BY LARA BUXBAUM
In Achmat Dangor’s Booker-prize shortlisted Bitter Fruit, Mikey wonders if “history had dwindled away” after 1994, and South African lives “had become ordinary things”. Strange Pilgrimages, Dangor’s latest collection of short stories, explores this premise.
In these nine stories, the protagonists are artists or civil servants coming to terms with the end of the “political miracle” and seeking refuge both in and from the past. There is a tension between those who view the “ordinary” as akin to the mundane, or worse, the banal in which life is shorn of the meaning accorded it by the struggle. The end of this “heady purpose” is mourned, as the protagonists search for re-enchantment. The dilution of the miracle also means South Africans must come to terms with the political normal. As Ronnie bemoans the post-apartheid social ills, his lover replies, “Hey, it happens everywhere.” His response is revealing: “So, why should it happen here?”
For other characters, the prospect of telling everyday stories presents a longed-for release. As the writer, Josh, words it in the opening story: “He had had enough of exaggerated histories and the memories they spawned. There were other stories to be told.” This is reminiscent of Njabulo Ndebele’s argument in the early 1990s that the challenge facing new South African writing is to “rediscover the ordinary” and in this way to transcend the dominant mode of the “spectacular”. Dangor accepts this challenge as he focuses his searching, incisive eye on the “ambiguities of faith”, desire and history, as well as the lasting impact of migrations to and from home. The stories often hinge on intimate betrayals, evoked by the proposition that “history is a sexually transmitted disease.”
In the world of this book, the pilgrimage has been shorn of any religious connotation, promising neither enlightenment nor salvation, but perhaps moments of clarity or comfort. These narratives relate quests undertaken in search of the truth or to fulfil familial obligations such as emptying a marmalade jar of ashes into the ocean. The pilgrimages are often anticlimactic – including travelling to the desolate Canadian wildernesses for no reason, or falling asleep en route to paying homage to the spectral remains of District Six.
On the opening page, Josh muses that what makes “life as a book a worthy possibility” is that it has “an authentic voice of its own”, inviting the reader to evaluate Dangor’s work according to the same criterion. There is no doubt that Dangor’s voice shines through, critical but filled with affection for the “ordinary nation” of South Africa. Reading this collection is an illuminating, sobering and deeply affecting experience.
Strange Pilgrimages avoids the easy tone of cynicism or bitterness, and instead explores with compassion the difficult narratives of ordinary lives during and after apartheid, the search for tenderness and the sacrifice thereof. It is also a celebration, neither maudlin nor mawkish, of the beauty of the ordinary, perhaps epitomised by a conversation overheard between two long-distance truck drivers:
“Just look at that. Twenty years I’ve been driving this route, and it still gets me, every fucken time.”
“You’re talking about the sun? Ja, great hey!”
“What do you mean great? It’s beautiful.”