‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor

Bitter_Fruit_(Dangor_novel)Set in 1998 South Africa, just a few years after the end of apartheid and majority rule came into force, Bitter Fruit is a dense, harrowing drama of a disintegrating middle-class ‘coloured’ family. A chance sighting of former security policeman, Lieutenant Du Boise, stirs bitter memories of 20 years prior that have a devastating impact on the Ali family.

A cynical, embittered Silas Ali, approaching 50, a former ANC activist, now liaises between the Minister of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife, Lydia, ten years younger, is a nurse who, during the course of the novel, establishes her independence by becoming a significant player in the research of HIV transmission. Their highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful but increasingly troubled son, Mikey/Michael, loses his way, drops out of university and becomes involved with Muslim activists.

The marriage between Silas and Lydia is increasingly built on false premise – and the sighting of Du Boise brings it to a head: Lydia’s violent rape at the hands of the security forces, Silas’ inability to acknowledge or address events of that night. But there’s more, so much more, all of which goes unsaid and it is this bitter fruit that becomes so unbearable, open wounds so deep that the two have been in a state of limbo for 20 years.

Rape, incest, murder, alcoholism, divorce – the fruits of apartheid – past and present all feature in Bitter Fruit.

Through a series of incredibly well-drawn characters (the Ali family, Lydia’s extended family, friends and colleagues), we are provided with a powerful insight into the new South Africa and the “grey, shadowy morality” of an ANC government “bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise”. And the political, cultural and religious conflicts that inevitably impact.

Yet it is the evolving family drama that remains centre stage throughout Bitter Fruit in spite of the political context – and it is the stronger for it. Mikey/Michael is a child of the new South Africa and he reflects on the failings of his parents’ generation. Silas has to come to terms with the new order – a place where elevated involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle has been replaced by a sense of ordinariness. And Lydia must face her past in order to move forward.

But in the same way family friend Julian accepts his wife Val leaving him and embraces his homosexuality (no bitter fruit there), the Alis need to look to change as Mandela looks to hand over the responsibility of power – in with the new, out with the old. Silas is soon likely to be out of a job – as are his colleagues Kate and Alec. Mikey/Michael leaves behind the sexual conquests of older, white women and looks to finding a personal resolution at the Griffith Street Mosque and the Sufis.

Bitter Fruit is a challenging read. But it is also an incredibly rewarding one. Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink etc have provided the voices of white South African dissension, but Dangor’s novel helps provide a different perspective. The characters in Bitter Fruit ensure no one singular voice is presented, that a multifaceted account is provided, reflecting a modern day South Africa.

And, growing up in one of the ‘coloured’ townships of Johannesburg, witnessing first hand the violence, despair and injustice of an apartheid state before rising, via ANC activism, to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor’s voice can be assumed to be genuine and authentic.

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize but lost out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

in-a-strange-roomSince starting on my personal determination to read all winning and shortlisted books of both the Man Booker and Miles Franklin awards, new names (to me) are constantly popping up. South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut is just such a writer.

In a Strange Room is Galgut’s seventh book and was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize – yet he is no stranger to awards. His earlier The Good Doctor (2003) also found itself on the Booker shortlist and picked up the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa).

A relatively short novel (around 180 pages), In a Strange Room is a startlingly beautiful yet melancholic book, a haunting evocation of place and time. Divided into three journeys, there is a restlessness and sense of placelessness that pervades as the protagonist, Damon, leaves South Africa to journey through Greece, Lesotho, India. He seemingly belongs nowhere, living temporarily in Cape Town or Pretoria when ‘home’ yet constantly on the move when away from his country of birth – “never going towards something, but always away, away.”

Homoerotic undertones underscore the first two of Damon’s journeys – firstly with the beautiful German, Rainer, and later with the Swiss youth, Jerome. But the relationships are never consummated in spite of reciprocal intimations, as “one is too scared and the other too proud.” Yet the attraction remains, driving Damon, in the case of Jerome, to join him and his travelling companions across Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya) and, later, to travel to Switzerland itself.

All three journeys end, in their own way, in tragedy, with the third and final story, The Guardian, harrowing for Damon as he cares for the psychotic Anna whilst dealing with life-sapping Indian bureaucracy. It’s claustrophobic and insular (unlike the previous journeys and their distant horizons) with the internal landscapes of doubt, failure and self-worth explored in elegant, minimalist language.

Part travelogue, part memoire (based, apparently, on true events), part novel, In a Strange Room is something of a hybrid. Written mainly in the third person but occasionally switching to first person singular adds to the unsettling otherness and ambiguity of the book. Such a technique also enhances the validity of observation, providing an objective perspective on events as well as opinions.

Only at the end do we get a sense of any permanence for Damon, although experience has shown that this may be temporary.

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there … In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.