s poetry; and Sindiwe Magona’s novel Mother to Mother. While rehearsing frequent criticisms of the TRC, namely its overreliance on “false hopes and oversimplified epistemologies,” Graham also notes that the “process still contains within it possibilities for imaginative, productive engagements with the past” (28). These possibilities, he argues, can best be appreciated by means of [End Page 369] a performative lens that tracks the unstable fault line between fact and memory, a line highlighted by “second order” representations that are the domain of literature. Literature, more than other modes of writing, can highlight ambiguity, traumatic gaps in memory and representation, and flexible interconnections between language, self, body, and space. Moving from this explicit engagement with the TRC, Graham widens his argument, claiming that the TRC is “only one part of a massive national project of transforming the ways social spaces are produced, used, and occupied and the ways that social memory is encoded in those spaces” (3). Given the particularly racialized geography of colonization and apartheid in South Africa—the issue of land grabs, migrations, segregation, resettlements, treks, townships, gated communities, and more—such recodings of land, history, and peoples are essential to the democratic project of the new South Africa.

The second and third parts of this study consider literature that is less directly engaged with the TRC but that nevertheless continues the important work of remapping body, memory, and social space. Part 2 concerns post-apartheid urban space as represented in Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, Ivan Vladislavićc’s The Exploded View, Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow, K. Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, and Aziz Hassim’s The Lotus People. In discussing this literature, Graham uses the concept of the palimpsest to analyze political and psychological obstacles to memorialization, not only in terms of how to represent apartheid-era trauma (in which truth is notoriously unreliable and unrepresentable) but also in terms of the “rapidly shifting post-modern cityscapes of the twenty-first-century South African metropolis” (89). Palimpsests, in this second context, “register past spatial configurations only through marks of erasure or change” (89). They indicate loss and disorientation, a symptom of how South African cities have rapidly joined the ranks of other cities around the world that have experienced ever-increasing time-space compression and the historical amnesia of global capitalist development. To counter this capitalist-inspired amnesia, Graham looks for instances of communal self-development and renegotiation of public space, modeling this creative autonomy on the...


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pp. 369-371
Launched on MUSE
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