Book Review: Rian Malan’s ‘My Traitor’s Heart’

My Traitor’s Heart lays bare the anxiety and fear created by ‘otherness.’ Malan wrestles with the primitive instinct that categorises people into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ He finds himself, defined by his race, ethnicity and name, on the wrong side in the fight against oppression and injustice, yet unable to shake off his given identity in order to change sides.

The book covers an extremely turbulent period in South Africa’s history, a time when the country seemed destined for civil war and revolution. The scale of violence, and the accumulated damage of hundreds of years of institutionalised racism, appeared to preclude the prospect of peaceful transition to majority rule.

In this context, Malan delves into his prejudices and fears, with candour and blunt honesty. He examines conflicts within his soul that are likely to be shared by many, but admitted by few. He aspires to be on the side of right and justice, “a Just White Man, appalled by apartheid and the cruelties committed in its name.” But a secret, shameful part of him is scared of being the victim of black anger, scared that his white skin will define him as the enemy, scared that the schism between the Afrikaner and the African is too deep and ancient to reconcile. His paradox is how to step behind the barricades, when in doing so he risks making himself the target of those he wishes to fight alongside. The “disease of the soul” tells him to shut his eyes to injustice and bind himself to his tribe, because the colour of his skin defines as the enemy of black South Africans, no matter how noble and good his intentions might be.

Malan’s Tales of ordinary murder strip away any attempt to develop simplistic characterisations of right and wrong, heroes and martyrs. They’re harrowing and gruesome, and eat away at one’s sense of hope. But they amply demonstrate the twisted reality of apartheid South Africa, the layers of horror and hatred, and the extent to which people will resort to violence when other options have been stripped from them.

Malan finds redemption amidst the horror, in Neil and Creina Alcock, a white couple who have turned their back on privilege and possessions, and “really live in Africa.” They demonstrate the fundamental importance of trust, as the only alternative to suspicion and fear. The Alcock’s story persuades Malan that the disease of his soul can be transcended, and that South Africans can learn to trust one another despite the brutality of their history.

My Traitor’s Heart was written in a very specific time and place. Twenty years have passed, but the relevance and impact of the book are undiminished. The temptation to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is universal, particularly when there is advantage to be had in doing so. My Traitor’s Heart delves into the human psyche, acknowledges the disconnect between the ideal and the actual self, and challenges each of us to transcend our suspicion and fear, in pursuit of trust and hope.

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Book Review: Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country’

Cry the Beloved Country uses the simple story of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, and tragic events that unfold around him, to illustrate the pain and suffering of South Africa’s racially divided society. Set in 1946, two years before apartheid became official government policy, the novel explores the very different ways in which white and black South Africans live in the ‘beloved country,’ and how they perceive and relate to one another.

The main narrative is interspersed with contextual vignettes. There are conversations are between white people, worrying over native crime, or the unenforceability of pass laws, or how to divert black domestic workers away from local parks. Some speakers are concerned and sympathetic, others unyielding and cold. All throw their hands up and pronounce the problems unsolvable. There are reflections from black people, some living 10 to a room with nowhere else to go, some erecting shacks from scrap metal and cardboard boxes, knowing that they’ll be washed away when the rains come. There are stirring political speeches by black activists, and mutterings among white policemen in response. There are the writings of Arthur Jarvis, the murder victim of the main narrative, who ponders what it can possibly mean to be a South African, when South Africans of different colours experience such vastly different realities.

This context, interspersed through the narrative like a series of overheard conversations, elevates the novel from a family tragedy set in a particular time and place, to a beautifully crafted commentary on the futility of racial discrimination as a means to protect privilege. Paton poignantly describes the poverty, despair and anger of the black population, while simultaneously showing the vacuity of white privilege, dependent as it in on high walls, fierce dogs, and denial of a common humanity.

The narrative describes the Reverend Kumalo’s realisation that for the new generation of black South Africans, the tribal system is broken beyond repair. They have been forced out of the rural areas and into the cities, and they will never return. They are beginning to take a stand against oppression, albeit tentatively, in the face of quick and brutal retribution. Revolution is brewing, and the whole country will suffer.

Arthur’s father, James, experiences a similar journey of dawning awareness. He has lived a privileged life on his hilltop farm. He has never known or cared about the people living in poverty and suffering in the neighbouring township. It is only after Arthur’s death that he learns of his son’s efforts to challenge the status quo, his insistence that all should be treated equally. This, together with his chance encounter with Kumalo, chips away at his comfortable apathy, and persuades him to do what he can to assist the people of Ndotsheni, rather than ignoring them as he has always done before.

In interviews following publication of the book, Paton noted that his primary intended audience was white South Africans. The book is a heartfelt message to shake off apathy and recognise that one group cannot prosper on the back of another’s suffering, except under conditions of perpetual fear and violence and the destruction of hope and beauty. It is also a promise for mercy, forgiveness and redemption, for those brave enough to walk a different path.

