An odd-looking fish with both eyes on one side of its head graces Antjie Krog’s A Change of Tongue (2003). It is one of the many poetic images she uses to communicate the transition and transformation process going on in South Africa immediately following the end of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which she documented fearlessly in The Country of My Skull (1998), see blogpost 4-14-14.
Why a bizarre flounder to illustrate her reflections? The flounder is born with eyes on either side of his head, and as he grows up, developing the capacity to be a bottom-feeder, one eye migrates to the topside of the head where it will actually see something. It adapts. It transforms to be more useful and productive. Krog’s insight found a variety of natural elements to describe South Africa’s emergence from apartheid, and this is but one.
A Change of Tongue is a poetic philosophy or a philosophical poetry written in flaming prose. It is not one story, but many. There is not one teller; Krog becomes each narrator and literarily grabs your hand, urging you to run and keep up with her.
Antjie Krog admitted she was unsure of how to proceed in writing such a work, following on the success of Country of My Skull. But the poet in her reached deep and brought up personal tales of great poignancy. She writes from the view of all the rainbow colours of her country.
Six sections, each a separate work of art, come at South Africa’s impending “new look” from different perspectives. “A Town” focuses on Kroonstad, predominantly Afrikaner and breaks many of the debilitating stereotypes as well as describing the delicacy of the very first one-man-one-vote democratic elections the country ever held. She brings in the writer’s tension, too, of telling the story as it happened, or telling it to point to the Truth.
“A Hard Drive” is a frustrating, humorous interlude for anyone who has dealt with the downside of technology: two important, irreplaceable pieces must be recovered from a corrupted hard drive. But within that, she holds up a sparkling gem embedded in the interview, thankfully restored by a young and able techie. The voice of a young woman who had been detained, tortured and had her life permanently scarred says: “Ubuntu. The most profound opposite of apartheid. More than forgiveness or reconciliation. More than ‘turn the other cheek.’ It is what humanity has lost.”
“A Change” describes her invitation to and meeting with a group of exiled poets (during apartheid) at Victoria Falls. “A Translation” reveals that she was the one selected to translate Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans. Her personal encounter with the man she knew only as myth is delightful and up-lifting. “A Journey” follows the fifteen day trek of a select group of African poets to Timbuktu. It is full of life and rustic humour. Her honoured place as a white among people of colour reveals her immense humility. Finally, “An End” reminds us that the transformation of South Africa will take a very long time and much intention. As she opens window after window on the myriad problems of employment, infrastructure, medical care, the damaging effects of fifty years of oppressive paternalism show a need for a new mentality to cope with what is ahead.
These brilliant pieces (each readable on its own) are skilfully connected by a lace of prose poetry which tie the subjects in a continuous flow. Each written in second person, she brings us back to the reality of nature as the context of the necessary upheaval and fragmentation in change: rain, giraffe, moonlight, willow, river, child, and wing—each helps bind the book into a creative whole.
Antjie is a poet of excellence. This book reveals her also, as a deep philosopher of her treasured South African people. Highly recommended.