‘How to Be a Revolutionary’: A timely catalogue of individual and societal failures

There is a moment early in CA Davids’s exquisite, elegiac new novel, How to Be a Revolutionary, when the main protagonist, Beth, looks back on her adolescent friendship with Kay, a mature, worldly ANC activist on the hardscrabble Cape Flats. 

 Beth realises that Kay “knew the things she wanted to know”.  The long list of longed-for knowledge includes mundane, universal teenage interests like “how to kiss a boy” or “how to light a cigarette from a stompie”, as well as more intellectual, lefty preoccupations, like “[h]ow to apply lessons learned from Communist China to South Africa.” 

 The final item in this list, the eponymous “How to be a revolutionary,” signposts the novel’s overall thematic focus. However, as might be expected from a novel three decades into South Africa’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back democratic transition, instead of stories of profound structural transformation, we receive tales of betrayals of revolutionary ideals, in the form of collusion, ignorance, greed and selfishness.

 Structurally, the novel intricately and masterfully interweaves four narrative strands.  The first tells the story of Beth’s 1980s adolescence and young adulthood, during which she stands broadly — and falsely — accused of having betrayed Kay to the security police, resulting in Kay’s death while setting a booby-trapped bomb. 

 The second dramatises the friendship between an adult Beth, stationed in the late 2000s as a diplomat in Shanghai, and her upstairs neighbour Zhao, a retired pro-government journalist who types away into the dark hours. 

 Third is the first-person confessional memoir, deeply embarrassing to the Chinese Communist Party, that Zhao gives to Beth to smuggle out of the country. 

 The fourth consists of a series of fictional letters written by Langston Hughes, from both Shanghai and Harlem, to an unnamed writer living in Cape Town. These missives reflect on racism, activism, writing, communism and, of course, revolution.

 The result is a catalogue of both individual and societal failures.

 There is Beth’s attempt to finger another friend of Kay’s as the informant who would likely have caused Kay’s death. This story emerges at the end of the novel, when Beth is invited to testify about Kay before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. This particular tale, involving race, class, gender-based violence and apartheid-era paranoia, is as complex and ambiguous as any of the stories that emerged in that 1990s, soul-shearing whirlwind of South Africa truth-telling; this reviewer found it unforgettable.

 There is Beth’s divorce, caused, it seems, by her husband’s inability to live with her silence when she observes ANC civil servants in the Zuma era mysteriously “step … out of a new Land Rover and [begin] alternating a rainbow collection of Ozwald Beating suits.” 

 Perhaps most disturbing is Zhao’s own collusion, which seems a mixture of one part fear, two parts naivete. In essence, it simply does not occur to Zhao to ask about the real causes of, say, the Great Chinese Famine of 1958 to 1962; one wonders here about all the South African journalists who mindlessly repeated, say, the Bell Pottinger-developed talking points about “white monopoly capital”.

 Even being a first-hand witness to the 1990 Tiananmen massacre does not entirely shatter Zhao’s faith in the official Chinese revolutionary narrative that present-day prosperity had to be built on suffering, death, and repression.

 Zhao’s fictional memoir-within-a-novel that Beth eventually has translated and published has about it both a ring of integrity — at the end he is spilling his truth — and of futility.  The fact that Zhao’s book comes from a known regime mouthpiece does threaten the Beijing government, causing them to briefly detain Beth at the airport when she tries to return to South Africa. Yet as Beth acknowledges, the contents of the manuscript will not find their way back to the mainland, and China does not care what is said about it outside its own borders.

 Finally, there are the Hughes letters. Here, the revolutionary failure seems connected to what Hughes identifies as the romantic myth of the Harlem Renaissance, the false story of artists and intellectuals who “rebelled and produced … always taking our humanity by the handful”. 

 The story Hughes tells in his letters is of black writers who spun tales palatable for white readers; a Harlem that was poor, angry and crime-ridden; and of a writing life where younger poets now “scoff when I enter a room” and where he is “still broke, still hustling”.  Little radical-chic glamour there, on the hard New York sidewalks.

 If How to be a Revolutionary contains few moments of unadulterated solace or redemption, the sheer beauty of the prose and the shrewdness of the observations will keep the reader entranced. 

 Here, in Chapter 2, is Beth’s description of Cape Town: “From above the city was a watercolour painted in azure oceans, golden sands, dark emerald forests.”

 Or here is Beth’s reflection on what it meant to her to receive Zhao’s typewritten manuscript, while living in a modern police state: “If I hadn’t fallen through a chink in the known world from the moment I received Zhao’s letters, I was at least catapulted from my life.”

 The characters are finely drawn, complex and soulful.  The historical canvas is rich, dazzling and seemingly painstakingly researched.

 How to Be a Revolutionary is a fine contribution to the canon of South African literature in English exploring the bittersweet disappointments of postapartheid democracy.  Its publication emphasises the reemergence of an important voice in South African letters, one, like Damon Galgut or Zakes Mda, who is grounded in both the details of the South African experience and those of the international scene.

 The arrival of this novel could also not be more timely in the wake of calls for revolutionary revisions to South Africa’s own Constitution, negotiated in the early 1990s.  Whatever changes lie ahead for us as a nation, books like these ask the searching, essential questions of social change: Who, really, will benefit? And how do we weigh the costs of grave error against those of oppressive inaction?

 Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University and is currently spending a year in South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar.  He writes in his personal capacity.

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