Deidre Donnelly: Your novel starts off quite disorientating, with the different styles of narration and points of view. Is there any other book you drew from, in getting the reader actively involved in the reading process?
Patrick Flanery: An important model for me was Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat, an extraordinarily brilliant book. She also used four voices, and I had this revelation when I read it. My experience of reading the novel was that I didn’t really know where it was going, or get my footing, until about 100 pages in. But the voices were so compelling it provided that imperative to continue.
DD: Your fairly clinical depictions of living in SA today don’t do much from a tourism point of view. With having close ties to this country, did you feel any censorship of your own in writing some of the novel’s uncomfortable scenes?
PF: I didn’t write with a political or critical intent in mind. I was not aware of censoring myself, but I was conscious that some of what I said would be difficult for my South African friends and family to read. And that sense of clinical distance is a manifestation of the psychology of the two main characters, Clare and Sam; both so traumatised in their own ways.
DD: Was the character Clare based on anyone in particular? Comparisons have been made to Nadine Gordimer.
PF: I had no author in mind, though I was influenced by J.M. Coetzee’s Essays on Censorship. I never thought of Gordimer, to be honest – though I’m a huge admirer of her work. Clare couldn’t be a portrait. She had to be a vivid, living person. So I recalled all the important strong women in my life: my maternal grandmother, my early art teacher and an acting teacher. When I sat down to write, I was thinking of them, but I was also trying to for speak her as if I was speaking. So there’s a great deal more of me in Clare than people would expect.
DD: Tell me about the character Greg …
PF: Someone asked me if he was a symbol of White guilt in South Africa, and he is absolutely not. He is representative of the South Africans I’ve met of my generation: In their late thirties, they came of age right at that time when apartheid ended, so they really feel the ethical imperative of living in these times in a hyper-real way.
DD: For South African readers over-familiar with post-apartheid novels, why, would you say, is it still important to look back?
PF: With any country, the recent past is often the period most difficult to see clearly and this is about the recent past. As an American, I am an outsider, but I have a strong investment in the country because my partner is from here. And to me it seems, from what I understand of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it was a very important beginning for a process that will probably only work out over a longer time span. Reconciliation is a process, rather than an event. It’s a dialogue that needs to continue. But I do regard the TRC as a model I’d love to see followed in the US – in terms of its native American history and the civil rights movement – but I know it never will be.
Patrick Flanery’s Absolution has been shortlisted for the Spear’s Book Awards 2012, and long-listed for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2012. Flanery is one of the authors participating in Cape Town’s Open Book Festival 2012, from 20 to 24 September. For more information, visit openbookfestival.co.za
3 Wonderful Winter Reads.These titles, recently read and rated by O’s books editor, Deidre Donnelly, all explore the relationship between identity and the body.
Image credit: Andrew Van Der Vlies
In South Africa in the nineteen-eighties, the military wing of the African National Congress was on the attack. The anti-apartheid guerrillas rarely let a week go without action—dynamite at a fuel depot, a car bomb outside Air Force headquarters in a city center. It was a war without regular combat, waged by clandestine operatives: spies and saboteurs, bomb-makers and bomb-planters, commandos, sleeper agents, and assassins. The white-supremacist government called them all terrorists, and the state security forces hunted them accordingly, but the attacks were unstoppable: four people killed in one incident, fifty-seven wounded in another. There was always the next blast.
The A.N.C.’s guerrilla force—known simply as MK, or, more formally, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation)—had been around since 1961. Nelson Mandela was a founder and, for the three years before he was sentenced to life in prison, its commander-in-chief. Back then, the main mission was sabotage, blowing up government infrastructure, and an effort was made not to kill anyone in the process. But two decades later MK was killing without compunction—grenades would be bowled into a Wimpy Bar burger joint, or a trip-wired limpet mine planted in an amusement arcade—and Mandela did not object. In 1985, when the government offered to release him from prison if he would only repudiate the armed struggle, he refused. In 1990, he was let out anyway, and on the day of his release he addressed a rally, where he said that MK was formed as “a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid,” and declared that “we have no option but to continue.”
