Apartheid’s end, in black and white

Brent Meersman discusses his new novel's exploration of the transition years


Five Lives at Noon clearly follows on the story started in Reports Before Daybreak. They are both ambitious works, involving numerous characters, a 30-year time frame, reportage around actual events including potted biographies of real people, among them Chris Hani, Verwoerd and the Oppenheimers. Could this be seen as an attempt to write “the great South African novel”?

I hope not! That would be a serious misreading. If anything, I wanted to write a chronicle of my generation – the South Africans who came of age in the decade of 1980s. I wanted to break this terrible apartheid in our fiction, because it is still very prevalent. There are soldier memoirs, bourgeois novellas, struggle novels and so forth but the stories never meet. As one of my characters observes: the problem with South Africa is that we do not make the effort to find out each other’s stories. So Reports attracted a readership who wanted Frans’s border war SADF story, but they also had to read Mfundi’s MK story. Not many had ever read what happened on the other side.

Why did you choose such a broad canvas?

I’m prepared to fail. I think we seriously lack ambition in our literature, ambition and stamina. We’re awash with tiny books and one-book authors. Whatever their flaws, and there are problems with my project and its scale, at least I can say its crammed with fascinating details of our history.

How do you link the narratives when you have such disparate characters?

Through Alicia, the domestic servant. I always felt there was this invisible weave through the fabric of our society. Alicia — who raises the rich white kid, but also cleans for a family of poor whites, who moves in and out of their homes, and then of course has her own family and their battles. She connects everyone. In Five Lives I explore this invisibility of black women further.

Some critics, and even some writers, argue that white writers should not write black characters. How do you respond to such criticism?

Of course it is hugely problematic – politically, not artistically! But the only job a writer has is to convince the reader. I used to be very vexed about the whole issue, but I didn’t feel I had a choice. It is a huge risk. Fortunately, readers who are black – and you can also read the praise from critics who are black –have been very generous to me. It was a huge relief. A few told me they even bought the book as gifts for all their white friends to help them understand the views of the majority!

I was over the moon when MK veterans said the character and details rang true and they were really curious about how I managed that – and their eyes narrowed. Some have also said they had to work hard to convince other black friends to read the book. As a white writer one is treated with suspicion, and with justification, I think. But I reckon there is something else at work here that is even more important – the act of trying to imagine the Other. It’s that act of trying to understand, of putting yourself in another’s shoes, in the shoes of young woman growing up in a shanty town. We need to do that as a people.

It’s become fashionable to say the novel as a literary form is dead — that it reached its apex in the 19th century and then imploded in the postmodernism of the 20th century. Are you somehow trying to reinvent the form?

The novel is an inherently experimental form, and it is always changing. But I agree, it is facing major challenges right now. We have direct access to incredible voices from all over the world in an unprecedented way – YouTube, podcasts, social media. How does a novelist, whose job it is to make things up, compete? I think the biggest casualty is the classic omnipresent narrator. They just don’t convince a reader anymore. Point of view is first person, or first person by sleight of hand today. The novel is now for me more about style, doing things that can only be done in language, and about finding new forms, about shaping and making sense out of the fabric of real life, rather than the raw footage.

You employ a number of unusual devices in the books, for instance the inclusion of biographies of actual people. Can you say something about this?

A reader told me this story: she was chatting with friends about something that had happened, and then she said, “Oh my God, I know someone who that happened to…”, only to realise that she was actually thinking of a character in Reports. That was the subliminal effect I had hoped for.

With the five main characters I’m really writing the biographies of five imagined people. So by interspersing it with the potted biographies of actual people, I’m making the fictional ones feel more real. And by placing the biographies of real people in the context of a novel and writing them in a sort of New Journalism style, I’m trying to make the non-fiction more vividly imagined.

The worldwide trend in historical research is that of narrative histories that give us an insight into the complexities of historical events on the ground, not the master narrative. The TRC was a good example of this in action. We have all these life stories, some with internal access, some historical, together helping us imagine.

What about the headlines that begin each chapter? Are they real?

Yes, I spent weeks in the archives going through the newspapers on microfiche, looking at every edition, day by day. For Reports I drew mostly on the Cape Times, The Star and the Argus; for Five Lives I also looked at the Weekly Mail, the Mail & Guardian, and The Sowetan.

The headlines provide a lot of background on what is happening around the characters, for instance on the Angolan war, the internecine fighting in Crossroads, and the civil war in KZN. It saves a lot of context setting that would bog down the narrative. Additionally, the tension between reporting and creating is a central theme in my writing. The headlines are within the chapter year but are not in chronological order of that year – instead they work by association of a word or a thought leading from one to the next, so “Stock market soars” leads to “Miners plunge to their deaths” or “Arts festival seems to have shaken free of its snow-white image” is followed by “Now-banned skin-lightening cosmetics to be exported”. By shaping reality, we obtain new meaning.

And what about the various short monologues, like Mama or Miner?

These are the eyewitness reports, a chorus of individual South Africans who bear witness to what happened: a farm worker, a suspected spy detained in an ANC camp, a migrant labourer, a hangman, a news photographer and so on. They all echo aspects of the characters.

Is a new form of novel required because of this blurring of fact and fiction, fantasy and real life, in the digital age?

We all live now in this blurry world of fact and fiction. More than ever we make collages which we then use to curate ourselves on social media for instance. Truth is not the only justification for doing things, though I have taken great pains to be accurate and so far I haven’t been exposed as having made material errors.

Many readers say they are tired of revisiting the past, of yet another apartheid narrative. How do you respond?

I’m not going to say to someone you really ought to read this or that. What I can say is I hear things in conversation almost every day, and think quietly to myself, well if you had read a bit you wouldn’t be asking that.

Five Lives is the first novel of which I am aware that starts to unravel the complexity of what really happened during the conflict in Natal, and the scars it left on the nation that have not yet healed. It was so much more complicated than ANC versus IFP. And the story hasn’t been told.

Are these two novels pessimistic or optimistic?

Both seem to end on high notes – Nelson Mandela’s release and the first democratic election. But they are ambiguous. The closing image in Five Lives is of a black character steering his ballot into the box with prosthetic hooks that have replaced his hands blown off in the struggle, and as he does it he is wracked by phantom pains. I’m picking away at the cracks that were papered over during the transition. South Africans have on more than one occasion witnessed how suddenly and violently the country can divide. The past is with us whether we like it or not, and it is best to know something about it if we hope to understand one another.

Five Lives at Noon is distributed by Xavier Nagel Agencies and available at local bookstores. Reports Before Daybreak is published by Umuzi, R230.

NICHOLAS ASHBY is the author of Time Pips (Umuzi, 2007).

Photograph: Stefan Hurter



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