Thursday, 1 November 2012

Psychic Ties: The Land Within




By Mary Corrigall

Alistair Morgan might belong to a rising faction of emerging authors but his literature carries the leitmotifs of his predecessors; white guilt, the politics of land ownership and the master/servant dynamic.
These themes find traction in his latest novel, The Land Within (Penguin SA), in predictable ways, though interestingly he doesn't deposit the weight of white guilt at the feet of the older generation. Instead, he unearths the baggage of his own precarious generation - those who don't readily view themselves as perpetrators nor can they claim the guilt-free status the born-frees enjoy.
He gradually unravels this psychic guilt via Henry Knott, an affluent, white man in his forties who is forced to confront his past when he travels back to the Karoo farm where he was raised. A corollary to this physical journey is obviously an internal one - as alluded to in the book's title.
The sights, sounds and textures of the external landscape trigger memories that push his psyche back to a tragic event he has presumably suppressed. Certainly, there is a sense that this event is tied to the land - it's literally and figuratively buried in the landscape - thus his confrontation with the past can only be realised through a physical encounter.
The spectre of death looms large, from the beginning of Henry's journey, carried at first in the pervasive aroma of carrion, leading him down the passage of time. The weight of his guilt is corrupting his encounter with the present, colouring everything.



Coincidentally, and perhaps in contradiction to Henry's struggle with this psychic block, is the fact that he is a clinical psychologist. Henry's unwillingness to uncover his own demons might also be linked to an idea that this level of psychic probing is "too bourgeois" - an indulgence of the affluent. This is the level at which he has pitched his practice; to resolve everyday psychological hang-ups. The truth he carries inside is far darker than a suburban neurosis.
Henry hasn't willingly chosen to revisit his childhood home; it is something that his ailing father, who has a terminal disease, has cunningly devised for his son's benefit - and perhaps for his own. He wishes to be buried on the family farm and Henry is sent to negotiate with the new owners, the Mahlungus. In this way, the spectre of death is echoed in his father's imminent demise. His pregnant wife carries a new life that in quite clichéd terms should "resolve" the cycle of life and death, if not alleviate the impact of the loss for Henry. However, early in the journey back to the farm, there are signs that there may be problems with her pregnancy and, so, this counteractive force that ubiquitously balances the life/death dichotomy, appears unpredictable or unreliable. Certainly, Morgan harnesses it to bring his novel to a pessimistic conclusion that denies a natural order being restored.
The Mahlungus have transformed the property into a high-end guest house. Installing them as the new owners allows Morgan the means to tease out a more contemporary dialogue around the new order and the power dynamics it has destabilised, and how these new|relationships are being organised. The discourse, however, remains tethered to the politics of the land as Morgan meditates on the effect of this change of hands on the|landscape. "Does land, Henry wondered, have a capacity for memory? Like muscle memory; an instinctive device to help it adapt better to the changing seasons and the different demands that come with each new owner."
Old biases permeate the present; Henry mistakes Kabelo Mahlungu as an employee when he arrives. It's a faux pas that Henry must recover from as it is up to the Mahlungus to decide whether his father can be laid to rest on the property. They are in a conflicted position, as Henry's mother, who is estranged from his father, has already asked Kabelo to deny this request. In this way the fate of Henry's father is in the hands of someone representing the new order/elite. The narrative could not be more transparent.
These conflicts and the mysterious death that Henry has suppressed should be the engine driving the reader's attention, but the scope of the story is too limited to hold the kind of complexities it superficially hints at. The character of his writing is strong and evocative; he ably roots the reader in the Karoo and the structure of the narrative also evinces a level of sophistication; he knows how to build a story. Yet, it is an unsatisfying read.
The short length of this novel, it is perhaps more a novella, is either a consequence of the limited nature of the content - it is locked into its own ideological restraints - or Morgan lacked the courage or instinct to drive the story further. The narrative is too simplistic. It would make a great short film; but not a meaty novel.
To his credit, Morgan does create a link between notions of masculinity, violence and racism, which is very up-to-date. Henry's "forgotten" crime can be attributed to his desire to attain a male ideal that in some ways depended on victimising the black male.
In the conclusion, he pays dearly for his crime; Mother Nature takes revenge. This ties in with this idea of the land retaining the memory of the human actions that take place on it. Ultimately, Henry's fate acts as a warning of the perils of suppressing culpability. It's not a start-ling conclusion, but then any novel which pushes towards a single moral pronouncement can never be an astonishing read.  - published October 21, 2012

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