Unburying the Past: Post-Apartheid Gothic Fiction

Posted by rebeccaduncan on February 19, 2013 in Guest Blog, Rebecca Duncan tagged with , , , , , ,

In contrast to fictions of the South African  interregnum, which reflect a perplexed unease most powerfully focussed on the future, the narratives which emerge in the years after democracy – in the time following from the 1994 election and the beginning of the Mandela administration – frequently locate anxiety in the collective past. This body of texts has been collected under the broad heading of the ‘transition’ and might further be linked together by a general concern with recent South African history, and, more specifically, with the un-burying of that which it  became the purpose of the apartheid government to suppress. ‘[T]he most characteristic and pervasive tropes in the writing of the period,’ Rita Barnard points out, taking her cue from Shane Graham, ‘have been the archive, the palimpsest and the excavation … all of which are concerned with the retrieval and revelation of what is latent and repressed’ (Barnard 2012: 657). Of course, the Gothic too is intensely interested in this project of unearthing and constantly presents us with scenarios in which history refuses to remain anterior but resurfaces insistently, disturbing the present. Jerrold Hogle, in particular, situates the dynamic of incessant return in an especially prominent position.

On his analysis, it is the central feature of the Gothic text, which, he writes, invariably involves ‘some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the time of the main story.’ Such hauntings, he goes on, ‘frequently assume the features of ghosts, specters or monsters … to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view’ (2002: 2). This delineation of haunting as Gothic ur-structure re-enforces the reason that critics have been able, persistently, to link the genre with notions of the unheimlich – and, indeed, to suggest that it contributed to the formulation of Freud’s theory. This latter has to do with the re-emergence of those elements in the psyche that, because they threaten the harmony and stability of the mental system, have been forced out of consciousness; pushed down into the murky, inaccessible realms of the mind. The uncanny, David Punter and Glennis Byron remind us, encompasses ‘age old fears, primitive terrors that we can imagine as continuing to exist in the depths of the unconscious, even when they have apparently been banished from the civilised world’ (2004: 285). Thus, it signals a return of the repressed, which, once intimately familiar, has become – as a paradoxical result of this unwilling recognition – profoundly strange. The ghouls and spectres which haunt the pages of gothic fiction as incarnations of some hidden history replicate the resurfacing of what has been suppressed in the Freudian psyche, and like those dissonant, threatening fears and desires, they breach the laws and systems that would keep them at bay; that hold, as it were, reality and the present steadily in place.

The uncanny is by no means the only point from which to approach gothic haunting. Theories which trace the insistentreturn of that which has been radically excluded are legion. Hogle and a host of others have shown, for example, that fearful gothic forms might be fruitfully understood as manifestations of Julia Kristeva’s insistent ‘abject:’ of, in other words, a disturbing, infantile condition, which predates the delineation of a discrete, bordered identity, in which we imagined we were one with a mother, who, in her infinite, attractive plenitude, constituted a consuming threat to the emergent, independent self. The gothic experiences of fear and revulsion return us to this inchoate state, the argument goes, that never disappears, but lurks behind every boundary, every barrier we erect as we negotiate the world, and in which we had to ‘jettison’ or ‘abject’ the mother in order to draw the first, rudimentary line between the ‘me’ and the always ambiguous, beckoning, terrifying ‘not me.’

Jacques Derrida too offers us a theoretical vocabulary in which to discuss ghosts and the ghostly, and his hauntology, developed in the gothically titled Spectres of Marx with its famous meditation on Hamlet’s ‘the time is out of joint,’ also highlights the extent to which the phantom arises in the operation of exclusionary modes of knowing; in those attempts to construct meaning premised on erecting boundaries, blocking off and shutting out. Spectrality, on his account, signifies an encounter in which artificial binaries – past/future, dead/alive, self/other – collapse and, in the words of Frederic Jameson, we sense that order in ‘the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we should do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might, under exceptional circumstances, betray us’ (Jameson 1999: 39). Haunting, in other words, in which tenses intermingle and pile up impossibly, undermines the fundamental divisions on which we depend, and allows us a glimpse of the ‘hidden reality’ of which Hogle makes mention, ‘that opposition of all kinds cannot maintain their separation; that each ‘lesser term’ is contained in its counterpart’ (2002: 11).

Recently, Christine Berthin has used Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s theories of crypt and phantom to consider the incessant, haunted returns that have characterised gothic narratives from their inception to the present day.  Such texts, she argues, constitute a ‘repository for that which language fails to touch but which haunts it like an ‘unsayable,’ unreachable core’ (2010: 3). Following Abraham and Torok, and also Jean Laplanche, Berthin discusses the ghosts and monsters, and the weird, inexplicable scenarios endemic in the Gothic, in terms of the unspoken, unconscious content that passes from one generation within the family to the next. Latent, even traumatic, material is transmitted from parent to child, or between members of a community, this theory suggests, and it is these ‘shadows which necessarily accompany any attempt at discursive meaning,’ that the Gothic ‘obsessively stages’ (2010: 5). Hauntings, Berthin argues, which wordlessly articulates the things which cannot be said, ‘can be read as symptoms of a deep questioning of the notion of subject and the symbolic order’ so that once again, the Gothic and its engagement with repetitive spectral and monstrous return, becomes a genre in which the systems maintaining the status quo begin to warp and buckle (2010: 5). After all, the ‘secrets,’ which, Abraham and Torok propose, are transmitted, unspoken, between generations, situate a blank, unknowable kernel at the very nerve-centre of the self. What’s more, this internal darkness, which comes to shape psychic life, is acquired from outside; it belongs to another – an ‘other’ – and so it ruptures any binaristic illusion that there can be a clearly delineated, thoroughly transparent identity.

