Titel: The Cambridge History of South African Literature
Edited by: David Attwell and Derek Attridge
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
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A team of 43 authors, mostly experts on South African literature, worked together with the two editors, David Attwell and Derek Attridge, both from York University's English department, in producing the 39 essays comprising this book. With most of the contributors (26 in all), as well as the two editors, being experts in English South African literature, the focus of this work is overwhelmingly determined by a chronology and perspective which is conditioned by their discipline and their field. Thus after Part I (dealing with orality and origins), Part II covers the period 1488–1820, clearly ending with the arrival of the British settlers, and Part III then continues with "Empire" and so forth between 1820 and 1910. African orality and literature is described in the essays of nine contributors, and four Afrikaans literary experts wrote single-authored essays, while one contributed as co-author on autobiographical writing. With the "startling emergence of English as the world's [and South Africa's – HvV] principal medium of linguistic exchange" (Greenblatt 2001:52) this division of labour is probably inevitable. One may only dream of an ideal literary history where major writers in each of the official languages, as well as their oral traditions, are represented equally.
The end result is this team’s attempt at a complete literary history of South African literature, covering the literature of all the official languages, with attention to the oral traditions of the /Xam San as well as many of the African languages. Coming almost two decades after Michael Chapman's courageous one-man literary history of Southern African literatures in 1996, this is a book that will be of interest to general readers and experts alike, both locally and internationally.
The editors wisely pre-empt any nitpicking by reviewers in declaring that "it is not possible to be absolutely even-handed or completely representative in covering so extensive a field", but that they strove to produce the "most fully representative collection of historical scholarship on the country's extensive production yet to have been published" (11-12).
The division of the book is into six main sections, with Part V, entitled "Apartheid and its aftermath, 1948 to the present" perhaps inevitably comprising a third of the book, in chapters mostly relating their material (for example "The lyric poem during and after apartheid" and "Writing the city after apartheid") to the apartheid system. This strong socio-political stance works against the historical and chronological profiling of central authors and seminal works in any of the literatures. The editors chose, instead, for a comparative, thematic approach, with chapters such as "Writing in prison", "Confession and autobiography" and "The book in South Africa".
The comparative, thematic approach works well only up to a point. Reading the book as an expert in Afrikaans literature, and invited by the editor of LitNet to comment specifically on this aspect of the literary history, I find several aspects of the publication standing out. The first is the matter of cross-indexing of authors and works which appear in different chapters by different contributors, often one English and one Afrikaans expert.
Imagine a fictional Professor Yo Ming from China who has heard of Afrikaans literature through his study of Dutch during a summer course, long ago in The Netherlands. He buys a copy of the book for their library in Beijing and tries to ferret out the main Afrikaans writers and their important works. After reading this volume he would have established that there is a poet called NP Van Wyk Louw, and another writer called Deon Opperman (whose initials are sometimes given as DJ Opperman, but in the index is present only under "Deon Opperman", and who miraculously managed to continue writing from his debut as a poet in 1947 (p 314) until 1996 (when he published a drama called Donkerland). When Prof Ming googles DJ Opperman, he discovers that Heilige beeste was published in 1945. Now he becomes confused.
Then he reads "Writing the prison". He learns that Breyten Breytenbach wrote "a series of poetry anthologies in Afrikaans after his release from prison" (Roux 2012:553; my emphasis). He wonders. Would one really want to waste one's freedom after many years in prison on writing several volumes of poetry about jail life – especially as one had apparently already "penned" a prison memoir "while in exile in France", as well as some "semi-fictional autobiographical sketches (...) Mouroir"? Then he reads elsewhere that "Breytenbach was himself a political prisoner from 1975 until the end of 1982, during which time he wrote five volumes of prison poetry", and that one volume was published during his jail term, and four afterwards (456). Shaking his head in wonderment, he reads on. According to the contributor of "Writing in prison", Breytenbach's books were "never banned" (793). But then, in an excellent essay on "The book in Africa" by Peter McDonald, which deals, among others, with censorship under apartheid, he reads that Breytenbach's Skryt (1972) was banned in 1975 ... How to establish the facts? He perseveres with his reading, the habit of long years of study, cloistered away in his cell-like room.
