Monday, March 18, 2013

534. Burger’s Daughter – Nadine Gordimer

History: This book was first published in the United Kingdom in 1979. The book was not published in South Africa because it was expected to be banned in that country. A month after publication in London, the import and sale of the book in South Africa was prohibited, although the restriction was lifted six months later.
Gordimer herself was involved in South African struggle politics, and she knew many of the activists. She described Burger's Daughter as "a coded homage" to Fischer. While still banned in South Africa, a copy of the book was smuggled into Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, and he reported that he "thought well of it".
Plot: The novel is set mostly in Johannesburg in the early- to mid-1970s during Apartheid. Rosa is the daughter of Lionel Burger, a white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist, who is standing trial for treason. The court finds him guilty and sentences him to life in prison. Rosa visits him regularly, just as she visited her mother, Cathy Burger when she was imprisoned some ten years previously. Cathy died when Rosa was still at school. Rosa grew up in a family that actively supported the overthrow of the apartheid government, and the house they lived in opened its doors to anyone supporting the struggle, regardless of colour. Living with them was "Baasie", a black boy Rosa's age the Burgers had "adopted" when his father had died in prison. Bassie and Rosa grew up as brother and sister. Both Rosa's parents were members of the outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP), and she was told from an early age that they could be detained by the authorities at any time. When Rosa was nine, both her parents were arrested and she was sent to stay with her father's family in a rural farming community. Baasie was sent elsewhere because, she was told, he would not be accepted there. It was here that Rosa experienced apartheid for the first time and the way black people were mistreated.
In 1974, after three years in prison, Lionel succumbs to ill-health and dies. At 26, Rosa sells the Burger's house and moves in with Conrad, a post-graduate student who had befriended her during her father's trial. Rosa is not in love with Conrad, but their relationship is convenient during this difficult time. Conrad questions her role in the Burger family and the fact that she always did what she was told. He questions whether she has her own identity, because everyone sees her as Burger's daughter, not Rosa. Later Rosa leaves Conrad and moves into a flat on her own and works as a physiotherapist at a hospital.
While some of Lionel's former associates are banned or under house arrest, Rosa is "named", meaning that she is labelled a Communist and is under surveillance. In 1975, despite her restrictions, she attends a party of a friend in Soweto, and it is there that she hears a black university student dismissing all whites' help as irrelevant, saying that whites cannot know what blacks want, and that blacks will liberate themselves. Realising she needs to be somewhere else, Rosa manages to get a passport, and flies to Nice in France to stay with Katya, her father's first wife. Rosa spends several months there and is able to be herself for the first time in her life. She meets Bernard Chabalier, a visiting academic from Paris, and they become lovers. He persuades her to return with him to Paris, where he says the French Anti-Apartheid Movement will be only too happy to organize a flat for Lionel Burger's daughter.
Before joining Bernard in Paris, Rosa stays in a flat in London for several weeks. Now that she has no intention of honouring the agreement of her passport, which was to return to South Africa within a year, she openly introduces herself to others as Burger's daughter. This attracts the attention of the media and she attends several political events. At one such event, Rosa sees Baasie, but he is reluctant to talk to her. She gives him her phone number, and he later contacts her and starts criticizing her for not knowing his real name (Zwelinzima Vulindlela). He says that there is nothing special about her father having died in prison as many black fathers have also died there, and says he does not need her help. Rosa is devastated by her childhood friend's hurtful remarks, and overcome with guilt, she abandons her plans of going into exile in France and returns to South Africa.
Back home she resumes her job as a physiotherapist in Soweto. Then in June 1976 Soweto school children start protesting about their inferior education and being taught in Afrikaans. They go on the rampage, which includes killing white welfare workers in Soweto. The police brutally put down the uprising, resulting in hundreds of deaths. In October 1977, many organizations and people critical of the white government are banned, and in November 1977 Rosa Burger is detained. Her lawyer, who also represented her father, expects charges to be brought against her of furthering the aims of the banned SACP and ANC, and of aiding and abetting the students' revolt.
Review: It's strange to live in a country where there are still heroes.'' The words seem to echo through this book, which is concerned above all with the nature of commitment and heroism in South Africa. But it is not about romantic hero-worship; it is about the problems, the humanity, the ruthlessness and the cost of political involvement, all against a background of love, squalor or boredom.
It is Miss Gordimer's most political and most moving novel, going to the heart of the racial conflict in South Africa. But it does not deal publicly with riots, tortures or crusades: Its politics come out of its characters, as part of the wholeness of lives that cannot evade them.
