Most readers of South African literature are by now familiar with Achmat Dangor‘s seminal novel Bitter Fruit which was published a few years after the findings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission were released and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was formalised by former State President Nelson R Mandela.
Today, we recognise Mr Dangor as a loyal servant to the ailing statesman in the form of his position as Chief Executive Officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation which is primarily a vehicle for providing much needed assistance to the under-privileged children of South Africa. For this I am an admirer of Mr Dangor. Having read Bitter Fruit, I can tell you that my admiration does not extend to his literary work.
In spite of my misgivings of Dangor’s novel which was curiously short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, there is a subtle, underlying moral message in response to dealing with trauma’s such as rape which I felt worth-while revisiting during a period of Sixteen Days of Activism in South Africa, a time of solidarity or action for the many victims of violent physical and sexual abuse.
Professor’s Impression of my review: “85%. An excellent essay. Alive, independent, meticulous.”
In this review I comment on three major events in Bitter Fruit (published by Kwela Books in 2001) which necessitate a process of testimony, revelation and self-discovery towards a goal of change and healing in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s objectives. Bitter Fruit was written to echo the sentiments of the TRC.
Identifying ways in which Achmat Dangor deploys his novelistic techniques, I discuss whether or not he is successful in echoing such sentiments.
Dangor uses intertextual references to past and present political events in South Africa, thus devising a realistic narrative. The best example of this is the Truth and Reconciliation process itself. The protagonist, Silas Ali, representing the government at the commission, is a victim of the apartheid past alongside his wife, Lydia. They do not testify, but are haunted by the memory of their traumatic ordeals where Ali’s wife is raped by the security operative, Du Boise.
Dangor uses racial stereotyping effectively. Characters are realistic as they converse derogatorily in the familiar South African English vernacular. Vulgarity is regrettably excessive. The most common stereotypical characters are the ex-MK cadres (“freedom fighters”) turned bureocrats, the security operative turned aged, defenceless pensioner, the guilt-ridden Jewish liberal who plays rugby “to demonstrate his manhood” and works in government for worthy causes, and the widely used “bushie”, a derogatory term for the Southern African “coloured man”.
There is an excessive preoccupation with sex, rape and incest, sub-themes which appear to predominate Dangor’s literary works. For example;
“Well we have to, all the time, hide penises up our fannies, the recollection of them being there. Even the ones we never invited in.”
“He called me a nice wild half-kaffir cunt, a lekker wilde Boesman poes.”
Amidst the explicitness, the loosely connoted word “making love” is not agreed with. We cannot “make love” if we do not love someone internally. Rather, we are having sex which in the context of Bitter Fruit, is sometimes brutal. J M Coetzee’s character, David Lurie, acknowledges the lack of love in Disgrace, and echoes my sentiment “rather well”.
In a mocking reference to Greek icons, which is futile, senseless, pretentious and irrelevant, the narrative degenerates suggestively into pornography, as the following example shows;
“Masturbating to the rhythm of Homeric hexameters.”
The motivation for using excessive vulgar language which is sexually explicit is understood, but not supported. Writing Disgrace, JM Coetzee does justice to emphasising the horror of apartheid and abuse of its victims without resorting to such explicitness. Coetzee’s prose is “chisilled”, razor-sharp and aesthetically astute in describing the ironic ills of apartheid.
I suspect that Dangor suffers from the proverbial Oedipus complex as he even allows his protagonist, a distant charicature of himself perhaps, to be alienated from his wife. Using his characters, the narrator objectivizes the allegedly flawed Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s processes. From the beginning he opposes the process of reconciliation through the protagonist’s abused wife, Lydia;
“Its always something or someone else who’s responsible, a “larger scheme of things” that exonerates people from taking responsibility for the things they do.”
She cannot forgive and forget her brutal rape by security operatives and her “husband’s “experimental” sexual liason with his MK comrade. Her anger is understandable and valid. She argues that many oppressed people did not degenerate into an amoral cycle of promiscuity in order to release the tensions, pain and frustration of being a victim of apartheid.