He discovers a novel mentioned repeatedly: Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena [The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena] (1978) by Elsa Joubert. One contributor calls it a "non-fictional narrative in the first person about a black woman's day-to-day experience of the apartheid system (...) whose name was changed to protect her identity" (2012:455). Yet another calls the text "'collaborative auto/biography" (766) and talks of the "scandal of the text, for it is in the exploitative labour relation between 'madam and maid' that the category of 'women' has come under the greatest strain" (767). Again he googles for clarity. The title brings up a list of "Africa's 100 best books of the 20th century", chosen in 2002. He puts it on his list of "books to read", scandal or no scandal. Similar confusion transpires when he comes across reference to fiction which has incorporated records of the Dutch settlement, at the end of an excellent overview of early South African archives. He reads about Brink's novel An Instant in the Wind, 1976 ['n Oomblik in die wind, 1975] which "uses the archival material as background to a romance (...) and guides the reader to understand the present through the country's history" (2012:152). This goes on to his list of "good books to read". Yet a week later, when he has proceeded to page 455, in a chapter entitled "Afrikaans literature after 1976", he suddenly reads that this novel "is also framed by a narrator who finds (fictionalised) historical documents containing information, which inspires him to 'imagine' the novel we then read" (my emphasis – HvV). Tut-tutting to himself at this conundrum he puts the book aside for the time being and decides to order the two novels on his "good books to read" list and to abort his study of this strange minority literature where no one seems certain of the facts.
Leaving aside the fictional Professor Yo Ming's imagined dilemmas with clashing statements in cross-references and his attempt to establish what the Afrikaans canon could feasibly consist of: The Cambridge History of South African Literature is to be welcomed for its attempt at a synthesising grasp of the literature of what many would categorically state is neither a nation nor an organic literature, consisting as it does of many varied literatures and oral traditions, both extinct and extant. In universities around the country "South African literature" as a discipline has all but died away – as has even an erstwhile Centre for Southern African Languages and Literatures in Durban, with its own journal, Alternation. The literatures are still taught mostly at universities in strictly linguistically organised departments or subgroups as "English", "African languages" and "Afrikaans". These silos keep strictly apart, and their members produce research articles mostly for separate journals, and belong to separate associations. They even write separate local literary histories, such as Perspektief en profiel (three volumes, now being updated, reissued and reworked for 2013). "South African Literature" as a subject thrives only elsewhere – internationally. In South Africa itself comparative studies are few and far between.
Only when prize-winning literary works are translated, first into either English or Dutch, and from there into other languages, do they really manifest on the international horizon, or become “transnational”, in the theoretical jargon of the day. On this topic Leon de Kock has been the most articulate local commentator. His thought-provoking contribution to the present volume, "'A change of tongue': questions of translation" (2012:739-56), utilises the title of Antjie Krog's 2009 autobiography. In her work she discusses “translation as transformation” towards a better understanding of co-citizens in the multilingual and multicultural homeland. Translation in this sense is not only the act of writing, but also a "mode of being", going into "the yard of Africa" (2012:739). De Kock calls this most important aspect of translation "identity or subjectivity translation". Against "writerly translation" stand "transformed and transforming modes of being in the midst of (...) restructured or reinterpellated subjectivity":
It should be fairly obvious, then, that writing out of cultures other than “English”, in Southern Africa, into English (...) involves in its very substrate of content, the (mostly asymmetrical) translations of subjectivity between what one might style (...) English and non-English. (2012:740)
He also sums up the dilemma when he spells out that
what people most often mean when they use the term “South African writing” is actually “South African writing in English”. However, the English stream has accrued arguably the most weight and come to stand in for the other literatures because it carries the greatest burden of “crossing over”, or is the most common and widely read language in the process of South African transitive seaming/seeming. (2012:745; my emphasis)
In this perspective the rest of the literatures in Southern Africa remain either minority literatures, or marginalised literatures, doomed through their localised base. The "master narrative" is that of English South African literature. Left unsaid here is the pivotal role of translation and consequent appropriation in shaping the corpus of English South African literature. This is particularly noticeable in the curricula of English departments around the country, and concretised in the present work, as a search through the index shows, with its strangely haphazard, fragmentary lists of works by the most important Afrikaans authors, such as Opperman, Breytenbach, Krog, Schoeman. Most of Brink's works are listed, presumably because they have been translated and thus subsumed silently into South African English literature. As soon as a particularly literary work of note, such as Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat, draws critical acclaim and is translated into English, it is taken up in similar manner. The idea of calculating a literature's "weight" in De Kock's remark ("the English stream has accrued arguably the most weight") is therefore a precarious one. By whose counting? Based on what norms? Have empirical research studies been done to establish this seemingly subjective weighting? Would Country of my skull or True confessions of an albino terrorist, to name two works by Afrikaans authors, who also happen to write in English, be reckoned as English South African literature? Presumably the answer would be yes. All that this "weighting game" of South African literatures suggests is the seemingly impenetrable linguistic "steel curtain" in place almost two decades after apartheid, in the absence of a shared "South African" literature corpus. The tem non-English within the context of the present inclusive literary history is also unfortunate, carrying as it does connotations of exclusion, not unlike the apartheid term "nie-blanke".
