Monday, August 25, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: July's People

In 1981, more than a decade before apartheid’s end, Nadine Gordimer wrote July’s People, a hypothetical “apocalypse”--a “what if” scenario of apartheid’s end on the terms so many believed would be the only way: war and violent bloodshed. Rather than sensationalize and desensitize her audience, she does not pan across graphic scenes of carnage in the cities and visualize dead bodies in shades of terror. Rather, with the story-teller's gift, she focuses on a single family and their “escape.”

The Smales were a typical, prosperous white family in Johannesburg with two live-in servants. Bam and Maureen Smales saw themselves as different from their peers and silently protested the injustice of apartheid by treating their servants kindly and fairly. Sensing those feelings of superiority over other whites who did not “do their bit” for fairness, Gordimer looks into their hearts and perceives: “They sickened at the thought that they might find they had lived out their whole lives as they were, born white pariah dogs in a black continent.”

Mwawate was their gardener and handyman, but they never knew him by any name other than "July". His faithful service and humble demeanor gave them confidence to trust him when he suggested that the family flee to his own rural home for safety as their white suburban neighborhood would soon be a battleground. The book opens with July, at the door of their room, subserviently asking if they would like tea. But it is not their room. It is his own mother-in-law’s rondavel which she has had to vacate for July’s white family to live in. From this daily routine of morning tea, Gordimer proceeds to draw out deep and basic truths about who we are in the mundane. She does not wax grandiose, but reminds us that despite the greatest calamities, life goes on step by step. Cup of tea by cup of tea. Describing the Smales in their first hours of adjustment to bush life as “people in a hospital waiting room in the small hours, not looking at one another”  she jars us into the awareness and the insistence of ordinary life.

The point of view of the story flows between Maureen (Mrs Smales) and July because they were the ones who had a reasonable level of communication, although she had never bothered to learn Fanagalo (let alone Zulu) and his English was kitchen-level at best. Gordimer uses culture and life style to celebrate the differences between people and accentuate how much we are all required to adapt to one another for harmony in community. The Smales have never lived in such close proximity to others, particularly those very different from themselves. Hope for understanding ebbs and flows like a tide. When Maureen through signs asks July’s wife for the herbs she uses for her coughing children and July finds Maureen preparing them, he vigorously protests that what is good for his black child is not good for the white child, and they must find medicine in a shop. As Maureen pushes back, insisting that what is good for children does not regard their color, we begin to realize the historical extent from which the misunderstandings and mistrust have roots. “There was in his dark profile the painful set of his broad mouth under the broad mustache, a contempt and humiliation that came from their blood and his. The wonder and unease of an archetypal sensation between them, like the swelling resistance of a vein into which a hollow needle is surging a substance in counterflow to the life-blood coursing there; a feeling brutally shared, one alone cannot experience it, be punished by it, without the other. It did not exist before Pizarro deluded Atahulpa; it was there in Dingane and Piet Refief.”

Now and then in the story, the questions are raised: why did July save his family? And what is going to happen now? We never find out. July’s offer to protect his family seems to have been instinctual: doing the right thing as he had done it for fifteen years. His natural bent toward community and responsibility as a parent and elder made him the savior in a hopeless situation. We are also presented with the conflicting sense he has that whereas once he was their servant and completely dependent upon them and their kindness for his livelihood, the positions are reversed. And the reversal is painful on both sides. When he asks Maureen if she isn’t going to pay him that month, she tries to assure him that they would, but that the tables are now turned. They cannot begin to pay him for salvation. But July “refusing to meet her on any but the lowest category of understanding” reminds her, “African people like money.”

More than anything, July’s People is a good insight into how cultures criss-cross, befuddling one another. The sameness of bush life (chopping wood, tending fires, washing clothes, squatting over maize) is a jolt to those living from a veneer of busyness requiring clocks and calendars. In so many ways, Gordimer details “an acceptance that produced restless fear in anyone unused to living so close to the life cycle, accustomed to the powerful distractions of the intermediary or transcendent--the “new life” of each personal achievement, of political change.”

