Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Political Novels Debate: "We don't need political novels anymore" - Coovadia

Mary Corrigall: Your novels have dealt with the political conditions in SA but do you consider them political novels – what do you think is meant by that tag?Imraan Coovadia: Politics is one way of dealing with the existence of other people. Novels are another way, and maybe a better way, at any rate, I think a more interesting way. Politics is organised around the distinction between my friends and my enemies whereas, in novels, friends and enemies tend to become confused with each other. Having said that, good politicians are often pretty good writers – Lincoln, Churchill, maybe Obama, although in Obama’s case the writing is a little too reconciling and maybe the politics also. He doesn’t seem to believe in the existence of enemies.

Do you think the nature of the political novel has shifted in the post-apartheid era? If so, in what way?Yes, of course. We don’t need political novels anymore. In fact we may not even need novels. You’d have to say that the vital energies of South African culture aren’t confined to literature anymore. We have the doodle raised to a transcendent form by William Kentridge, the puppet as a work of art from the Handspring Puppet Company, the cartoon as practised by Zapiro, Lauren Beukes’s science fiction or fantasy novels, and the grotesque of Die Antwoord. There’s a lot more energy there than was ever contained in the standard model of the political novel.

Do you think that the perceived value of a novel in this country is still measured against the depths which the novelist plunges into the “state of the nation”?I think our serious novels fail to say much about the country for much the same reason as our economic policies have failed to do much for most of the country – over-reliance on overseas models and markets, and a corresponding distance from everyday experience and also from any real use of our imaginations to mark out new fields of representation. Novels are honoured but only in their absence. It could also be that the nation has turned out not to be so compelling a point of attachment.

Your new novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry, superficially seems to mark a departure – an unsolved death driving the narrative implies borrowing from the crime genre and the humour too suggests a less serious approach. Is there any validity to this observation? Are you at all trying to blur boundaries between supposed genres high-and-low and depart from the stuffiness of the preferred or more revered model for quality SA fiction?Probably the last thing a writer should do, with respect to selling books, is say anything about what he actually thought he was doing in a particular book. But since you ask, and since I never liked the idea of having to sell anything, I’ll say that what I thought I was doing was writing about the relationship between politics and poetics. That’s stuffy, no? Plus, I’m interested in what happens when you have a culture with a forever deferred and redirected revolutionary project. I think Kentridge said we’re living not in a post-apartheid society but in a post-anti-apartheid society. For me that leads directly to the questions of taxis. Did you see that the national taxi organisation wants to open up its own airline? If I’d written that it would have looked outlandish.
Coovadia’s The Institute for Taxi Poetry published by Umuzi, was launched last month

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