A book which crosses borders

Absolution by Patrick Flanery (Atlantic)

When I first heard that the title of Patrick Flanery’s debut novel is Absolution, I felt an incipient weariness. In the wake of J M Coetzee’s Disgrace and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I dreaded some ponderous conclusion to a perceived moral trilogy.

My sense of foreboding was exa-cerbated when I read the blurb. It describes Sam Leroux returning to South Africa to write the biography of Clare Wald, a “world-renowned author, mother, critic”.
An exasperating question is posed: “Was she complicit in crimes lurking in South Africa’s past: is she an accomplice or a victim?”

I was not encouraged when, flicking through the 400-page work, I saw transcripts of hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the 1990s, the commission produced our national narrative in terms of a strategic logic that blurred secular and religious registers. It turned history into a dramatic, personal rendition, opening up the possibilities of expiation, forgiveness and reconciliation. If honestly enjoined, the process meant that anyone could be absolved. Perpetrators could be cleansed of their histories of violence and turpitude and, if they participated wholeheartedly, they were welcome to enter our unique Canaan, hand in hand with their surviving victims.

Writers of fiction, however, engage the commission at their peril. It was so widely discussed and debated, its logic so eschatological and its hearings so dramatic that any sensible novelist should feel immediately daunted, if not overwhelmed. How do you find fictional space when you are representing such an overdetermined moral logic on which so much depended? How do you approach a process in which so much was revealed to be unspeakable?

Then I realised that Flanery is American — or, in a more outraged tone, American. He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska (a state invented by Bruce Springsteen), studied film at New York University and then proceeded to doctoral studies in literature at Oxford.

I am embarrassed to admit that I experienced an entirely provincial, South African reaction: “How dare they come over here and write about our traumas!” (That “our” is obviously loosely defined.) 

Two chapters into Absolution, I found myself confusing Clare Wald and Nadine Gordimer. I suspected an encoded account of the widely discussed composition of No Cold Kitchen, a process that pitted

Gordimer’s titanic reputation against her biographer’s gargantuan ego. I recalled the break-in at Gordimer’s house, her protection of her privacy and her commitment to remaining in South Africa when so many authors and artists went into exile.

Vexed history

Then “Absolution”, the sections of the novel that comprise Wald’s fictionalised memoir, resonated with Coetzee’s agonised dissimulations in his three volumes of “autobiography”. I read for correspondences, still feeling slightly proprietary. This is our world, after all. But soon it was too late. I was swept up.

Absolution was described by Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, as “a page-turner”. This evaluation may seem surprising given the complex form of the novel.

It presents Sam’s version of his return to South Africa and his initially disconcerting interviews with Clare. A scholar of her work, he seems best placed to recount her life, but he is also haunted by a childhood memory of Clare’s rejection. He battles, simultaneously, an elusive subject and his own vexed history.

The narrative also offers Clare’s ­fictionalised memoir, her more candid efforts to imagine and describe the death of her activist daughter, Laura, and fragments of the diaries of Laura herself. There are also detached authorial accounts of some of the events.

Given that I teach literature for a living, I know that I should be generally patient with postmodern methods of composition. But novels that labour the point that reality is constituted by multiple narratives and there is nothing we can regard as absolute often strike me as philosophically interesting, yet tedious reads. Despite all my training, I cannot help reading for a good story.

Rather than parading glib postmodernism, Flanery manages to engage readers as only thrillers can. We find ourselves searching, with increasing urgency, for an accurate version of events and honest, uncomplicated representations of character. Even when our wishes are thwarted, rather than experiencing any readerly irritation, we come to realise how and why the characters have woven their lives from the stories we have read.

The different versions come to reflect one another, like arrayed mirrors, but we are never left with the sense of a contrived, self-satisfied arrangement. Rather, we feel increasingly that there are important questions at stake. They interrogate not only the relation between the characters and their representations of themselves, but also the complex connection between fiction and reality.

This is a novel about the capacities and effects of storytelling, not in some abstruse, philosophical sense, but investigated with a compelling and dramatic immediacy. We come away, albeit with an unsettling sense of irresolution, inhabited by Sam and Clare, and the complicated, ethically compromised Laura. In each character we recognise the inevitability of those inventions on which individuals depend for a sense of coherent and sustainable selfhood.

Rich and subtle

A great deal of approbation has already been heaped on Absolution. Jay Parini, author of the recent excellent novel The Passages of Herman Melville, described Flanery as arriving on the scene “wholly formed: a writer of superb self-confidence, depth of insight, and resolute clarity”. Even GQ, surely a meaningful benchmark, identified Flanery as “an extraordinary new writer”.

It will be intriguing to set South African reviews alongside these glowing evaluations.

For my part, I can only endorse the praise. The novel is rich and subtle in its textures and its evocation of characters, interactions and events. And it compels one to think, somewhat obliquely, about many of the questions that have preoccupied all South Africans and, particularly, post-apartheid novelists.

Without reiterating a naive nationalism, Flanery’s status as an insider-outsider may have something to do with this obliquity. He has studied South African literature and has written about it elegantly and convincingly. His knowledge of the country is detailed and, with the exception of one or two minor lapses, his idiom and diction are impeccably local.

But he seems less settled on a version of South Africa’s past and less exhausted by its reiteration. Perhaps, given his situation, he is less susceptible to the ennui that has resulted in some of our most important writers hiving off into genre ­fiction.

Flanery takes nothing for granted. Just as our scene is less familiar to him, his writing makes it somehow less familiar to us. His perspective on South Africa is less resigned, less exhausted — which, in truth, is a very welcome relief.

At the Cape Town Book Fair some years ago, I was engaged in a public debate concerning the definition of South African literature. I was one of a panel of judges that awarded Coetzee an M-Net Literary Award for Diary of a Bad Year and several members of the audience were disgruntled that he was even considered, given his emigration to ­Australia.

Because Flanery is American, Absolution will not be considered for any South African literary awards.

The more interesting question, though, concerns the contours of our “national literature”. Championed first under the banners of “Commonwealth” and then “postcolonial”, South African literature was fashioned in relation and contrast to the British and American canons.

Although the notion of a “national literature” might well be weakening in many contexts, it has been fundamentally undermined in this country. We are facing a number of questions. Is South African literature written only by citizens? Does holding a passport make you South African enough? Do novels about South Africa but written by Americans, Zimbabweans or Liberians qualify at all? How and why does this sense of belonging matter?

Absolution will be an important test case. In a world in which love, employment or fear compel so many to cross national borders, we may need to conceive new ways of imagining constellations of literary works. At some point in the future, global flows of people and text might finally displace our narrow conceptions of bordered constituencies.

Perhaps they have already done so.

Flanery is an important interlocutor in post-apartheid literature. He has entered the conversation ­elegantly, insightfully and with flourish. It is tempting to say that he has added significantly to “our” literature, but that is exactly the challenge Absolution poses.

In the modern intellectual context, we are justifiably sceptical of claims to universality — an essential recognition of cultural variety has taught us that we think of “all of humanity” at our peril. But the danger of a soft-peddling multiculturalism is a version of the ghetto.

Absolution is one of countless ­reasons to celebrate the crossing of borders.

Michael Titlestad teaches literature at the University of the Witwatersrand

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