July’s People is less about the end of apartheid and more about how we relate to each other. Gordimer’s fascination for human relationships is paramount.  From different elements of primitive life she asks: how do we relate to one another? how do we build bridges? how do we erect walls? what short-circuits the process and breaks us apart? Part of those answers are reflected in the undercurrent of child activity. The Smales have three children, bred to elitism and class, but when they are immersed in simple bush life, they adapt and make friends in surprisingly simple, straightforward ways. We smile when son Victor discovers, astonished, that the peanuts they bought in packets in shops are the very same as the ones they've dug up from the ground and shelled with their own hands. She indirectly reminds us we have much to learn from the child-like. No wonder, then, that we must become like children to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Although Gordimer does not wrap her story neatly, (we are practically air-lifted out of the village by helicopter and left wondering what happens to Smales), her point is crystal clear. As human beings, we were made to live in relation to one another. Developing and nourishing relationships is delicate business, complicated by culture and language. But we can learn; there is hope for us. She reminds us that there is not An Answer. We are journeying to a place, not filling in blanks in a worksheet. Reading someone who writes so profoundly is a good place to start asking ourselves those questions about how we relate to and nourish one another.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Age of Iron

For a man, the challenge of writing a first person narrative with a woman’s voice is fraught with disaster. A presumptuous risk. But Coetzee adds three elements to make it nearly impossible: the woman is in an aging, brittle body, she is dying of cancer, and she lives alone in Cape Town during the final ghastly decade of apartheid, coming face to face with a reality she had never permitted herself to encounter.

Age of Iron (1990) is composed as the letter of a dying mother to her daughter who has fled South Africa and its burdens for America and a better life. As Elizabeth Curren wages the battles of aging, dying and living alone in fear, her own personal “angel of death”, a tramp named Vercueil, appears within her property. He becomes her companion to the end: the one with whom she works out her final scenes.

The chaos of apartheid and predicted revolutions are such that she tells her daughter:
“Since life in this country is so much like life aboard a sinking ship, one of those old-time liners with a lugubrious drunken captain and a surly crew and leaky lifeboats, I keep the shortwave radio at my bedside.” In her fear and certainty of disaster, she clings to the thing which will announce the end, bring the bad news, and break her heart. 

Elizabeth’s letter becomes many things: accusation, lament, dirge, eulogy. Her quiet world, ordered and cleaned by her maid, Veronica, is broken open. When Veronica’s son is in a bicycle accident, the other boy is taken to the hospital and disappears into the medical bureaucratic maze. He is simply nowhere. Seeking a child evading police is not what Elizabeth had on her bucket list after the cancer diagnosis.

When she chides Bheki, Veronica’s son, for hanging out rather than attending the bantu education school provided by the government, he retorts: “What is more important, that apartheid must be destroyed or that I must go to school?”  The realization dawns that the assumptions and foundations for her life and her country’s existence are precarious. She has long felt the nagging unease of the disparity of whites and blacks, but becoming entangled in their lives and problems brought on by her system gives her a chance to be one person making a difference.

During a rambling, circuitous drive in the township, she reflects on the contrast between her childhood (long sun-struck afternoons, the smell of dust under avenues of eucalyptus, prelude of what was meant to be a life without trouble) and that of the ten-year old urchin commandeered to give directions (a child of the times, at home in this landscape of violence). These seeming asides are where Coetzee’s power come through: his mastery of the word and sensory evocation draw us into the withering, breaking heart of Elizabeth. Even as she fights the system and her cancer, and aging, she rages indictment against those creators of the Age of Iron. Comparing them to bloated grasshoppers, she says:

“What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power. Eating, talking, munching lives, belching. Slow, heavy-bellied talk. Sitting in a circle, debating ponderously, issuing decrees like hammer-blows: death, death, death. Untroubled by the stench. . . . The new Africans, pot-bellied, heavy-jowled men on their stools of office: Cetshwayo, Dingane in white skins.” 

The title, Age of Iron is reminiscent of empires which imposed iron rule, extending authority which was heartlessly efficient and brutal. The Romans, the Nazis, Stalin . . . history’s examples of power run amok and people dehumanized in the progression.

Coetzee does not allow apartheid the entire screen, however; Elizabeth is suffering from a cancer in her body, just as South Africa is infected with a cancer in its land. Elizabeth knows she will die. Mentally she accepts it, then she suddenly feels “the shock of pain that goes through me when, in an unguarded moment, a vision overtakes me of this house, empty, with sunlight pouring through the windows onto an empty bed, or of False Bay under blue skies, pristine, deserted--when the world I have passed my life in manifests itself to me and I am not of it.” Was this the sudden vision of whites in those days when “black on black” violence seemed to become the norm?

For lovers of words, Coetzee is a master craftsman. He picks them up, looks at the sun shine through them, turns them around and upside down until we are dazed by their incandescence and depth of meaning.

Elizabeth is a well-educated woman who desires to share the wealth of knowledge she was blessed with by her heritage. Although it falls flat on Vercueil, Veronica, and Bheki, it is those words (written to her daughter) that convey the emotion of the lament, bringing reality to the tragedy that is unfolding in her South Africa.

