Grim land of animals and survivors

Johannesburg-born Alistair Morgan’s debut novel, Sleeper’s Wake (Penguin SA), is a gripping read that provides an unusual social analysis for post-apartheid South Africa — a brand of ironic evolutionism in which human behaviour is rooted in its creaturely need for survival. Humans as social wrecks, only just clinging on to a makeshift kind of decency by their animal teeth.

For a certain mordant take on contemporary South Africa, this view works rather nicely.

Morgan, who breaks on to the South African fiction scene as the first non-American to have won the Paris Review‘s Plimpton Prize (for new short fiction published in that periodical in 2008), draws his characters as stunted survivors of both criminal violence and accidental disaster, which tests, and defeats, their ultrathin veneer of cultivation.

Beneath the fragile meniscus of sociality lies what Morgan clearly regards as the real thing — a primordial stew of animal passion in which the more telling contests, the ultimate deciders of human affairs, forbiddingly play themselves out in rapacious sexuality, bludgeon-aggression and teeth-baring desperation.

Whether you like this view of things is your own choice. I find it somewhat overdone, occluding vast areas of understanding about the complexity of human motives and their psychology. This is a novel that sweeps aside everything that came with Freud and after and says, look, here, in this stunted land, there are only animals and survivors. Well …

And yet for that very reason it is a grimly satisfying and compelling read in the way that stories packed with misery and appalling violence sometimes are, leaving us with a cathartic sense of relief — Aristotle’s expulsion of pity and fear embodied in characters in whose misery and disaster we take a kind of distanced measure of things, a philosophical metaview of the deep shit (or as the character Roelf in this novel would put it, the gemors) in which we find ourselves.

The main character in Sleeper’s Wake, the blandly named John, is a kind of male English-speaking South African urban Everyman, a writer who quickly rediscovers his essential inner baboon in a story of precipitous decline followed by uneasy recovery.

John was married, with imperfect joy, to a woman who out-earned him while he dilettantishly tried to “write a book”, had a clumsy one-afternoon affair with a magazine editor and then destroyed his career by an act of plagiarism while on multiple deadlines for several newspaper and magazine columns.

Returning from a holiday in Mozambique with his wife and daughter — meant to restore their marriage and bring forth a pregnancy and new hope — John drives his car off the road in circumstances which remain murky, killing both the women in his life and leaving him a mental wreck.

He retreats to a cottage in Nature’s Valley in the Cape, which is where the novel’s events unfold. These involve various human castaways and desperadoes hiding out or “recovering” in Nature’s Valley, which quickly transforms from paradise into what poet Sydney Clouts called the “violent Arcadia” — a move that links Morgan to a long line of South African English-speaking settler-authors who have mythologised the country in precisely this way. Coetzee also did it in Disgrace (rape on the farm), but he raised it to a metafictional level — drawing the violent-Arcadia idea into play with several others — in a way that Morgan does not.

The family John encounters — father Roelf, daughter Jackie and son Simon — have emerged from an urban criminal attack in which men with balaclavas raped and murdered the mother. John is drawn into an uneasy alliance with these amputees, including an unwise sexual draw-down with the teenage girl, described in terms of amoral animal urges, which eventually turns into a baboon fight with the girl’s father; literally — a real baboon is involved.

Whereas most recent South African novels dealing with “crime” (a problematic term given the conditions, causes and symptoms it places under erasure) use this fast-growing South African genre as a form of social analysis, Morgan subsumes the “sociological” critique under a more embracing evolutionism: a “sleeper” theory in which everyone has a latent capacity for violence and destruction; all it needs is a trigger. In John’s words: “[T]he sleeper is a last resort self-preservation mechanism given to us by nature.”

Once in the grip of this universalism, all other causes and conditions are secondary. I can’t agree with this, but despite this unease, Sleeper’s Wake is a taut, fast-paced and absorbing read.

Leon de Kock convenes the creative writing programme in the school of literature and language studies at Wits University

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