Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Psychic and Political Conundrums: Call It Dog

By Rob Gaylard

Call it Dog (Atlantic, Penguin) is not an easy book to get your head around. Essentially, it is a quest narrative: the protagonist, Jo Hartslief, returns to South Africa after a 10-year absence to cover the xenophobic violence sweeping the country in 2008, but this soon evolves into a cross-country road trip with her semi-estranged father, Nico.
He enlists her help to try to prove his innocence of complicity in the death of an ANC cadre who was tortured and murdered by operatives of the apartheid-era CCB (succinctly described by Wikipedia as "a government-sponsored hit squad".)
What is the truth about her father? The novel takes us into murky territory, and its keynote is uncertainty or indeterminacy. Is her father a pathological liar and devious manipulator, or was he a man with some elements of decency who found himself in over his head? What is, or was, he guilty of? Is he just the fall guy?
What are Jo's obligations to him? Should she help him prove his innocence - or should she turn him over to the police?
Whatever he may have done, he is also Jo's father - and "the only family (she) has left". (Her mother died when she was 12.)
Much of the novel consists of a verbal sparring match between Jo and her father as she (vainly) tries to establish the truth. Is she simply "indulging his bullshit"?
Does she become his accomplice, or even his hostage? "You have no idea who I am," she tells her father at one point, but this comment could just as easily have come from him.
And what should you make of the shadowy Gideon van Vuuren, the "star player" for the notorious Koevoet, whom we never actually meet? He seems to be the "Prime Evil" in this scenario, inspiring fear in former colleagues - and he is possibly responsible for the car crash that killed Jo's mother, and for the crash that nearly kills Jo, and that results in the disappearance of her father (he exits about two-thirds of the way through the narrative). But does Gideon even exist, or is he a figment of Nico's imagination?
To further complicate the situation, we have Paul Silongo, son of the murdered man, with whom Jo (rather improbably?) develops a relationship.
He is a rising star in the ANC in Gauteng, and seems plausible and likeable. But how much does he know - and is he in turn using or manipulating Jo?
It is just plausible that he might meet her at the airport - she had spoken to him on the phone, and arranged to interview him in South Africa, but would he go to so much trouble on her behalf? Is he flirting with her, or is he stalking her (and using her to get to her father)? As with so much else in the novel, the reader can't be sure - but Paul does seem a whole lot nicer than her father.
The meticulously detailed descriptions anchor the novel in reality, and reinforce the impression that Jo often feels like a stranger in what is (or was) her own country.
However, a novel can stand only so much indeterminacy and uncertainty: one expects some degree of clarity to emerge, even when one is dealing with events back in the Eighties that were never fully uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and with people who would never willingly appear before the TRC.

An extra dimension is added by the fact that these events play out against the backdrop of the xenophobic violence that swept the country in 2008 - and that put paid to any lingering notion of a "rainbow nation".
Like the more premeditated violence of the Eighties, this recent wave of violence raises questions of guilt and accountability, and further illustrates the helplessness of the narrator, Jo, who has come out to South Africa to cover these events for an online magazine.
The narrative is unsparing in its presentation of some of the horrifying details, but partial closure is provided at the end of the novel when Jo, Paul and Paul's sister Lindiwe gather around the grave of a man who was a victim of the xenophobic violence.
They are united by grief for their dead parents (Paul's father, Jo's mother) and by their grief for this victim of the violence, whom they did not know personally. Since they do not have a grave to remember Paul's father by, this becomes a symbolic substitute.
This muted conclusion avoids grand gestures or dramatic epiphanies, and leaves the reader grappling with the uncertainties posed by the present dispensation. Clearly, post-1994, innocence is no longer an option. The "new" South Africa bears some resemblance to the "old" South Africa, and issues of guilt and accountability are ever-present.
At the centre of these dilemmas and confusions is our well-meaning, ineffectual and fundamentally decent protagonist, Jo, who attempts with only limited success to unravel the tangled web that seems to have her struggling at its centre.
She has unresolved issues of her own to deal with: the death of her mother (in what seems to have been a car accident), and the question of her relationship with the country that she left 10 years previously. Where does she belong?
The reader cannot help but share her frustration at knowing so little. At one point she exclaims to her father: "You can't expect me to drive around with you forever, never knowing where we are going or why?"
Her patience is put to the test (as is the reader's). But then, as we are reminded by a passing comment at one point, this is not a Dick Francis-type novel, with its "comforting formula", its "flawed-but-ultimately-good hero" and its reassuring plot where the "baddies" are defeated at the end.
It all makes for a disturbing, frustrating, but compelling novel, one that is (yet again?) mediated via a privileged white protagonist. Appropriately, the cover shows a car travelling along a dirt road in the middle of a flat, featureless landscape, and throwing up a cloud of dust in its wake. - published September 8, 2013. 

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