It is at this point perhaps, having pointed out the extent to which haunted gothic forms problematize modes of thought premised on boundaries and opposition, that we should return to the literature of South Africa and the years following the country’s first democratic election. As I have mentioned, it is possible broadly to sketch a backward-looking trend in the fiction of this period. ‘History is often interrogated in the literature of the transitional years,’ Ronit Fenkel and Craig Mackenzie confirm, and this probing of the national past is effected via the uncovering ‘of buried histories … to add to the growing body of new South African stories’ (2009: 2). The excavation of narratives suppressed and stifled during the years of white domination is a mode of literary exploration animated by the post-liberation impulse to ‘enlarge and refine our sense of  the range of subject positions opened up with apartheid’s demise’ (Barnard 2012: 656) and to situate these is relation to a history of oppression. Picking through the past – and, perhaps especially through the colonial past – is, however, a difficult and extremely painful business. It was, as Meg Samuelson and several others have pointed out, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to give voice to the country’s silenced people, that was to ‘set the tone for the transitional era’ (2009:114) and which shaped what Barnard, following Michael Chapman, terms a ‘quasi-confessional’ undercurrent in transitional fiction, grimly intent on laying bare the ‘the complicities of the racist past’ (2012: 659). Interestingly, it is within this area of the transitional  canon that I have found South African narratives engaging most potently with the Gothic as a mode in which to confront the painful past. Such texts interrogate complicity – one ‘zone of amnesia’ created by the ‘triumphal master narrative’ of liberation and ‘Rainbow Nation’ (2012: 656) – via encounters with, amongst other things, the unquiet dead, the monstrous, and mysterious, stigmatic wounding, all of which participate in a haunted gothic aesthetic that undermines the operation of an exclusionary, oppositional logic; that ruptures, in other words, the principles of rigorous othering underpinning systematic oppression.

André Brink’s Duiwelskloof (1998), translated into English as The Devil’s Valley, is one novel in which Gothic haunting becomes a model for the relationship of the past with the present. Flip Lochner, an aging, dysfunctional crime reporter heads into the Swartberg (Black Mountain) range outside Cape Town, intent on writing the history of a community which has lived there unchanged since it was founded in the 19th century by breakaway voortrekkers (pioneers) during the Great Trek. What he finds on arrival in the Devil’s Valley is quite as strange as he has anticipated, and, in fact, significantly more disturbing: the families of the Afrikaner forefathers, fiercely protective of their community, have insisted on inbreeding in order to preserve the purity of their bloodlines (a parodic echo of the apartheid prohibition on interracial relationships). Cultural traditions are equally as violently defended and, isolated for over a century, the village continues to uphold (notably misogynous) attitudes and practices that have long since died out elsewhere. The most sinister feature of the valley community, however, is that it is in part, populated by the dead. Indeed, the end is not the end for the people of the village who, once they are in the ground, return in ghostly form to continue with their daily business (‘lives’ not being quite the right word in this context). This spectral return, it turns out, has to do with a pile of small rocks in the corner of the graveyard, and as Flip lifts these in an instance of literal ‘excavation’—that characteristic of transitional fiction to which we have seen Barnard gesture – he finds among them the bones of many infants, stoned to death over the years. They belong, we learn, to the dark skinned babies, born into the community every couple of generations, and evidence of its heavily suppressed interracial origin.  This secret, and several others, refuses to remain hidden and surfaces in the multiple ghostly villagers; people from the past who continue to half-live in the present.

Marlouw, the protagonist of Eben Venter’s Trencherman (2008), is another haunted case in point. This novel envisions a South African apocalypse: an unspecified explosion has destroyed infrastructure in the country, which is ravaged by poverty, hunger and AIDS, with no centralised government and complex, corrupt gang networks forming a brutal, disorganised authority. White people have, by and large, fled, and Marlouw himself lives a comfortable, thoroughly middle-class life in Adelaide. When his nephew Koert disappears into the South African interior, however, the protagonist finds himself making a compulsive return. The journey back to the country of his birth at once recalls the infamous voyage in Heart of Darkness (Marlouw’s name and his nephew’s situate Conrad’s narrative overtly in Trencherman’s literary heritage) and also the pull of the Freudian infant back to its mother. Marlouw’s club foot and semi-incestuous regard for his sister cast him, irresistibly, as a kind of modern-day Oedipus and, indeed, when he reaches the farmhouse in which he grew up it is a dark, labyrinthine place; a system of quite explicitly womb-like chambers, filled with the scent of his now-dead mother, and all leading to the room in which Koert has taken up residence. Marlowe’s confrontation with his nephew, who has morphed into a massive, insectoid monster, swollen from the profits of the meat syndicate he runs, is a horrifying confrontation with his cultural past and with himself. Koert is, amongst other things, a grotesque caricature of white domination, the system which frames Marlouw’s childhood, and in which his ancestors participated. Venter’s protagonist is, thus, forced to identify with his nephew’s monstrosity, and to recognise in it in the violence implicit in his own history.