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Book Review: Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’

Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair takes its reader to a parallel universe. Shadowy special operatives do battle against sinister supernatural forces, the all-powerful Goliath Corporation controls the levers of power, England and Russia have been waging a war in the Crimea for 131 years, Wales is a Socialist Republic lurking darkly behind an almost impenetrable border, and regenerated dodos make affectionate and intelligent household pets. The ChronoGuard, a highly specialised Special Operative group, zips back and forth through time, tweaking events in the distant past and future, and dealing with occasional rents in the fabric of the universe. Life is entirely unpredictable.

Everyone is fiercely passionate about literature and art. Questions about the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays are hotly debated in hallways and pubs. John Milton conventions attract hundreds of identically dressed devotees. Raphaelites and Surrealists fight out their differences in violent bar brawls.

In this bizarre but very familiar world, we find ourselves in the 1980s, following the adventures of Thursday Next. She’s a veteran of the Crimea, the daughter of a rogue ChronoGuard agent, a respected literary detective and courageous defender of the written word. She’s also a little a little bit reckless, doesn’t think before acting, and has been dreadfully unlucky in love. All of which makes her a wonderful, believable and vulnerable heroine.

Her nemesis is doing his best to prevent her surviving to the end of the book. He is Acheron Hades, an innately evil, monstrous man, made all the more dangerous by his supernatural edge. He cuts a swathe of murder and mayhem through the storyline, although always in a detached and professional style – the reader is spared any gory detail or emotional distress.

A masterfully paced plot immerses us in mystery and suspense, against a fantastical, satirical background where anything can happen. There’s a little bit of everything – lots of comedy, wild car chases, ironic backstories, and dramatic shoot outs merge seamlessly with clever literary references, and thoughtful musings on the pointlessness of war.

The idea of jumping into one’s favourite novel and observing the characters first hand is fabulously appealing. The Eyre Affair will enthral anyone who loves books, and might just tempt you to read (or at least watch) Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece too.

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Book Review: Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’

Tom Jones was published over 250 years ago, in 1749, but remains as fresh, lively and provocative as if it had just been written. It’s a novel that mocks and satirises its own time. Rigid social hierarchies and high class manners are poked, prodded and parodied for their hypocrisy and ridiculousness. High society matrons insist on proper observation of pomp and ceremony, while swanning around town having scandalous affairs, using their wealth and social standing to lift up or tear down the lives and reputations of others, on a whim. Women are marvellously liberated, at least in thought and spirit, although not in terms of actual control over their fates. Sophia, Harriet Fitzpatrick, Mrs Waters, Nancy Miller and Harriet Nightingale follow their hearts, indulge their passions, and, with the notable exception of Sophia, indulge in sex outside marriage, and things turn out fairly well for all of them.

The prudishness of the Victorian era is yet to take hold (Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837), and ‘loose’ behaviours are very much in evidence. Jones is the worst offender, tumbling about with Molly and Mrs Waters, and engaging in rather vaguely defined love making with Lady Bellaston, while his heart all the while is dedicated to Sophia (there is never any conflict of interest, Jones draws a very convenient line between love and sex). Mrs Waters is undeniably a rather wanton sort, although she blames circumstances. The Fitzpatricks are both engaged in passionate affairs outside their marriages. And all of the supposedly virtuous aunts, Bellaston, Western and Allworthy, have taken handsome younger men to their beds.

These shenanigans are closely observed and loudly expounded upon by the colourful array of servants and tradesmen who gossip around the kitchen fire, and in their mistresses’ ears. They spill secrets, conjure up outrageous fabrications, connive, backstab and plot. They provide continuous comic relief, and a great deal of frustration, stoking misunderstandings and laying false trails.

Our heroes, Thomas Jones and Sophia Western, are quite simply the most beautiful, warm hearted, kindest, bravest and passionate young pair to grace the pages of fiction. Tom is admittedly a rather more inconstant lover than most women would wish for, but his immense charm allows us, and Sophia, to forgive all.

Other personalities are cleverly encapsulated in character names. Mr Allworthy is the epitomy of kindness, justice, forgiveness, and fairness (although he’s also rather prone to being misled by those less inclined to honesty than himself). There’s Mrs Honour, Sophia’s tongue-waging, inconstant maid, Mr Square, the self-righteous, pontificating philosopher, and Mr Thwackum, the heavy handed and deeply unjust schoolmaster. And then there is Blifil, an awful, spitting sort of a word, a name shared by two truly odious characters. Thankfully Blifil senior’s appearance is limited to a comic sketch of his detestableness, before he is dispatched from life and the novel. Blifil junior, in contrast, is a slimy little creature that lurks throughout the story. But all his spite and self-promotion are unravelled in the end, and he gets his come-uppance.

Don’t be put off by the enormous size of this book – it’s a page turner. Admittedly, the narrative is prone to going off in multiple directions, and there are dozens of characters flitting through its pages. All plot lines do however lead back to Tom and Sophia, most characters reappear with another key piece of the puzzle, and everything fits into place in the end. Like a soap opera that hooks you in night after night, flitting from one scene to the next but never slackening pace, Tom Jones will keep you guessing, grinning, and hoping for that fabled happy ending!

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