- An Interview with Patrick Flanery
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When A. S. Byatt prefaced her selections for The Guardian’s best books of 2012 with the declaration that British fiction is “going through an extraordinarily various and imaginative period,” she was unwittingly claiming Patrick Flanery, the Nebraska-raised, Oxford-educated author of a novel about postapartheid South Africa, as a Brit. This kind of extranational imaginary is not unique in the life of British fiction; indeed, the Man Booker Prize makes an annual show of reconstituting the Empire as a literary territory, prizing postcolonial literatures as its own. But Byatt’s recommendation of Flanery’s extraordinary first novel, Absolution, says something further about the state of world literature, specifically the actual production of literatures that imagine cultures and geographies unbound by national borders. In this revitalized moment for world literature, the place of production and the writer’s national affiliation(s) are more often than not marginalized by discussions of what Wai Chee Dimock, in Through Other Continents, calls the “complex tangle of relations” bound up in the “shorthand” of national literatures (3). Dimock specifically argues for American literature, long chided for its provincial navel-gazing, as a national literary tradition ironically forged from its relations with the transnational languages, cultures, and influences of the world. Flanery grows that argument exponentially to include the South African landscape in American literature. [End Page 427]
Absolution contributes to the growing canon of Anglophone literatures that imagine the historical circumstances of non-Western peoples and places, while simultaneously challenging the discursive capabilities of history, politics, memory, and story to narrate the most fraught moments in the life of a nation. Set during the interregnum just before and after the fall of the apartheid government in South Africa, Flanery’s Absolution is a Rash-omon of interdependent narratives, each claiming some territory of the elusive truth about two killings of familial and national consequence. The failure of those narratives to draw a complete picture of the events and their aftereffects forms the heart of the novel’s conviction that the novelist, the memoirist, the historian, and even the censor share a common responsibility and peril: when faced with the failure of narrative to adequately capture human events, an account must still be written, however fragile and incomplete. Absolution chronicles the story of the aging writer Clare Wald and her would-be biographer, Sam Leroux, as they wrestle with the ghosts of a conjoined history overshadowed by the legacy of apartheid, and with the fragile narrative pieces of a nation in transition. Flanery’s refusal to resolve those compelling fragments, to bind the characters to a rigid ethics, characterizes the thoughtfulness with which he approaches such delicate source material.
Absolution casts its drama across the landscapes of Johannesburg and the Eastern and Western Cape provinces with what the South African writer and literary critic Michael Titlestad calls an “impeccably local” idiom and diction. This is a novel concerned with historical reckonings, with the individual’s attempt to craft a narrative from the manifold discourses and voices that lay claim to the truth of social and institutional violence and its aftershocks. Flanery’s focal character, Clare, remarks on her own attempts to make sense of her conflicted past and present in South Africa:
There are two things to say about that. First, that history is not always correct, because it cannot tell all the stories that have been, cannot account for everything that happened. . . . Second, that the record of memory, even a flawed memory, has its own kind of truth. [End Page 428]
And indeed the novel reads as a series of interwoven, elegant, and terrifying flawed memories. Flanery’s novel works between gut and intellect with a brutal beauty that seems at once precisely attuned to apartheid’s setting while portraying a broader geography of state atrocities, as in this description of torture: “Before killing you they would burn the names from your mouth, pull syllables from your fingernails, soak vowels and consonants from your nostrils, remind you of their authority with steel and wire, electricity and fire” (88). Absolution is also...