Research in African Literatures 34.3 (2003) 195-196
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Alex La Guma: Politics and Resistance, by Nahem Yousaf. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2001. xii + 164 pp. ISBN 0-325-00189-8.
In this brisk survey Nahem Yousaf reads Alex La Guma's major fictional works "for the ways in which individuals and communities come to consciousness of the repressive State apparatus that functions to withhold both civil rights and political agency" (17). He argues that we should approach La Guma as a resistance writer whom we can most profitably study in light of the political and literary theory of Frantz Fanon and Mikhail Bakhtin. In his discussion of La Guma's last published novel, Time of the Butcherbird, for example, Yousaf shows how Fanon, who, like La Guma, was born in 1925, allows us to follow La Guma's trajectory toward accepting the necessity of violence in overthrowing oppressive, racially based colonial rule. Simultaneously, Bakhtin's theories of heteroglossia and dialogism allow Yousaf to describe how La Guma's literary style resists the individualist norms of the European novel deliberately to undermine the apartheid regime's monologic discourse of power. In this way Yousaf defends Time of the Butcherbird against accusations of weak characterization and so on by arguing that the book presents a "montage of scenes across which the reader travels through the text" and in which characters "cannot stand outside the discourse according to which their affiliation is read" (127).
Reading La Guma's work in this fashion keeps faith with La Guma's aims and draws valuable further attention to one of that remarkable generation of South African writers whose maturity coincided with the onset of full-blown apartheid, and who were thus harassed, suppressed, and even killed or driven to suicide with a violent effectiveness equivalent to the razing of La Guma's native District Six in Cape Town. Since the end of [End Page 195] formal apartheid, however, the residents of District Six have demonstrated their pride and resilience in transforming the former Methodist Church on Buitenkant Street into an innovative and extraordinarily affecting museum that not only elegizes lost community and commemorates past resistance, but also offers a continuing critique of South Africa's power-knowledge institutions. The museum thus exemplifies how local communities have begun to reevaluate the apartheid past in terms of contemporary postapartheid realities. While Yousaf concludes his introductory chapter with a similar claim—that "[t]he dismantling of apartheid makes it all the more essential to reevaluate this important writer's apartheid narratives" (17)—in reading La Guma so strongly in line with the author's own aims he misses some of the more interesting possibilities opened up by the dismantling of apartheid. For instance, given that the democratic elections of 1994 came about through negotiation rather than violent overthrow, what are we to make of Fanon's contention that in overcoming oppression, "only violence pays" (131)?
Likewise, does the critique of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by those who saw anti-apartheid violence as justified not have some bearing on one's reading of violence in La Guma? Yousaf says merely that La Guma would have relished the irony of Tutu's chairing of the TRC in such obviously un-Fanonian ways. Or with regard to Bakhtin, is it not essential to approach Cape Town's far from monolithic Coloured "community"—which, uniquely in the 1994 elections, helped return the National Power to power in the Western Cape—in light of its own divisions of racial, class, and linguistic identification? In offering little on La Guma's oft-noted use of "Englikaans" to represent Coloured speech, and limiting himself to La Guma's longer fiction with only a few passing references to his political cartoon strips, Yousaf surely misses some tricks in talking about La Guma's writerly resistance to apartheid's violent monologism.
College of Charleston