In 1948, President Truman gave the order to de-segregate U.S. Armed Forces; meanwhile, South Africa instituted Apartheid. South Africa, particularly the Cape Town area, is stunningly beautiful, but its almost 50 year history of segregating races and giving preference to whites—English and Afrikaans primarily—hangs like a cloud. I’m reminded of how I feel when I travel to Germany or to Dallas—holding both of those places guilty for past sins.
The theme of race relations pervades the literature of South Africa. When I was compiling my list of Road Works Books for this trip, I kept thinking—surely there might be some escapist fiction for a “beach” read for at least one selection. It did not seem so. Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer focuses consistently on race relations; similarly J. M. Coetzee, the only novelist to have won the Booker Prize twice, uses this theme. And why not. Conflict is at the heart of good fiction and apartheid provides plenty of that. (I’m keenly aware that the United States has its own shameful history in terms of civil and equal rights.)
This is my working list of titles for the trip:
South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht (2009)
The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay (1989)
The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux
The Gooseberry Fool, James McClure (a detective series featuring Kramer and Zondi)
A Beautiful Place to Die: An Emmanuel Cooper Mystery, Malia Nunn
Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
A visit to Kalk Bay Bookstore—a truly fine bookstore—revealed that the wealth of South African literature is not very well represented on USA Amazon. Finuala Dowling, for instance, who is a poet and fiction writer, has a recent novel Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart (2011); Andre Brink’s Philida, long-listed for the Booker Prize, looks to be quite good—about a slave in 1830s South Africa who seeks her freedom; The Institute of Taxi Poetry by Imraan Coovadia, a funny satire; Coconut by Kopana Matiwa won the Europe Book Award in 2007; The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr is yet another recent title; Deon Meyer’s mystery series, originally written in Afrikaans, joins other series such as those written by Jassy Mackenzie. J. M. Coetzee has many titles on the shelves, perhaps his best for travel reading being his memoir Boyhood.
While an anthology is my least favorite way to discover the literature of a country, Whereabouts Press, located in Berkeley, provides the best I’ve encountered and allowed me insight into the overall country as this traveler’s literary companion is divided by region. My favorite discovery in this volume is author Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) whose “1899” selection comes from her novel The Story of an African Farm. This remains a highly-readable narrative, heart-breaking even, of a woman who experiences loss consistently through her life, including the Anglo-Boer War. She might be termed the Isak Dinesen of South Africa. So revered is she that a literary prize for new and emerging talent is named in her honor, Finuala Dowling being a recent winner. With South Africa’s current motto, “Diverse People Unite,” in a country where 11 official languages make that somewhat difficult, it’s hoped that the unifying spirit that Nelson Mandela embraced will truly last. It is certainly a beautiful landscape in which to pursue such a worthy goal.