One dimension that is missing specifically for Afrikaans in the present volume is the transnational contact with Dutch. Many Afrikaans authors have established an international audience, firstly via translation into Dutch, and from there into other languages (eg Breyten Breytenbach, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk, Deon Meyer). Also related to this transnational dimension, ignored when one only sees English as the "gateway" into world literature, is the canonised status of Elisabeth Eybers (1915-2007) as poet in the Dutch canon.
But perhaps De Kock's dystopic description for the future of local literatures in a transnational context is to be taken seriously. This is certainly the possibility suggested in another stimulating contribution, by Gerrit Olivier. He ends his chapter with the odd grouping together under the title "The Dertigers and the plaasroman" thus:
At the beginning stands Van Wyk Louw, triumphantly announcing the birth of a new Afrikaans literature. At the end [in Agaat – HvV] we have Van Niekerk questioning the very possibility of writing in Afrikaans, talking about the “pathetic self-overestimation” of the “romantic artist” and “the transcience of his legacy in the constantly diminishing minority language”. The “dialogue” between these two authors provides one strand of fascinating continuity and change in Afrikaans literature. (2012:314)
Few other contributions dare to go this far, but in an increasingly anglicised workplace and everyday world, this dystopic vision of Afrikaans literature is certainly not unthinkable. And "the local has always been irradiated, as it were, by the global", as Stephen Greenblatt reminds us in "Racial memory and literary history" (2001:58):
Literary critics, busily making claims for cultural authenticity, have been far too prone to ignore the overwhelming evidence of cultural métissage, a global circulation, mutual influence, and cross-breeding deriving from the very substance of the objects we study. (2001:59)
He sees the reality as one of nomads (in states of exile, diaspora, emigration, wandering, contamination) rather than natives, and holds up Hollier's A New French History of French Literature as a model of the "negotiation of multiple identities", interrogating the "organic account of the nation and even of smaller units within the nation". His vision of an alternative literary history would be one focusing on “our fatherland as the universe”, concentrating on an entanglement of access and blockage, with the "daring intersection of multiple identities" (2001:61). That "language (...) does not respect borders", as Greenblatt stresses, is clear in many studies of intertextual contact between South African authors across linguistic and cultural divisions.
Literary history has been called the "impossible genre". David Attwell and Derek Attridge have proven that it is not so, and that this genre is constantly evolving into newer forms. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Teamwork has brought us this present thought-provoking work. There is much that is stimulating, and a few contributions that tend to be dreary catalogues. Whatever one's perspective, the present volume is uneven - uneven in quality of writing (inevitable with team work) and uneven in representation of the different literatures and oral traditions. One hiatus might be the “narrative” of rock art, also called "the dream writing on the rocks" (Johan van Wyk, Alternation 1
, 1992) and suggested by Van Coller in the present volume as "part of South African literature" (2012:263). It would be an interesting project to put together teams that are more representative of each of the literatures, have them work yet more closely together (with a strong editorial hand on cross-indexing), and see what result that would bring.