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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 182-183

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Book Review

South African Fiction after Apartheid

South African Fiction after Apartheid, ed. David Attwell and Barbara Harlow. Spec. issue of Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000): 1-300.

Initially, reading the pieces in this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, I thought, facetiously, "So this is what becomes of liberal white writers and academics when apartheid falls and it's no longer necessary or fashionable to theorize 'the struggle.'" But within these eleven articles and two interviews, one of the central narratives that emerges is the serious and important discussion of how to artistically and theoretically represent this dynamic period in such a way that romanticism is minimized and crucial questions are raised amidst the celebrations of the fall of that odious system. David Atwell and Barbara Harlow have pulled together a provocative and dynamic set of responses to some fascinating literature of the "postapartheid" period. It is not possible, in this brief review, to go into detail on each essay or even to convey many of the common themes they raise. I will, however, note several of the issues explored and point to specific articles that were particularly thought-provoking.

Not being familiar with much of the literary output in the period covered by the essays, I appreciated the detailed discussions of many recent stimulating works. There were in-depth discussions of numerous texts originally written in Afrikaans, illustrating a dimension of South African thought that rarely makes it into the hands of English-language readers outside the country. Some of these works, as Michiel Heyns notes, draw "on some powerful Afrikaans myths: the reenactment of the Great Trek [. . .] the urbanization and disinheritance of the Afrikaner working class [. . .]"(62) and the dynamics of the coming to terms with social change and questions of culpability, collusion, and compromise evidenced in the "confessional mode" of some current white writing.

A core theme in some of these works is a deconstructing of the term "postapartheid" and a consideration of the subsequent social conditions of this period. Some scholars compare it to the postcolonial period of other "liberated" nations, in which people now have control of the election process but where unequal economic conditions and oppressive class structures continue mostly unabated. In an interview, writer Ivan Vladislavic puts the question this way: "Now it's as if writers are being pushed between those two positions, because if you lose sight of apartheid, then people say you've forgotten the past, that you're part of the trend towards 'amnesia'; on the other hand, if you go too deeply into apartheid, they say you're holding onto the past, and it's negative, you should be writing about the future" (280). The tensions between these positions, particularly for white South African writers, elicit numerous stylistic experiments to capture what is, for some of this volume's theorists, a postmodernist sensibility that is ultimately directed towards an appropriate political/cultural response to this unique period.

The volume is divided into three distinctive sections, with the first focusing on crucial relationships between the "reality" or historicity of current events in South Africa, and how they are rendered or evoked in fiction of the period. One central concern is the Truth and Reconciliation [End Page 182] Commission hearings that galvanized the nation for several years. Antjie Krog's book Country of My Skull seems a particularly interesting attempt to treat this complex phenomenon in a format that combines reportage with fictive elements. The examination of Vladislavic's short stories also stimulates thought, particularly the story "Propaganda by Monuments," wherein a budding South African entrepreneur, Pretoria taxi driver Boniface Khumalo, writes to contacts in Russia in order to look into purchasing an enormous stone bust of the recently discredited Lenin, so that he can feature it in his proposed "V. I. Lenin Bar and Grill." Broad and subtle ironies of nation and subject, ideology and commodity consumerism are evoked and examined by Christopher Warnes. Postapartheid literature featuring gay and lesbian themes and its reception is carefully identified and considered by...


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