Going South

Lonely South Africans abroad and at home

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Going South

In 1965, at the age of 15, my father—along with his parents and two brothers—emigrated from a racist South Africa. His relationship with that nation, over the 42 years since, has been a complicated one. For a decade, he traveled with a South African passport and the racist complicity it advertised. Today, in the U.S., his birthplace is only present in the vague British-ness of his accent, and even that has softened over the years.

In the sunny southern California of my youth, there were always South Africans around. Most were well-adjusted and well-educated—whites who had chosen to leave, who had emigrated either as a statement of political opposition or in order to provide greater, safer opportunities for their children.

As easy as it may have been for my father and his co-nationals to separate themselves, physically, from the country of their birth (privileged by race as they were), identity and culture are more difficult to leave behind. It was in the works of writers like J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer that my father sought to understand his birth country; it was where he looked to try to process his own relationship to that country’s political racism.

Since the 1994 dismantling of the apartheid system, it’s estimated that close to one million more South Africans have emigrated from the country. It’s not surprising, then, that emigrant and immigrant experiences have grown more central to the late-career offerings of these two preeminent South African writers.

Coetzee’s last three novels—including his most recent, Diary of a Bad Year—have taken place in Australia, where the author now lives; in the last two, the experiences of expatriate South Africans are the main focus. Gordimer, who continues to live in South Africa, centered her 2001 novel The Pickup on the emigration of a South African native to the Middle East. And much of her recent collection of short ?ction, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black And Other Stories, deals with the lives of non-native South Africans and South Africans abroad.

For a nation with literature that has gained international recognition for its articulation of life under a racist government regime, such a trend is signi?cant. In the past decades, as major international writers have focused on the legacies of colonialism, South African writers’ unique post-colonial experience has given their voice substantial resonance. Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s dual Nobel Prizes—received in 1991 and 2003, respectively—speak to this fact.

More than a decade after the system of apartheid was dismantled and the ?rst democratic election counted the votes of all races, Coetzee and Gordimer are still writing with distinctive mastery about the complications of a morality suffused with a particularly ugly post-colonial past. Their most recent works do not abandon this pursuit, and while the two new books are neither writer’s greatest, each re?ects the evolving variety of the South African experience.

In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee tells the story of an aging South African novelist (“Señor C”—clearly a stand-in for Coetzee) who is living in Australia, writing a commissioned book of political opinions for a German audience and lusting after his young Filipina typist. The tale is told in three sections—each ?lls a third of every page: the top reproduces the political text, Strong Opinions. The middle is a ?rst-person account as narrated by C. The bottom is written in the voice of Anya, the typist, who lives with her sometimes hostile, sometimes jealous boyfriend in the same building as the author.

Initially distracting, the shifting between three voices—and two genres—is deftly handled by Coetzee. Likewise, the subtle resonances between the political opinions, which mostly criticize political hypocrisy (much ink is spilled about the U.S.-led War on Iraq), and the simple story of an old man’s con?icted sexuality, are surprisingly moving. By the end of the book, there is a palpable feeling that both C and Anya have grown and changed—which is especially gratifying in contrast to the bleak nature of the political writings.

Much of Diary’s poignancy comes from its positioning of C as a displaced person—by the idealism of his politics, by his age and by his immigrant status. Ultimately, when he criticizes the West for accepting intrusive government actions “in the name of terror” by remarking that they mirror those perpetrated in the name of South Africa’s apartheid system, he isn’t recognized for his wisdom; instead he’s told he should “go back to where he came from.” Luckily, Anya’s judgment of him is less severe.

In Gordimer’s Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, the focus is also on narratives of displacement—from loved ones, homelands and ancestries. In the title story, a middle-aged white professor, once an active anti-apartheid protester, contemplates the marginality of his role in the New South Africa, while recounting the morally dubious experiences of his grandfather, who came to South Africa from Europe to seek his fortune.

This story, like most in the collection, is told in Gordimer’s trademark clipped prose; her use of repetition and fragmentation is stunning as an impressionistic gesture, capturing the scattered nature of our most anxious thoughts: “Dubious. What kind of claim do you need? The standard of privilege changes with each regime. Isn’t it a try at privilege. Yes? One up towards the ruling class whatever it might be. One-sixteenth.”

In the best of her terse, economical stories, Gordimer places foreigners in South Africa and South Africans outside of their homeland in order to tease out, through the shock of the unfamiliar, what it means to have a South African identity today.
In “Allesverloren,” a South African widow travels to London to follow the trail of her once-displaced husband. In “Mother Tongue,” a South African living in Germany meets and falls for a woman only to bring her home to the confusion of “his Africa.” In “Alternative Endings: The Second Sense,” two Hungarian immigrants fail each other as lovers when they’re offered divergent paths in a chaotic modern South Africa.

Taken together, Coetzee and Gordimer’s newest books are a strong testament to their writers’ universal importance: Even beyond direct examinations of South Africa’s famous crimes, their exploration of the South African experience is vital. For both, life as a South African is only as complex as love and longing—at home or abroad—which means it is endlessly, but not hopelessly, complex.