Four years later, the struggle was over, South Africa was a democracy, and Mandela was its popularly elected President. The leaders of apartheid had finally given up defending their savage power and negotiated to relinquish it. The handover was efficient and orderly, and we often hear that South Africa made a peaceful transition from fascism to majority rule. But that story makes no sense. Apartheid would not go gently. Unrelenting violence was needed to secure its surrender.
Part of the deal was an understanding that there would be no further campaigns of punishment. Instead, all the parties to the long years of bloodshed and terror were called together to remember them before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The surviving victims testified about—and frequently relived—their traumas, and the people responsible for those traumas, defenders and opponents of apartheid alike, were invited to account for their conduct, and to ask the T.R.C. for amnesty: a warrant of immunity from prosecution for political crimes committed in the time of apartheid.
The T.R.C.’s purpose was not to dispense justice but, rather, as its grandiose name suggests, to extract from its witnesses a collective historical truth with which to reconcile a divided country. But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?
To the South Africans in Patrick Flanery’s uncommonly thought-provoking first novel, “Absolution” (Riverhead), the past is largely a source of anguish, and its torments are most acute when the facts are most elusive. Like the T.R.C. itself, Flanery’s novel is a patchwork of imperfect and conflicting reconstructions, stitched together from multiple sources. Among these sources are fictionalized T.R.C. transcripts, like this testimony given at a 1996 hearing, on the case of Jimmy Sukwini, the victim of an A.N.C. bomb attack:
“Can you tell us, Mrs. Sukwini, how your life changed after your husband’s death?”
“Mr. Chairman, this is the worst thing that can happen. I don’t think I have to [indistinct] very hard for us after he died and we went to live with my parents. . . . I understand why the comrades did what they did but I think maybe it should not have been like this. I don’t know. I was not a part of these things. I am only a teacher.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Sukwini. Is there anything else you would like to say?”
“Only that I am still waiting for someone to come to me, to say to me that they are sorry, that they wish for me and for my daughters that my husband did not die. I am still waiting. Please, will you tell them to come find me?”
The frank power of this woman’s unmediated voice, reckoning with her husband’s murder at the hands of her political liberators, and asking only for recognition and an apology, hardly seems to call for narrative elaboration. But in “Absolution” we read Mrs. Sukwini’s testimony through the eyes of the novelist Clare Wald, an aging lioness of South African letters. She is searching in the archives for traces of her daughter, Laura, who joined the armed struggle and, in 1989, disappeared. To Clare, every unclaimed bomb attack from Laura’s time of action might be her doing.
So the unhealed wounds of a victim’s widow open onto those of a perpetrator’s mother, and a nation’s quest for unifying knowledge founders on individual uncertainties. Clare cannot decide if her daughter should be remembered as a terrorist or as a hero. As a novelist, she has always made good use of such ambivalence, and embraced ambiguity. But she is also a mother, who cannot even be certain that Laura is dead, and who is furious at her for leaving behind so many unanswerable questions.
Sam Leroux, the novel’s other central character, has similarly complex feelings about his parents, who also took up armed resistance on behalf of the A.N.C., and were consumed by it. Sam, too, is a writer, though of a nonfictional bent. He’s working on a biography of Clare, and although she’s old enough to be his grandmother, it’s clear from the moment he arrives to interview her that there is history between them. The nature of this history emerges only slowly, and with considerable suspense, but it is not giving too much away to say that, when Sam was a child, his parents were in a car that exploded outside a Cape Town police station.
Sam was too young at the time to understand how he had been orphaned, and many years go by before he attempts to speak of his parents’ deaths. When he does—to his American fiancée—he comes up empty: “His parents had died of an accident. That was how everyone had explained it to him. He tried to remember who had first told him about his parents being dead—it must have been the police or Mrs. Gush, the old toothless woman—but there was a gap, as if the film of his memory had been cut and entire days of footage lost and burned up in a broken projector, bubbling yellow and black into whiteness.”