The hero of the book, whom we never meet, is Lionel Burger, a respected Afrikaner doctor who joined the Communist Party, worked for the revolution, was jailed and died in prison; and the story is that of his daughter Rosa, brought up under her father's spell, waiting outside prisons and living among dedicated Communists, yet trying to escape, alone, after her father's death, from a commitment that was all-enveloping.
For Burger was the kind of South African Communist who was drawn to the party by his humanity and determination to share the cause of the blacks; and in his house blacks and whites came together with a sense of common hope and faith in the future, defying the apartheid surrounding them. With his Afrikaner ancestry and his political understanding, Burger was a man who, as a compatriot describes him, ''could have been a prime minister if he hadn't been a traitor.'' (His story bears some resemblance to the actual story of Bram Fischer, the distinguished Afrikaner lawyer who likewise became a Communist revolutionary and died in jail.)
What is it like to grow up in the shadow of someone so dedicated and so charismatic and then to seek to become a separate, fulfilled individual? Rosa's answer, as it unfolds, tells us not only about South Africa but about the whole nature of commitment. It was Burger's gift to be able to break through ''the closed circuit of self,'' to give purpose to other people's lives; in his house the real definition of loneliness was to live without social responsibility.
The opening chapters describe vividly the splendors and miseries of that commitment; the passionate concern with the future, the moral certainties, the sense of identification with blackness as a way of perceiving sensual redemption, revealed in the magnetic attraction of the beautiful Marisa Kgosana. But on the other hand, there is the bossy narrowness of other white Communists, the jargon of dogma, the lack of escape and the sheer brutalizing effect of the race conflict. When Rosa sees an old black man senselessly flogging a donkey in Soweto, yet cannot intervene, she realizes suddenly ''I must know somewhere else.'' She makes her bid to escape, flying off to the South of France to stay with her father's first wife, in a world of gigolos, lesbians and sun-seekers.
It is a spectacular transition, showing the brittle sophistication and lushness of this cosmopolitan life through the eyes of a South African girl, ''dissolving in the wine and pleasure of scents, sights and sounds existing only in themselves, associated with nothing and nobody. . . .'' The style itself becomes sensuous and multicolored, against the stark background of the Johannesburg past, as Rosa loses herself in the laziness and the waveless peacock-shaded sea.
She falls in love with a French teacher, stays in London and Paris, and finds a new dimension in her love affair that seems to put politics in a neat theoretical pigeonhole. The tolerance, the detachment and cultivation of Europe surround her: To the lesbians in the South of France, the police are no closer than the crime thrillers on television.
Yet the responsibility, the need for identity, remains. The denouement of the novel is too subtle and important to be summarized, for it is about much more than the need for a political cause; it is a whole view of individualism. In her father's house the people had discovered their own kind of individualism, with the liberation that comes from belonging. Her black childhood friend, in spite of her guilt and his bitterness, was still a blood-brother. The political attitudes came from the inside outward: ''It was a human conspiracy, above all other kinds.'' Rosa sees clearly enough the limitations of that conspiracy--the exploitation, the psychological blackmail and the ultimate cost to herself. But she is still Burger's daughter.
It is the combination of political authenticity with sensuous awareness that makes this novel so powerful. Its account of black movements, against the historical background of real people, is harshly realistic; the intense argument in a house in Soweto has the sharp detail of a documentary.
No one has better described the vigor and humor, as well as the misery, of Soweto. Yet the political moments are always illuminated by the intense observation of people and places--tiny details precisely and lovingly described--that brings every incident to life and that give Miss Gordimer's writing such universality. People, landscapes and politics are blended together in this evocative style, and through the eyes of the young, bewildered daughter the wide arc of South African politics comes into sudden focus. It is an integration reminiscent of the great Russian prerevolutionary novels.
It remains extraordinary that such a novel should come out of a country so uncompromising and so increasingly brutalized, where the image of the flogged donkey has such fearful relevance; and it might seem equally surprising that an author of such sensitivity could live there. But this, too, was a Russian phenomenon. The very bleakness of the political predicament and the closeness to suffering seem able not only to provide insights into the political crisis, but to give a heightened awareness of the richness and values of lie.
In one passage the author describes how Rosa and her father's first wife find themselves subtly transformed for each other by their relationship with Lionel Burger, ''like a change of light transforming the aspect of a landscape.'' Coming out of the harshness of South Africa, this dazzling book also brings a new light to the landscape, not only of Johannesburg and its black townships, but of the European cities that have forgotten about darkness.
Opening Line: “Among the group of people waiting at the fortress was a school girl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt, and by the loop at it’s neck, a red hot water bottle.
Closing Line: “But the line had been deleted by the prison sensor, Madame Bagnelli was never able to make it out.”
Quotes: The will is my own. The emotion's my own. The right to be inconsolable. When I feel, there's no 'we', only 'I'.
Rating: Okay.

No comments:

Post a Comment