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Digging for the truth

Gillian Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, is a novelist who started out writing detective novels. She moved on to a family saga set in South Africa’s most tumultuous times, Ties of Blood (1989), the struggle thriller The Betrayal (1991), and her family memoir, Every Secret Thing (1997). Her new novel, Red Dust (Virago; now in paperback) is about people facing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, trying to discover the truth of a set of violent incidents.

Your first three books were detective stories, all set in England. Then, with Ties of Blood, you started writing about South Africa. Was there a shift in your thinking?

There was a double shift in my thinking. When I started to write, all I wanted to write was detective novels, because that’s what I read. It would never have occurred to me to set them in South Africa. I left South Africa when I was 12 years old and I didn’t come back until 1990. This country had caused me quite a lot of pain and I didn’t want anything to do with it. It was my parents’ country, I was going to be English. I tried my best to lose the accent, though I was never entirely successful. So when I started writing I set the detective novels in a particular part of north London, an alternative scene, which was the project I set myself.

What made the difference for me was Ruth’s murder [in 1982]. When I went to her funeral [in Maputo], I thought, I’m completely crazy to think I can step away from this country. Because of the choices she made, and the choices Joe made, there is no way I can pretend I don’t have something to do with South Africa. Ties of Blood was partly about answering the question: What does this country mean to me?

I really enjoyed writing detective novels, but it was also frustrating. Detective novels are really good training for a writer: you really learn how to make a narrative tick, and that I don’t think will ever leave me. But Ties of Blood was a change in that I wanted to work more on character and emotion. I still keep things moving along, but I don’t plot so tightly. With the detective novels, I always knew where I was going, but I don’t do that any more. I feel more confident as a writer and more able to sit with the unknown. But strong narrative is common to all of my books, and that’s what comes easiest to me. I like books with a strong narrative.

Red Dust seemed to me a bit slow to start, as you were setting the scene, then once the characters entered the truth commission hearing it really took off.

I discovered that technically it’s quite a difficult thing to have so many major characters and it does require a slower start, especially if you do what I did in that book, not just having so many characters, but having one character who is in prison and doesn’t talk to anyone else, or one who’s just not a talker. So you have to establish all these different lines — it was an interesting technical exercise.

Talking about novels that address political and social issues, there was a lot of debate in South Africa about, for instance, JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. The African National Congress’s Jeff Radebe, for instance, criticised it for presenting a particular, negative, picture of South Africa today. But I wonder whether fiction shouldn’t perhaps be seen in less directly ideological terms and rather as a kind of hypothesis.

Fiction is not something that needs to, or should be, dictated to, but you’re perfectly allowed to agree or disagree with it. If it stimulates debate, that’s absolutely fine. What I find very difficult is when people say about a book, “He shouldn’t have done this,” as if a novel is only one thing. Disgrace can be read in a number of different ways. It has a very grim view of South Africa, which is not the one I hold, but I don’t say he should have written something else.

It was possible to read Disgrace in the context of the truth commission, in the context of a history in which wrongs have been done to people. And the responses to that are ambiguous, mixing impulses toward justice or revenge or acceptance, which is an aspect you highlight in Red Dust. At a certain point, Alex Mpondo, who has been tortured and is facing his torturer, just lets go and refuses to participate any further.

I wouldn’t see that as letting go. I would describe that as him not wanting to deal with it. Someone said: “Once tortured, forever tortured,” and there is some truth in that. I’m not sure that Alex ever comes to the end of the process in the book. He decides he’s not going to deal with it. Red Dust is not there to tell you what the truth commission is about; it’s about people’s experiences and it’s an examination of whether it’s possible to know the truth. As for Alex, maybe it was helpful for him to confront his torturer, maybe it wasn’t. I’m not entirely sure about that myself. The truth commission assumes that people tell the truth and they get amnesty, that they know what the truth is. People who commit what I would consider atrocities, they have to live with themselves. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to live with yourself if you know that truth about yourself. When I was researching Red Dust, I stayed in the Eastern Cape with a forensic psychologist who had met a lot of murderers. He said that in all his experience only one murderer actually took responsibility for what he did. Most of them said “I did it, but … if I hadn’t had that extra drink … if the hammer hadn’t been lying there …” He said that’s what you’d expect, because for people to live with what they’d done makes it too unbearable. That was a good thing to have in mind as I wrote the novel, and I tried when writing the “baddies” to work out what these people told themselves, how they lived with themselves. These are human beings who are presumably capable of love and of being loved, so they must have kept some humanity for themselves. Can those people actually tell the truth?

Dirk Hendricks, the Eugene de Kock figure, is certainly a very compelling character in the novel. In some ways, he’s more compelling than Sarah, the lawyer, who is easier to identify with as a character and a point of view. Isn’t there also a tension, in a way, between moral truth and narrative truth? The novel is saying that maybe there is no final definitive truth about what happened, as in reality, but the novel does, just in the formal sense (and maybe it’s informed by your writing of detective novels) have a momentum toward a definitive truth, a final disclosure. The reader is pulled forwards by the question of what really happened.

Yes, but it’s not necessarily the question, is it? That’s the whole thing about the truth commission. It depends on what the question is that you’re asking. I don’t think there is necessarily one question. The truth commission takes place on a micro level. The amnesty hearings are between perpetrator and victim, and when you’re at a truth commission hearing, especially the later ones, you feel like the rest of society is going on outside and you’re in this room trying to deal with a particular past, a past that slots into a whole past, but it’s so individual. The truth commission assumes those people are going to get the truth, and the whole society is going to get the truth, and I’m not sure that’s possible.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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