Referring to the message of the oppressors (the arguments and vain rationalizations of apartheid), she philosophizes: “Their message stupidly unchanging, stupidly forever the same. Their feat, after years of etymological meditation on the word, to have raised stupidity to a virtue. To stupefy: to deprive of feeling: to benumb, deaden; to stun with amazement. Stupor: insensibility, apathy, torpor of mind. Stupid: dulled in the faculties, indifferent, destitute of thought or feeling. From stupere to be stunned, astounded. A gradient from stupid to stunned to astonished, to be turned to stone. . . .A message that turns people to stone.”

Searing as these words are, Coetzee has chosen to lash at the mindlessness, thoughtlessness, the insensibility that turns hearts to stone. He does not rant and accuse the people (who uphold the system by their silence) for deliberate cruelty and intentional torture and murder of their fellows. Rather, through the rasping of a dying old woman, he turns her whine into a coherent voice. He draws us to the deep issues which lie side by side with the shallow ones of our daily chatter. How can we not see what is right in front of us?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Dry White Season

The year after Steve Biko’s detention and death, AndrĂ© Brink wrote Dry White Season reflecting the Biko story of death during interrogation in two of the characters, a 14 year old school boy, Jonathan Ngubene and his father, Gordon, who desperately sought the truth surrounding his son’s disappearance and murder. Eleven years later, this banned book was made into a movie (Donald Sutherland, Marlon Brando) but had to be filmed in Zimbabwe as Cry Freedom had been.

In 1978 Brink confronted the issue of suspicious deaths in detention with a novel written much like a mystery. As it unfolds, we discover whom we may and may not trust; layers of reality and perception cloud justice and truth. The protagonist, Ben du Toit, an Afrikaans high school history teacher, is presented with a progression of injustices: a young boy’s brutal caning, his death during interrogation, and his father’s search for peace of mind regarding his son’s end. The story is crafted with genius and we learn within the pages of the prologue that our hero is dead. Ben is not the one telling us his story. The writer is someone Ben trusted with information, but who never bothers to share his identity because the story is about Ben and what happened to him, his gardener, and his gardener’s son. 

The movie does not have these layers of awareness. We clearly get the impression that Ben, his son Johan, his gardener, a journalist, and a liberal lawyer are crusading on the side of truth and justice while Ben’s family, community, church, and colleagues at work are engaged in denying the frequent reports of Special Branch atrocities or justifying the status quo as the only way to survive. It was realistic to a point, perhaps too simplistic.

The book narrative was not so clear-cut. Truth was effectively obscured so that it took Ben a while to come to the reluctant conclusion that he wanted no part of apartheid’s excuses. Initially he tried to tell Gordon (the gardener whose son was unjustly beaten) to let it drop, but then things deteriorated to the death of Gordon and his son. When Ben brought the injustice to a lawyer, he was advised to drop it; thus began the recognition that one must take a stand or the stand will be taken for one. 

When Ben approaches the lawyer, he is appraised of the prevailing situation: (imagine an aging Marlon Brando) “Law and justice are distant cousins, and here in South Africa, they are not on speaking terms at all.”  He goes on to explain that he fights for justice for the black people and when he wins, “they simply change the law.” Which is exactly what was happening--longer time for detention without charges and more banning orders.

Watch the movie if you must--it is well done and graphically portrays the extent to which a system of self-preservation can go horribly wrong. (It is much more explicit than Cry Freedom of a decade earlier.) However, the book includes nuances of South African life and the various degrees to which people “know” and are complicit and those who refuse to know because knowing is too painful and/or dangerous. They hide behind trite assumptions such as: “he must have done something to deserve it”, and “if he is innocent, he has nothing to fear.” Standard fare in just societies, but when a mentality uses rationalization to preclude justice, it is dangerous. An aging professor in the story gives Ben some cynical wisdom: Every man is on his own. Each man has to find his own definitions, and each man’s freedom threatens that of all others. What is the result? Terrorism. And I’m not referring only to the actions of the trained terrorist but also to those of an organized state whose institutions endanger one’s essential humanity.

The book Dry White Season is a dark labyrinth of clues, sightings, and people intimidated into silence. It is fetid and gloomy. Donald Woods’ (Biko) description of the officials responsible for the treatment of Steve Biko in detention perfectly summarizes the people who killed Gordon and his son:
These men displayed symptoms of extreme insularity. they are people whose upbringing has impressed upon them the divine right to retain power, and in that sense they are innocent men--incapable of thinking or acting differently. On top of that they have gravitated to an occupation that has given them all the scope they need to express their rigid personalities. They have been protected for years by laws of the country. They have been able to carry out all their imaginative torture practices quite undisturbed in cells and rooms all over the country, with tacit official sanction, and they have been given tremendous status by the government as the men who ‘protect the State from subversion.’