Much of the drama in “Absolution” arises from watching the two writers, Clare and Sam, obsessively revisiting the past in their attempts to make sense of, or at least make their peace with, their ruptured family lives. Like Clare, Sam turns, at one point, to T.R.C. records. He finds a news report on the amnesty hearing of a former MK commissar named Joe Speke, who helped plan the car bombing that killed his parents. Speke says that Sam’s father had packed the car with explosives himself, and was trained in the use of a remote-control detonator, but that something went wrong. The bomb went off prematurely, and Speke raises the possibility that the cell to which Sam’s parents belonged “had been infiltrated by the security services and the bomb sabotaged.” Sam considers this: Were his parents actually victims of the state? Would that be any better than an accident? It hardly matters to him. “What stupid people,” he says. “How much can they really have loved me if they were willing to risk my own well-being?”
After the death of Sam’s parents, none of their friends or close family wanted him. He was, for a while, taken in by an abusive relative, and during this period he was subjected to, witnessed, and committed terrible violence—so terrible that, even to his trusted fiancée, he will not speak of it. His secrecy contrasts with the T.R.C.’s goal of historical candor, which Sam regards with skepticism: “He had come from a country of accidents. He tried to understand what that meant. It seemed to mean that no one was ever responsible for anything if only you could tell the truth and most of all if you could say you were sorry. But he had not told the truth and he was not sorry.”
First novels are often quasi-autobiographical, and “Absolution” has many of the hallmarks: the excavation of family secrets, the coming-of-age story, a preoccupation with the writing life, and an intimate and assured evocation of a particular place. In Flanery’s novel, the place is not just South Africa, or even Cape Town writ large, but the microclimate of white literary bourgeois Cape Town (where the book has been well received). It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that Patrick Flanery is an American from the Midwest. He lives in England and has spent only short periods in South Africa. Yet “Absolution” is not simply a novel set in South Africa but what can only be described as a South African novel.
Some English reviewers of “Absolution” have compared Flanery to J. M. Coetzee. But although Flanery, too, takes a dark view of history, and resists offering false comfort, his is a more capacious darkness. He writes with eager curiosity to peel back the world, to look and listen closely, and to discover (without a hint of Coetzee’s contempt) the infinite complexity of other people’s lives. When Sam interviews Clare, he draws her out at length on the problems of working as a writer under the strictures of the apartheid regime.
“For a writer trying to work in the conditions of repression and censorship that existed in this country under the old government, every moment, waking and sleeping, was a form of intellectual and artistic molestation,” Clare says. She likens such a writer to an abused wife who has so internalized her batterer’s responses that she calibrates every word and action to anticipate and mollify him. Under apartheid, she says, “I chose to adapt, to keep my children and myself alive. At least that was the rationalization on which I built my career very specifically as a writer in this country in that historic moment.”
Clare never defended apartheid in her writing, and never espoused political beliefs she did not have. But she also never ran afoul of the Publications Control Board, because she avoided politics entirely. That was how she accommodated apartheid. “The censor infected my consciousness,” she tells Sam. “My work could never be accused of being documentary, perhaps because I knew what attitude the censor would take to the documentary form, to journalistic writing.” That was the form that was most likely to be found “undesirable.” (In a note at the back of the book, Flanery acknowledges that Clare’s discussion of censorship draws on Coetzee’s book of essays on the subject, “Giving Offense.”)
In her effort to avoid official disapproval, Clare strove to write books that would not win official approval, either. Her achievement was to have produced one work after another that the Publications Control Board labelled “Not undesirable”—a tepid, even ignominious brand, for which, however, she makes no apology. In her words: “I consciously wrote evasively, to remain in print? I did. I don’t consider it a crime. I consider it a means of survival.”
