- A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition by Alex La Guma
A Soviet Journey renders rural Soviet life through the eyes of a South African-cosmopolitan. Alex La Guma, an exile and novelist, presents his journey by train and commentary on Soviet life in a vivid, literary style reminiscent of his novels. Editor Christopher J. Lee annotates and updates La Guma's 1978 work. The resulting book allows readers to glimpse how socialist-communist and nonaligned leaders throughout the world conceptualized and often romanticized Brezhnev's and his predecessors' states.
La Guma arrived at both communism and exile early, culminating in his 1970s stint in the USSR. His father Jimmy La Guma, a prominent trade union activist and Communist Party of South Africa leader, embraced Lenin's teachings but often broke with his party on the role African nationalism should play within it. Alex La Guma found the written word most effective as an organizational tool. After being tried in the infamous 1956 Treason Trial, he left South Africa permanently in 1966, serving as an African National Congress emissary abroad. In the years before reaching Moscow, he had won the Lotus Prize and edited a volume of memoirs by black South Africans in addition to writing novels. Shortly after this journey, La Guma and his wife Blanche—also a memoirist—moved to Havana, which became his final resting place in 1985.
Unsurprisingly, then, the La Guma who arrives in Moscow at the work's beginning wants to understand and embrace the communist state, yet throughout struggles as he sees the system differ across the spaces where he travels. Additionally, he has brought his own hazy memories of the place from a childhood visit with his father. As he moves toward Leningrad and then east through Siberia and Central Asia, he travels largely through small towns, making his comparisons not only to the noncommunist world, but of the Kremlin's glittering lights as well.
This updated edition of A Soviet Journey locates La Guma squarely within the local contexts he narrates but also, importantly, within the wider communist world. Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o begins the foreword by speaking of La Guma's place within the African literary canon. He compares La Guma's realism with that of authors such as Chinua Achebe (xi). Beyond that, however, he writes of the author's fervent belief that the written word and direct action could alternate as means of effecting change. In discussing their encounters in Moscow and Astana—those which gave rise to the tour upon which La Guma based A Soviet Journey just two years later—Ngugi writes that "In his life and books, he struggled for a society in which all people could find [End Page 115] their humanity. Joy in life was part of that humanity, and it comes through in his novels and memoir" (xii). Following this, wife Blanche La Guma's preface expands upon Ngugi's description to locate the author within the wider nonaligned world.
Lee's introduction, like his annotations, places La Guma again in the center of a vibrant "southern Marxist" (5) literary and politically imaginative space. Utilizing the assassination of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani as a lens, Lee discusses the end of apartheid and attendant Cold War ending as "the death of a specific political imagination—a radical internationalism" (2). This image introduces transnational activist trajectories not writ large, as they often are within historiographies, but encapsulated through intimate, personal moments such as those La Guma narrates. Thus, Soviet-Africa studies appear as best told through personal histories, reminiscent of recent multiregion biographical work.
As within his own work, Lee pleads a compelling case for the value of such tri-continental connection, evoking both its past and present implications. Many of these implications, Lee argues, lead historians away from a solely Atlantic-world focus and toward a larger global study. This is particularly striking within a book published within the United States, a country replete with its own imagining...