By Betty Govinden
Transformations: Essays - evokes many different emotions, sensations and impressions at each twist and turn of the page. I am propelled into an ever-expanding intellectual universe, as I renew old friendships and make new acquaintances. Why am I surprised by the impressive global and historical sweep of Imraan Coovadia's writings (from Plato to Ranci?re), and the authority and imaginative reach of his thinking, which includes a knowledge of the Bible, its language and style, and of Christianity alongside a new respect and recognition of the everyday? Any great (humanities) scholar, worth his or her salt, should surely do no less.
Reading Transformations (Umuzi, Random Struik), I want to go back to the tutors of my graduate sensibility - Milton, Shakespeare, George Eliot. But I find it hard to accept that my gurus of recent decades - Edward Said, who is chief among them - are being stripped of adulation. Was I missing something all these years, being so enamoured and in awe? I read the lines again. I am frustrated by Coovadian nuance, forcing me to think for myself.
As I press on through Transformations, I appreciate the element of juxtaposition, its audacity. The walls between high criticism and reading low culture are demolished. Coovadia alerts me, in passing, to the notion that in an essay, "gossip and close reading, metaphysics and psychology, philosophy and love and scorn and politics may even co-exist without necessarily provoking discordance".
Indeed. JM Coetzee and Shrien Dewani make strange bedfellows. But they are both pared down here. I warm to the allusion game that Coovadia loves to play. I think of TS Eliot's "hollow men". Coovadia writes each differently, but with the same pace, the same modulation, and I begin to appreciate his rendering that an essay "is nothing but the shifts and turns in topic which come through a writer's hand-like shifts and turns through the hands of a pianist".
Still, throughout, for me what remains the most potent aspect of Transformations is the way Coovadia's criticism of the "New South Africa" filters through - intermittently, relentlessly. If ever there is an earnest and honest attempt to understand a fractured society such as South Africa, it is here. As Coovadia laments: "Everything changes in South Africa, every day, but our ways of misunderstanding each other are as constant as the morning star."
South Africa - land of the vuvuzela and of clichés, and contradictions. A land longing to return to normal, and struggling to understand what "normal" really means - which is also the struggle to give meaning to democracy.
This is where the writer plays a crucial role.
But we have a way to go, Coovadia points out: "The South African novelist for whom there will be 'no high or low subject matters', who will hear the English of the minibus taxis as much as the Afrikaans of the farms and the Zulu of the barracks and the Parliament, who will see the refugee and the gay black woman and the mute and the orphan and the rich black man as precisely as the European liberal and the Indian doctor and the professor and the beggar, has yet to be born."
Coovadia is critical of all orthodoxies that coagulate around individuals and various forms of institutional life - familial, educational, religious, ethnic (he describes "Durban Indians" as Midnight's Children in South Africa, ever only on the brink of freedom). What is undeniable is Coovadia's "allergy to invocations of collective identity", as he summons an aggressive individualism.
But this is not to invoke a "privatised" world. As Coovadia observes: "As our lives have been privatised - private schools, private suburbs, private opinions, private shopping centres - so our intimacy with the crowd of the future? has vanished."
Encountering the essays of a writer whose novels I have read, I become excited and expectant. The prospect of gleaning new nuggets of biographical background to help me "understand" the person behind the writing persona is an enticing one. I readily absorb fragments of the narrative of Coovadia's development scattered across the essays: his growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, his caustic impressions of Hilton College, with its silver spoons and his immersion in 19th century literature and intellectual life, which shaped and continue to shape his thinking. The role of his parents and the other formative influences on his political consciousness and thinking are also included. I am amazed at the multiple wells of intellectual thought from which he draws. Is there a ciphered autobiography somewhere here?
All this has great relevance to me as a reader of his novels. My first compulsion is to go back to The Wedding, to re-read it, as if for the first time. But I am also constrained, after Transformations, to be more careful, cautious.
Coovadia is critical of the "hallowed-be-thy-name" tendency - our penchant to treat writers as "subjects of religion".
He is scathing of the idolatry that has gathered, for example, around writers such as Alan Paton and JM Coetzee. Coovadia bemoans the "maudlin sentimentality" of Cry, the Beloved Country.
He sees Coetzee critics, for their part, studiously "collecting the allusions he [Coetzee] scatters to Foucalt or Levinas or Derrida and arranging them reverently in his honour, which is also to the honour of pure literature".
Is Coetzee parading an intellectualism by his recourse to theory (rather than to race and confrontational politics)? Is he (not) baiting his critics to become literary sleuths, to read between the lines, and to show their own prowess and intellectual agility? Coovadia seems to have a point. The thought had vaguely crossed my mind, but I had been too timid to give it air.
Coovadia writes with disdain at the "tyranny of sense-making" that goes on in academia, with its "chorus of approval". He exposes the world of academia for its vagueness and for being "frictionless", where we praise works with a "kind of blind adoration" and with "gestures of genuflection". He bemoans the lack of contestation when discussing canonical works.
Was he thinking of me? I am smarting under the chastisement of academic readers, and sense the onset of "a kind of vertigo". I am beginning to understand Coovadia's outrage: such "facile complicity" - whether with the paedophile rapist in Nabokov's Lolita or with Satan in Milton's Surprised by Sin - is more than a lapse in critical reading. It drives at the heart of complicity with evil. Or, rather, is not Coovadia really suggesting that a lapse in critical reading IS complicity with evil?
What can I say about Transformations to redeem myself?