Monday, 27 May 2013
Reflecting on the Struggle Years from Afar
At the centre of this thought-provoking, debut novel by Anthony Schneider, A Quiet Kind of Courage (Penguin) is Henry Wegland, an octogenarian ex-South African of Jewish (Lithuanian) extraction, a one-time member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), involved in a minor way in the sabotage campaign of 1961.
In some ways it is easier to say what this novel is not than what it is. It is not a gripping linear narrative of events related to the armed resistance campaign of the early '60s. It is not a triumphalist narrative celebrating the heroism of the leaders (and cadres) of the resistance movement.
Given the author's location and personal history (New York; one of his grandfathers was, like Henry, a Struggle veteran who lived much of his life in exile) the novel relies in part on imaginative reconstructions of a momentous era (South Africa in 1960/1961).
The author's distance (in both time and space) from many of the events he describes means the novel is not informed by first-hand observation and experience in the way that other notable South African political novels are - novels such as Jonty Driver's Elegy for a Revolutionary, or Alex la Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End, or Mongane Serote's To Every Birth its Blood.
Instead this novel works by juxtaposition, through a juggling of several narrative strands.
In the first place there is Henry, the retired law professor and one-time MK "foot soldier", who is now in his eighties.
In spite of the apparent vindication of what he has struggled for (the ANC is in power), his life is suffused with regrets - for the Liverpool of his early childhood and the larger-than-life figure of his Uncle Isaac, for the wife (Sarah) and lover (Nellie Mkhatshwa), both of whom he left in South Africa, for the daughter he never had, and for what might be construed as his betrayal of his son Glenn.
Arguably the real burden of the narrative is the troubled relationship between Henry, his grandson Saul, and Glenn.
At Henry's prompting, Saul embarks on a journey to present-day South Africa, with a view to tracing his grandfather's old ANC comrades, Zeke and Nellie Mkhwatsha, and perhaps making a documentary.
His trip threatens to turn into a nightmare as he is held up at gunpoint and taken to an ATM - to be rescued by Mapogo ("good-guy gangsters").
This contemporary (and all-too-recognisable) South African story forms an effective counterpoint to the Struggle narrative, centred on the dreams and aspirations of the now-legendary Rivonia group.
In this way the "mottled, benighted present" is contrasted with the hopes and ideals of the founding figures of modern ANC history. These concerns give the narrative its sharp contemporary application.
A great deal of reading has clearly informed the fictional reconstruction of early Struggle history. Figures such as Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein have brief walk-on parts in an attempt to dramatise these events.
These are the people with whom Henry rubbed shoulders, and from whom he drew inspiration.
Unsurprisingly, in this narrative they are peripheral figures who |never emerge as flesh and blood humans.
Henry, the troubled octogenarian, does emerge as a flesh-and-blood human. The novel foregrounds his gradual decline into a frail old age, beset with memories and regrets. "There comes a time in the life of any nation where there remain only two choices: submit or fight."
Henry chose to fight, and has not given up on his dreams and ideals ("Henry still had hope, still had faith"), but the novel explores the costs of these commitments in human terms.
Many of his former comrades (like the somewhat sentimentalised Nellie) are dead: "Beautiful face. Beautiful spirit. She had lost so much, Nellie, and borne so much. Another comrade gone."
Passages like this lend an elegiac note to the novel, and together with the diminishing prospects and |perspectives of the ageing Henry, reveal the difficulty of holding tension in two opposing realities: the necessity of struggle and sacrifice, on the one hand, and its human cost, on the other.
Henry is convincingly (and empathetically) realised: increasingly crabby, critical of modern trends and fashions, sliding into a still-defiant old age.
The human costs of the Struggle are verbalised early by Henry's wife, Sarah. "We're a family now. You're a father. What if you go to jail?? I need my husband here, in bed beside me, reading to his children, tucking them into bed."
Henry chooses to play his (fairly minor) part in the Struggle, and seems guilty of a double betrayal: he falls in love with his struggle comrade, Nellie (and embarks on an affair); and he escapes into exile with his son, leaving his wife to face detention in prison and separation from their son.
It is implied that her spell in detention was part of a trade-off, engineered by her, to ensure her son's passage out of South Africa. Sarah's story is perhaps the unacknowledged, uncelebrated centre |of the novel.
While the novel doesn't over-emphasise Henry's Jewishness, his Lithuanian family history clearly brings with it a history of persecution and struggle. His Uncle Isaac died fighting in the Resistance |in World War II.
As an outsider Henry has an awareness of suffering |and exclusion and injustice, and this helps to explain why the Struggle attracts: "Perhaps resistance was Henry's birthright, in his blood, an innate belligerence." His Jewishness also informs his experience of exile.
In his lifetime he has moved from Lithuania to Liverpool to Port Elizabeth to Joburg to New York. This helps to explain the centrality of the experience of loss, which runs like an undertow through the novel.
After a roll call of Struggle comrades comes this comment: "? all gone. He felt a great sweeping sadness for them. And for himself, for the holes in his heart, the chasm that was his past, that was South Africa, the floating world without people to moor it."
This unusual retrospective take (from the perspective of exile) on recent South African history makes this an absorbing and intriguing novel. A weakness is that some of the Struggle history has a sketched-in feel, partly because we don't register these events through a distinctive individual consciousness.
Nevertheless, the human story at the centre of this novel is one |that resonates, and that needs to be told. In particular, the novel offers a sober, sceptical perspective on over-simplified notions of "heroism". Ordinary people (like Glenn) who raise families and care for their |children also exhibit "a quiet kind of courage".
In this way the novel complicates conventional notions of heroism: "Not all heroes were so heroic."