The novel’s title alludes to the overwhelming tone of bitterness. It is indicative of the irony of showing how a process designed to heal instead agitates. Ali is key to this in his ineffectual role as a government official. His behaviour throughout the story gives no indication of being a healer. Like his wife, he cannot forgive past wrongs and crucially, shows no remorse for his own harmful deeds. Lydia who initially represses her own memories of the past is correct to question Ali’s motivations for remembering the past and his dispassionate behaviour towards others. Thus his call to his wife “to deal with this” is muted.
While she critcizes the Truth and Reconciliation process, she also despises her husband’s role in government – “you are one of them, the grey men you always mocked.”
Ali’s post entails “liasing between the Ministry of Justice and the TRC. It was his task to ensure that everyone concerned remained objective, the TRC’s supporters and its opponents, that they considered the law above all, and did not allow their emotions to sway them.” And yet he ironically fails in his post and the process itself as he is personally affected by the past to the point that he is not really impartial and neutral as the internal narratives allege.
The major events of memory, confession and retribution are well-structured (into three parts), recalled and commented on through characters’ testimonies, revelations and self-discoveries, or lack thereof. When encountering Lydia’s rapist, the security operative, Du Boise, Ali and his wife remember the events which are buried deep in their psyche. For them it is a revelation that the past can never be forgotten. They also fear that their son, Mikey, who is the human product of Lydia’s rape, will become like Du Boise. He does so murderously, but becomes more like his mother, adopting her incestuous behaviour. We believe that Du Boise is not the true cause of Lydia’s pain. Her trauma is derived from having been raped incestuously as a child.
On making his self-discovery, turning fifty, the protagonist of Bitter Fruit reaches a point of no return in his life. He is on the verge of being declared redundant and his complacency and previous lack of concern for others is rather leading him down a path of self-destruction. While the ensuing actions of both his wife and son are morally reprehensible, they, ironically, at least take action.
Even though she resists memories, Lydia comes to terms with her brutal rape. It is encapsulated significantly in the following words;
“Three nights ago, I was raped. By a policeman, in a veld, flung down on the grass, the darkness above his head my only comfort. I will recover from the physical act of that rape. We always do, women have this capacity to heal themselves. But I also know that I am pregnant. Inside of me is a rapist’s seed. My child will be a child of rape.”
To my mind all the flaws of Dangor’s literary techniques notwithstanding, this is the best passage of the story. It threads together the important act of remembering the hurtful past, acknowledging Lydia’s pitiable place in the proverbial South African sun as she desists from confessing any part of the vagaries of her abusive past and, while setting her on a path of recovery, it places her on a path of hurtful retribution.
Ali wants to change, but is unable to do so, while Lydia does change in spite of her tragic past, and has an opportunity to start a new life. Ultimate healing is necessary and desirable for both. Ali confesses his past misdemeanors, but Lydia is adamant that she has committed no wrongdoing and is not responsible for her actions. Her son adopts a similar attitude. Alie does not seek retribution, however, as both his wife and son do. Ironically, they make progress in their own self-discoveries while Ali fails. They begin their own process of healing.
In saying this the narrator makes one of the most important statements in Bitter Fruit as Lydia escapes the narrative’s overwhelming tone of bitterness;
“Time and distance, even this paltry distance will help to free her.”
It is everybody’s goal to change and seek ultimate healing, but retribution ironically brings both success and failure.
Owing to the negative tone of Bitter Fruit, however deliberate, Dangor, to my mind, fails to “echo the sentiments of the TRC.” Unlike Antjie Krog in her groundbreaking book, Country of My Skull (published by Random House in 2002), it is not Dangor’s intention, but unlike Coetzee and other astute commentators, he fails miserably at nuancing the bitter ironies of apartheid which permeate the healing processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Three major events in the novel, namely that of memory, confession and retribution were examined in this review. The success, or failure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal, was tested by both the narrator and his receiver. Ultimately there is abject failure, but through action rather than inactivity there is always the possibility of success.