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  • Prophecy as History in Postcolonial Literature
  • Eleni Coundouriotis (bio)
Jennifer Wenzel, Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xiv + 311 pp. $26.00.

The starting point of Jennifer Wenzel’s carefully argued book is the nineteenth-century “emergence of anticolonial millenarian movements in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, in which indigenous peoples on colonial frontiers responded to the alienation of land and vital resources” (2). Her central example is the Xhosa cattle killing in the eastern cape of southern Africa in 1856–57, which was precipitated by a prophecy that the Xhosa people should kill their cattle and destroy their grain in order to bring about a return of their ancestors, a renewal of the land, and “the expulsion of the European invaders” (3). Through her analysis of this example, Wenzel shows how such millenarian movements make historical sense and why their resonance lasts long after the failure of their prophecies. The narration of the cattle killing persists in contemporary South African literature, shaping a significant corpus for which Wenzel provides a literary history. She examines the evolution of the retellings of the cattle killing in the contexts of resistance to white rule and apartheid as well as the transition to postapartheid. Because of her concern with revising our understanding of black modernity, Wenzel’s study can be read fruitfully alongside David Attwell’s Rewriting Modernity: Studies in Black South African Literary History (2005) and belongs to a growing number of revisionist literary histories of South Africa, such [End Page 196] as Rita Barnard’s Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (2006). Wenzel’s long historical lens situates the postapartheid period and its growing malaise in a tradition of millenarian prophecy. It also invites us to rethink what is at stake in the periodization of a before and after apartheid and what such periodization implies for visualizing the future.

Wenzel’s analysis is illuminated by her concept of prophecy’s “unfailure,” which registers the potency of the remembrance of prophecy (its “afterlife”) and the persistent resurgence of its appeal (30–31). Bulletproof is composed of a theoretical introduction and five chapters that follow a linear chronology. The first two chapters focus on nineteenth-century missionary literature by both whites and Africans from the first half of the twentieth century; chapter 3 is divided equally into discussions of pre- and post-1950 literature; and chapters 4 and 5 analyze contemporary literature. This outline of the book’s contents, however, omits a sense of the texture of Wenzel’s discussion, which highlights intertextuality and echoes of the past in the present.

In the introduction, Wenzel explains her objective of “rethinking failure” (5) in relation to three theorists: Franz Fanon, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Bloch. From Fanon, she takes the idea that the achievement of freedom is a long-term goal that presupposes a number of failures and incomplete efforts along the way. Such failure does not extinguish the millenarian belief that the achievement of freedom is inevitable even though the struggle does not unfold in a linear progression (11). Wenzel’s idea of the spectrality of the afterlife (and its secular, historical grounding) draws from Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which radically challenges our conventional understanding of temporality by encouraging us to acknowledge the continuous presence of the past (27). Finally, from Bloch, Wenzel takes the idea of a “utopian surplus” and an orientation toward a future that is open and shaped by ideas of “the incomplete, the unfinished, [and] the unrealized” (28). This emphasis on the future and looking forward is most relevant for the postapartheid material in Wenzel’s study, which includes her examination of Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother (1999) and Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness (2000). These novels struggle with their awareness of occupying a temporality [End Page 197] beyond the ending, from which it is urgent to imagine the future anew.

The Xhosa cattle killing was a catastrophe that led to the devastation of the Xhosa people through famine and disease. Instead of helping advance the national cause, its immediate effect was the exact opposite; in one of its retrospective characterizations, the...


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