Brink weaves several other characters’ stories through the web of Gordon’s death/disappearance. The tangle grows in profusion as people are reluctantly pulled in; and retribution stalks anyone pursuing Truth. This simple story of a young black teen who disappeared following a demonstration and his father’s relentless search for him will clutch at your throat and bring home the realization that I am my brother’s keeper and everyone around me is my neighbor. Injustice will continue to rampage when people are more concerned with their own security than seeking Truth whatever the cost.

Read it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Waiting for the Barbarians

Beginning with an unassuming description of dark glasses, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee does not prepare you for the onslaught on your senses. Before the first chapter is over, you are hooked and know you’ve been blindsided. The narrator, Magistrate, (whose name you never discover) begins to pencil sketch his edge of the Empire outpost. Before you realize it, you are sucked into a story where most characters do not have names--it’s an allegory, after all--and where brutality and the commonplace co-exist unremarked.

The Magistrate describes his writing as: “ . . . the annals of an Imperial outpost or an account of how people of that outpost spent their last year composing their souls as they waited for the barbarians.”  The suspense of waiting and the boredom of unrequited anticipation flood the story. Coetzee is telling us what goes on in the human heart when it finds itself lodged in a body, in a position with a title, which it discovers is contrary to its being.

As a parable, Waiting for the Barbarians is brilliant in its simplicity. Coetzee unfolds the deteriorating situation at the outpost (never given a precise location, since it can be Anywhere) when superior officers from internal governance of the Empire come bringing their bone-deep fear of “the barbarians” and the dangers of which these barbarians are believed to be capable. Suddenly a quiet outpost becomes the site of interrogations and tortures that the Magistrate finds both repulsive and under his jurisdiction. As he becomes enmeshed in the private lives of people around him, he recognizes that his heart is unaligned with the Empire and it will not go well for him. 

Interspersed into the drama are poignant descriptions that read figuratively like the South Africa (1980) to which it alludes. "In the shelter of our homes, with the windows bolted and bolsters pushed agains the door, with fine grey dust sifting through roof and ceiling to settle on every uncovered surface, film the drinking water, grate on our teeth, we sit thinking of our fellow-creatures out in the open . . .” He reflects the quiet desperation of a people who sense their time is ending, wondering what the end will be like. This book is not an allegory of the expected revolution (as Gordimer’s July’s People would be the following year), but searches the hearts of those “waiting.”

As the story convolutes, Magistrate becomes involved with a barbarian woman, is then falsely accused, and is ultimately imprisoned. This bring the realization of how deep the rot of the Empire has gone, and he reflects: The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages; I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. Magistrate helplessly sees the changing times, and futilely resists, with alarming self-awareness: a likely scenario reflective of how many white South Africans, confronted with disturbing facts, must have agonized in their souls. As the wheels of Injustice ground on, and he found himself under their tread, he became aware that the Empire would stop at nothing to rationalize its means to its end. (“the legal process is simply one instrument among many”) And some descriptions of the bodies which Magistrate viewed before burial surely sounded similar to accounts South Africans were reading in current newspapers.

Coetzee’s descriptions of life at the outpost: meals, conversations, sex, nature, travel, all blend together in a sense of lethargy until violence comes on the scene. This contrast is effective and shocks us into a new awareness.

When Magistrate sees a group of bound barbarian prisoners beaten publicly and the sickening response of a crowd in bloodlust, he wonders: What, after all, do I stand for besides a code of gentlemanly behaviour towards captured foes, and what do I stand against except the new science of degradation that kills people on their knees, confused and disgraced in their own eyes? The message of Waiting for the Barbarians is a reminder of the depths to which the human heart can sink when not on guard for itself, when allowing others to define justice on their terms. It is more than an allegory of the oppressor and oppressed: it is an exploration of the wilderness we find in ourselves when we cannot find truth north (our truest selves).

The agonized cry of the non-complicit South African is heard in Magistrate’s questions:
Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? . . . Easier to lay my head on a block than defend the cause of justice for the barbarian: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?” This is the closest Coetzee gets to indicting the system in which he lived. It is his voice as much as Magistrate’s who declares: I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of the Empire laid upon them. How can I believe that that is a cause for shame?

Wisely, Coetzee does not attempt to transcend into the minds and hearts of the barbarians: he found himself in the oppressor’s camp and expresses the heart lessons of one who accepted the challenge to look at the darkness within and wrestle with it. No wonder, then, that he along with Nadine Gordimer and AndrĂ© Brink are considered the three most distinguished white, anti-apartheid writers during that era. While he describes the internal battle, his gift of words flows full of sensory images that bring allegory to life and tap unnervingly on the windows of reality.

Like most allegories, this book must be absorbed to be understood. It tells a story of how things were: the mentality of waiting for imminent annihilation without understanding the enemy. As Magistrate finishes the book describing himself (now broken by torture and confusion): “like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.” We have much to learn by reading those who waited.