- A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition by Alex La Guma
BY ALEX LA GUMA, EDITED BY CHRISTOPHER J. LEE
Lexington Books, 2017.
xviii + 265 pp. ISBN 9781498536028 cloth.
Alex La Guma was one of a brilliant generation of South African writers whose careers were stunted, stalled, or stifled by the apartheid regime. Even now, a quarter-century after South Africa's first fully democratic election, it is both tantalizing and heart-breaking to imagine how different what we call South African literature would look had the local literary marketplace of the 60s, 70s, and 80s still included the likes of Nat Nakasa, Arthur Nortje, Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Bessie Head, and Dennis Brutus along with the Gordimers, Coetzees, and Fugards. Christopher Lee's excellent critical annotated edition of La Guma's A Soviet Journey, first published in Moscow in 1978, hints at a number of foreclosed [End Page 221] possibilities: for a truly national literature not compartmentalized by race, and for a transnational literature whose vectors of conversation were less limited by the publishing houses of London, New York, and Boston and favored instead pan-African connections as well as eastward-looking affiliations that might have included not only the Soviet Union, but also China, India, and the entire post-Bandung non-aligned world.
These foreclosed possibilities are hinted at in the foreword by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and preface by La Guma's widow Blanche. Ngũgĩ refers to two conferences—the famous Makerere conference of 1962 and a 1967 conference in Sweden—dominated by La Guma in absentia and in body, respectively. Both Ngũgĩ and Blanche also refer to La Guma's work for the Afro-Asian Writers Association, and in listing a host of Asian capitals and a who's who of African writers, they create a map of one South African writer's influence on and participation in African and world literature that is markedly different from the Eurocentric maps of South Africa's Nobel Prize–winning chroniclers.
Lee's scrupulously edited republication of La Guma's travel narrative is preceded by a magisterial sixty-page introduction that situates La Guma's career in the broader political history of South Africa and in relation to third world anti-imperialism. With remarkable lucidity Lee sets out the internal divisions La Guma had to negotiate within the anti-apartheid movement and the tensions between African nationalism and socialist internationalism in regard to South Africa's "colonialism of a special type" (20).
With regard to La Guma's attitude to Soviet communism in general, and specifically to A Soviet Journey, Lee critically appraises La Guma's ideological commitment to Marxism-Leninism and his embrace of socialist realism. Intriguingly, he draws attention to La Guma's willingness to overlook Russian authoritarianism and colonial control of the Asian Soviet Republics in the book's "search for a utopian space outside of western history" (37). Indeed, La Guma's narrative stresses not only his admiration for educational achievement, industrial development, and cooperative effort, but the almost overwhelming hospitality he encounters in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and so on. Unlike tsarist Russia, the USSR "sought to effect the utmost development and mutual enrichment of big and small nations and nationalities, of their cultures and languages" (132). Even the Gypsies are embraced by the "great multinational state" (127). Models for La Guma of unity in diversity these central Asian republics become the very antithesis of apartheid fragmentation and underdevelopment.
Lee is surely right in asserting that "A Soviet Journey provides an indispensable non-fiction narrative that parallels his novels and stories" and is "critical to understanding La Guma's late style and politics" (39). This particular edition should also be required reading for anyone wishing to rethink possibilities for planetary solidarity—those that were historically foreclosed by the forces of (global) apartheid as well as those that might yet be fulfilled. [End Page 222]