The Syringa Tree: Another To Kill a Mockingbird-like Novel for South Africa

Pamela Gien’s novel, The Syringa Tree (2007), began life as a one-person play, which won an Obie Award. The narrator, who is six, opens the story in 1963. She lives with her family in Johannesburg, where her father is a physician. As with other South African novels, this one, too, features a native nanny, Salamina, who is Xhosa, and beloved by Elizabeth—“Lizzy.”  The little girl has a perennial problem with wetting her pants, which drives her mother crazy. The family is considered strange for these parts, the father Jewish and the mother Catholic. They find refuge at Clova, a farm in the country owned by her grandparents. The narrative follows two families, one white and one black, over the generations.

This memory style novel covers the same ground as so many South African novel: the naïve narrator trying to come to grips with Apartheid and the seemingly senseless rules and regulations that separate races.

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Gien wrote and performed in the play, which evokes the memories of the young girl and in which she takes on about two dozen roles filling out the other characters. It sounds like a tour de force. Some productions of it in the States have used multiple actors.

The novel is rather dense for its first 100 pages, and other readers have noted, “just stick with it” as it is worthwhile and very touching.

Given the looming passing of former President Mandela, I was particularly struck by a passage early in the novel in which one of the doctor’s patients decries the cheeky native who insists on being called “Mister” instead of his first name, Nelson. He appears in court dressed in animal skins, his tribal dress, as Lizzy’s father explains to her. The grandfather adds, “They won’t rest until they’ve bloody locked them all up, Isaac. Where the hell they’re going to put them, I have no idea.”

Robben Island is where they put them–Mandela spending 18 of his years in prison there. It is now a popular tourist site with former prisoners conducting the tours. Half a world away in Washington, DC, an exhibition of the Robben Island Shakespeare reminds one of how important books and reading are to people. This particular copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, covered with Diwali cards, was allowed in the one-book-per-prisoner rule when its owner insisted it was his Hindu Bible. Over the course of his internment, he shared Shakespeare with the other prisoners, 34 of them choosing a particular passage by which to sign his name. Notably, its owner chose the highly appropriate lines from The Tempest, in which Caliban says, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother.”

Mandela chose these lines from Julius Caesar:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.”

A series of sketches by Mandela, made in the early 2000s, reflects on his prison life and accompanies the exhibition.

This is an apt time in history to reflect on the enormous influence one person can have to do good.

Near the end of The Syringa Tree Mandela rises like Lazarus from his tomb. Her father sends the adult Lizzy, living in Pasadena, the newspaper with its bold headline, “Vote, the Beloved Country.”

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2 thoughts on “The Syringa Tree: Another To Kill a Mockingbird-like Novel for South Africa

  1. I can’t understand why in this world, figures like Mandela or Lincoln are so few and their impacts are diluted so quickly. How sad that the SA government is now so dysfunctional and corrupt–and Mandela still alive. How sad that the US was willing to accept Jim Crow for 100 years after Lincoln. One would wish that the world were susceptible to change more deeply in the wake of our world-changing leaders. We have truly been forsaken by all gods but the Tricksters.

  2. After I submitted this RoadWorks post, I read a very fine, if depressing, article on the US Voting Rights Act by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, reminding me of the horrific trespasses against our fellow citizens simply because they are black. The Supreme Court’s recent decision may have been correct–and I emphasize may–but symbolically, it is wrong in dishonoring those who lost their lives in the fight for voting rights.

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