South African-born Christopher Hope has lived in Europe since 1974. Heaven Forbid, his seventh novel, takes us back to the Johannesburg of his youth; its autobiographical elements do much to explain why it is more emotional and less satirical than we have come to expect from some of his other works.
The novel is set in the run-up to the 1948 elections, a crucial moment that saw the electoral victory of the National Party, newly consolidated around the peculiar blend of Afrikaner empowerment and increased racial segregation known as apartheid. It is primarily an account of the traumas of that year as experienced by a five-year-old: Martin Donnally.
Separation is the key theme, and is figured in both personal and political terms: Martin’s emotional separation from his mother as she prepares to remarry, and the separation of apartheid. Heaven Forbid is also a tale of paradise — the paradise of infancy. Paradise for Martin is the certainty and security that habit provides in a world of separation and anxiety. It is the closed world of his Irish family and neighbourhood friends: Grandpa, who introduces Martin to the adult world through words both playful (”discombobulated”) and dangerous (”adultery”); the feisty Auntie Fee, whose sympathies, in readings of children’s tales, lie with the trolls and giants; his Jewish neighbours and their wonderful daughter, who walks on her hands; and above all the family’s black servant, Georgie, who is Martin’s nanny and boon companion. Every day Martin plays his games in his grandpa’s house and waits for his mother to come home.
But from the beginning this is a tale about the loss of paradise. The main agent of that loss is Gordon, his mother’s husband-to-be. Gordon is the epitome of the sober English colonial, especially when set against Martin’s brighter family. Gordon disapproves of their tendency to fantasy, their humour, and the over-familiar way they treat Georgie. He is antagonistic to Martin from the start, and the antagonism hardens to an open war that shatters Martin’s world.
The sense of threat Martin feels from his mother’s remarriage is echoed in political events and the prevailing atmosphere. Much of this is recounted with all the zest and exaggeration that Hope’s satirical skills allow. But this satirical mode, which allays fear through humour, comes at a price. Many readers may find the representation of Afrikaners unconvincing. In figuring the main motive for apartheid as the quasi-mystical ideology promoted by HF Verwoerd rather than as a political initiative that gave Afrikaners two generations of social and economic power, the novel has a dated quality, particularly in the light of the recent alliance between the African National Congress and the National Party in the Western Cape.
This may be due to exiled-writer’s syndrome, in which the impressions of youth are never given an opportunity to wear away under the friction of everyday life, but remain as a core of ever-hardening certainties. Nonetheless, Heaven Forbid represents a deepening of Hope’s vision of apartheid South Africa.