Absolution by Patrick Flanery is one of this year's Waterstones 11, and my first new release read of 2012. I've managed to last three months reading from the TBR alone, but when Flanery's debut popped through my door on the same day that I finished Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country it felt like a sign. From a classic of apartheid fiction to a freshly printed look at South Africa post-apartheid (although written in this case by an American from Nebraska). The transition from one to the other was slightly bumpy. Whereas Paton is a lyrical writer, of landscape and raw emotion, Flanery is distinctly formal, his approach very literary and his tone a little chilly. It was as though the South African sun had just gone down on me and left me in a shivery twilight. This is not a problem, just a shock. I should put it another way: Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that made me feel, Absolution is a book that made me think.
It is one of those literary puzzles: spot the symbolism, follow through the thematic thread, watch out for mirroring and parallels, count the number of inter-textual references, guess the theoretical approach. Flanery plays with four voices - from first person, to the third person, to a rather sticky and disconcerting second person - and pace. It goes without saying that none of his narrators can be trusted. Sometimes it's as though he sat down and planned out what students could say about his book in English seminars. No doubt one day they will say it all.
Sam Leroux is a man with no fixed abode, an English professor without tenure; born and raised in South Africa, but lately resident in the US. The opening chapter of Absolution finds him back in Cape Town in the presence of his literary idol, the great South African novelist Clare Wald. Wald has agreed to let him write her authorised biography and, because he studies her work and for other reasons too, Sam is eager to fulfill the commission. But she is ungracious and he is nervous. As they talk , Sam narrating to us the discomfort of their encounter, they circle around each others secrets. Neither trusts the other. It is an unexpectedly negative dynamic between a great writer and her most avid reader. In a later self-narrated chapter Clare muses:
He is my guest and I his hostage. I have invited him into my life because I was curious, because I thought, foolishly, that on my terms meant in my control. But he is always coming from more than one direction. He does not himself know what he thinks of me. I suppose there is a kind of power in that, but I am too exhausted for an exercise of power... He is like a beast that feigns vulnerability to put its prey at ease.
Sam's power over Clare is not unlike the power of the reader over her texts. (Barthes: check!) As the novel unfolds it emerges that Sam and Clare are more closely connected than the average author and reader. Clare's daughter Laura, who was involved in the militant anti-apartheid movement and who may or may not be dead, was a significant figure in Sam's childhood. His own parents were killed while plotting a bomb attack on a police station, and Laura saved him from a terrifying and chaotic childhood with his abusive Uncle Bernard. Both he and Clare are desperate to learn what happened to Laura. Both have their speculations: one of the other narrative threads is a long letter that Clare writes to Laura's ghost, fictionalising what happened to her before she disappeared; another is Sam's boyish perspective on the last days he spent with her in the late 1980s. Their stories converge and diverge and converge again. Laura never speaks for herself.
There are so many angles on Laura's story: she died, she lived; she was for or against apartheid; she cared for Sam or abandoned him; she was a hero or a murderer. Neither Sam nor Clare is an impartial witness on her life. Sam was just a child when he knew Laura, and his memory of events, places and people from that time are fuzzy, blurred by distance, trauma and (probably) some conscious forgetting. There are several hints that Clare is not only addled by guilt and regret, but also suffering from the earliest stages of dementia. Add to that the general atmosphere of paranoia and fear in the book, and what you have is a maelstrom of possible narratives, outcomes, histories, all of them more or less true and false.
It's very fitting that there should be no clarity in the matter. Flanery's South Africa is a place where it is impossible to parse out the rights and wrongs of the past without stumbling into the great gaping abyss between black and white. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is name-checked many times in the novel, it's job having been to air the grief and trauma of apartheid human rights violations and to help the country come to terms with its past. Clare has looked for her daughter's name in the record. It appears in many forms, further destabilising her identity: 'Lara, Lora, Laure, even Laurie, only sometimes Laura. Welt, Wal, Wereld, World, and finally in the last one I read, Wald, and sometimes, even in that one, Waldt and Weldt. Often your name is not there at all...' Just as the TRC never gets to the bottom of Laura's fate for Clare's sake, so it doesn't get to the bottom of the South Africa's bigger tragedies. Sam is faced with the reality of returning home to a country in which affluent families (predominantly white) live in gated communities, protected by multiple gates and electrified barb wire with panic buttons in every room and even on the inside of cupboards, just in case they find themselves backed into a burrow like a rabbit.
Both he and Clare experience a 'house invasion' during the course of the novel, a crime that seems unique to South Africa, combining the threat of burglary, rape and murder all in one terrifying package. Flanery's novel does well to show the psychological impact of this high security (and high segregation) society, while also showing how Sam and Clare struggle to uphold their ideals and to live open lives. Sam gives money to black South Africans in the street, and to beggars in cafes; he feels sympathy for the car parking attendant and gives him a large tip. Clare pays for her maid's dental care, and her gardener's son to go to school. But neither trusts a stranger, nor even an employee of many years, if they are black. Sam is visited by a black student of his aunt's after her death. He keeps the man standing on the step, with the burglar bars still across, although the man has only brought a condolence card and kind wishes:
Sam wondered why this kind of exchange, which should have been so natural and appropriate, was something he could not bring himself to do properly. If the man had been white he would not have thought twice about letting him in. He could not think of himself as a racist, he was sure he was not, but one had to be careful. Everyone must understand that one had to be careful.
Absolution is about an impossible act of forgiveness for this kind of 'being careful', this seemingly inevitable slippage into racial stereotypes. Sam and Clare have their guilt about Laura and what she did and what they did to her, but this is just a tiny thing compared to the nauseating and overwhelming national guilt felt by every character in the novel. It is the guilt of people who were made complicit in the oppression and grinding down of their fellow human beings simply by virtue of having been born white in South Africa. The problem they are left with in the aftermath is one of belonging: is it enough to have been born in a country to belong to it? What does it mean to live in a country where you have to live in constant fear of your life? How do you overcome the barriers of racial hatred and stereotype when an 'open life' is so dangerous? Sam's friend Greg has experienced two house invasions in an 'open' community before retreating to a gated village patrolled 24 hours a day:
One day while he was at work an intruder beat his five dogs to death. 'You can almost get over that. At least I wasn't there,' he says. 'But when you face the man who wants to take everything from you because he doesn't have anything himself, and sees us whiteys living like pharoahs. I don't know how to get over that... I locked myself in the study. I cried in there, thinking I might die... I was too terrified to confront him. What does that say about me? I think maybe it says we shouldn't live here any more. We don't belong here now. But I can't imagine living anywhere else.
For this alone I found Absolution very provoking, although there is much more going on that I can't mention for fear of spoilers. I can't help thinking how sad Alan Paton would be to see the reality of the post-apartheid world.
Just one thing about Absolution - it has a completely white perspective. This is limiting, purposefully so I guess, but limiting nevertheless. I'm keen to read more South African fiction to round this out, and have picked up Andre Brink's A Dry White Season as my next TBR read. I really am on a South Africa kick, as I'm also reading Zoo City by Lauren Beukes right now. Do you have any other South African novels I must try?