More recently, Terry Westby-Nunn’s The Sea of Wise Insects (2011), which tells of Alice, an accident prone, scar-riddled misfit, whose life story is equally the story of her many, many injuries. Westby-Nunn’s novel is highly complex and fragmentary. It is narrated by the protagonist, and, indirectly, by her ex-lover whose fictionalised accounts of his girlfriend’s wounding are intercut with Alice’s own, usually significantly different, version of things. Via a series of uncannily repetitive events, and through the un-burying of a case filled with semi-legible family secrets (another meaningful instance of excavation) we realise that Alice’s broken body attests to a moment of violence in her family history, which opens out into the oppression and the trauma that characterise the South African past.  Indeed, trauma is one appropriate sign under which this novel might be considered: its multi-vocal narration points to the gaps and silences inherent in every story, and its refusal of linear time too recalls something of a trauma’s re-invasion. More especially though – and this is also where the narrative becomes particularly Gothic – the brutal and graphic scenes of wounding, to which we are returned again and again, create a horrifying aesthetic that replicates the eruption of anterior violence into the here and now; that resembles, in other words, the traumatic pathology and its insistence that the past prevails and leaks into the present.

It is, writes Barnard, actually ‘not quite accurate to say that … post-apartheid literature has been focussed on the past.’ Instead, she suggests, narratives of this kind have shown that ‘the past, the present and the future are not so readily disentangled when historical experience is particularly painful’ (2012: 660). These have tried, too, to paraphrase Andre Brink, to interrogate the silences in the country’s history; the stories that were suppressed under the monolithic authority of the apartheid regime, and, indeed, those rendered mute at the genesis of ‘Rainbow Nation.’ This interest both in the intersection between past and present, and in the ‘not-said’ in the nation’s life story, has meant, writes Barnard, that fiction of the transition is ‘marked by recurrences, melancholia and an elegiac affect that is not readily brought to term.’ It is, in other words, ‘characteristically traumatic’ (2012: 66); it attempts to address what cannot be articulated in the past, but which continues to exert irresistible influence on the present, and further, to do all of this in the kind of ‘dialogic writing’ that allows for the ‘co-existence of silence and word’ (Brink 1998: 14). For literature of the transition cannot cancel the historic absences with which it engages: it cannot, to cite Brink again, ‘demonstrate the tension between the sayable and the un-sayable’ as if these were ‘opposites in a binary equation’ (1998: 14). This sort of approach constitutes a return to the divisive logic which undergirds us/them distinctions – the foundation on which oppressive ideologies are erected. Instead, fiction in the wake of apartheid attempts to consider the gap-ridden past via a literary vocabulary that can account for silences, and that might participate in a dismantling of the systems of othering which defined the politics of domination during apartheid. As I have suggested, the Gothic is one such mode. Its preoccupation with un-burying, with the re-surfacing of that which refuses repression, becomes, in the post-apartheid context, one literary means through which to explore the complexity and the persistence of history in a way which does not re-inscribe old oppositions. Gothic forms, in which the ills of the past crystallise, are characterised, as we have seen, by their ambiguity; by their refusal of boundaries. The living dead in Devil’s Valley, the hideous Koert with whom Marlouw identifies and who he also rejects, and the terrible ruptures in Alice’s skin: in each of these figures multiple borders collapse, and each engenders, too, a visceral, extra-linguistic horror which might answer, in some sense, Brink’s  call for a fiction in which silence and word co-exist.

Barnard, Rita. 2012. ‘Rewriting the Nation.’ In: Derek Attridge and David Attwell (eds). The Cambridge History of South African Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berthin, Christine. 2010. Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Boehmer, Elleke. 1998. ‘Endings and New Beginning: South African Fiction in Transition. In: Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (eds).Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid and Democracy, 1970- 1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brink, André. 1998. Devil’s Valley. London: Secker & Warburg

Brink, André. 1998. ‘Interrogating Silence: New Possibilities Faced by South African Literature. In: Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (eds).Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid and Democracy, 1970- 1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frenkel, Ronit and Craig MacKenzie. 2009. ‘Conceptualizing ‘Post-Transitional South African Literature in English.’ English Studies in Africa. 53.1:1-11

Punter, David and Glennis Byron. 2004. The Gothic. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell.

Hogle, Jerrold E. 2002, ‘The Gothic in Western Culture.’ In Jerrold E. Hogle (ed).Gothic Fiction.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Samuelson, Meg.2009. ‘Scripting Connections: Reflections on the Post-Transitional.’ English Studies in Africa. 53.1: 113-17.

Venter, Eben. 2008. Trencherman, trans. Luke Stubbs. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

Westby-Nunn, Terry. 2011. The Sea of Wise Insects. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.

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