Sam is nearly as committed to what Clare calls the documentary, journalistic response to reality as she is at odds with it. Without him there to challenge and contradict her, a reader might overlook the evasions and liberties she allows herself as she fictionalizes her way through existence. Freedom from fact-checking may yield great literature, but for Clare the habits of art have infected the unwritten world of her daily life, where fiction becomes tantamount to lying: a means to avoid being held to account. So, while Sam writes her biography, Clare is writing a memoir—called “Absolution,” of course—in which she purports to reconstruct the final days of her lost daughter, Laura. The resulting book is almost pure invention. It is honest invention, insofar as Clare declares that it is fiction, but, she says, “I didn’t want to call it that. The publishers insisted. It’s easier to sell a novel than a weird hybrid of essay and fiction and family and national history, although it’s really the latter—both fiction and something that is not quite fiction but less than proper history or memoir.”
For Clare, fiction is the highest form of truth, and this makes it almost impossible to trust her. Long after the apartheid Publications Control Board was disbanded, Clare remains its pure product. When she looks back, and tallies her losses and her regrets, what she wants is absolution, which she realizes is no longer possible: “The dead cannot offer absolution.”
“What does calling it fiction allow Clare to do?” Sam asks at one point; and the question might be asked of Flanery. For all his socio-historical, documentary-style techniques, Flanery is, like Clare, a richly imaginative novelist, and the white bombers of Cape Town, whose brief careers haunt the novel, are his invention. There were hardly any white anti-apartheid guerrillas, much less white A.N.C. martyrs, in nineteen-eighties South Africa. So why rewrite such racially charged history in this fashion? One effect of Flanery’s sly editing of history is to complicate the novel’s relationship to the burden of apartheid. “Absolution” is a novel about a few white South Africans and how their lives were torn apart by the violence of a liberation struggle that they supported. By making their wounds self-inflicted, Flanery concentrates the drama and the arguments that surround it.
Had he been truer to historical reality, his book would have had to be all about race. But, by combining Clare’s instinct for the imaginative freedom of confabulation with Sam’s morally rigorous documentary approach, he allows himself to examine more deeply the particular dilemmas of white liberals, for whom the anti-apartheid cause was an effort to absolve themselves of an agonizing shame. They left open the question of how they would fit in under black majority rule, and in “Absolution” the failures of the post-apartheid era are reflected in the fact that, aside from Mrs. Sukwini, the widow who testifies in the T.R.C. transcript, only two black characters make enough of an appearance in the book to be given names and speaking parts.
In Sam and Clare’s world, blacks are primarily a menace. Most of the novel’s white characters live in homes that resemble fortified bunkers—Clare likens hers to a prison; it even has a lock inside the shower door—while the morning news tells of “another commuter bus being fired on by masked gunmen,” killing six and wounding dozens, even as a nurses’ strike has shut down hospitals, and health workers are “toyi-toying in operating theatres, dancing in protest around anesthetized patients.”
At one point, Clare goes on an anti-A.N.C. rant, telling her son, a lawyer who has little patience for her, “I am of the generation, as are you (more’s the pity), who will be able to say that they lived through two corrupt nationalist governments. The question is whether we will survive the second, some members of which see us as its unfinished business. . . . They are the ones who see all whites as parasites, and they are the analogues to those of the old regime who saw all blacks as terrorists or idlers.” To which he replies, “And now you do sound like a racist and a reactionary.”
Sam, too, has to admit that he doesn’t trust blacks, after his aunt is murdered during a home invasion: “He could not think of himself as a racist, he was sure he was not, but one had to be careful. Everyone must understand that one had to be careful.”
So much for reconciliation. Flanery depicts the insular, insecure society of his white South Africans without apology and without scolding. Is this what Sam’s parents blew themselves up for? In reality, today’s South Africa, for all its manifest disappointments and its unabated violence, is categorically less unjust and less unjustifiable than it was under apartheid, and Flanery knows better than to hoist his novel to any decisive moral or political conclusion. He brings the book’s many stories together at last, but there is no pretense that they are over. Leaving them unresolved may be the most hopeful ending possible, and when you finish “Absolution” there is one sure thing that stays with you: Patrick Flanery is an exceptionally gifted and intelligent novelist, and he is just getting started. ♦