Up Against the Night
WHAT IS going on in South Africa? Her most famous writers—from Nadine Gordimer to JM Coetzee—have not painted cheerful portraits of post-apartheid South Africa. Journalist-writer-musician Rian Malan, another fierce critic, is even more sceptical about the future of the ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Justin Cartwright, a South African writer who has made London his home, gives us a glimpse of what is happening in the country in his 18th novel, Up Against the Night. It may be a tale of fiction, but anyone following the history of South Africa will not miss the harsh, complex realities of life that are at the heart of this fictional tale. Cartwright left South Africa in the Sixties to study at Trinity College in Oxford, UK, and stayed on there. However, South Africa always tugged at his heartstrings, even though this is Cartwright’s first novel in which autobiographical elements are plainly visible. There are many parallels between the novel’s main character Frank McAllister and his creator—both are successful South Africans living in London, both went to Oxford and have fathers who were anti-apartheid journalists. Both are also descendants of Piet Retief, a Boer leader, who was murdered along with his followers by the Zulu king Dingane in February 1838—and thereby hangs a tale.
The Boers would extract their revenge in December the same year by killing thousands of Zulu soldiers. And the cycle goes on: murder, vengeance, murder, revenge. In the backdrop of this complicated past, an uncertain future looms, where there are no easy answers to questions of race, identity and violence. McAllister returns to South Africa, to his beach house in Cape Town, with his Swedish lover Nellie and his daughter Lucinda, a recovering addict, as his ‘rich’ life in London threatens to crumble due to the demands of a former wife.
McAllister’s experience of South Africa is “partly thrilling, partly terrifying”. He wants to show Nellie and Lucinda everything, he wants them to see that “for all its violence and poverty and corruption” he has a strong connection with South Africa, “an irrational connection to the mountains and the landscape and the language”. But if McAllister’s association with his homeland often hinges on the romantic, his cousin Jaco’s voice is relentless in its anger. Like other Afrikaners in the post-apartheid world, Jaco feels cut off, alienated and brutalised. And he is opinionated: “Apartheid was not so bad as what everyone says, ask a Black, many of them says they was better off before. Now their own people is robbing them blind. It’s a shame.”
So who is likely to survive in present-day South Africa? Even as you flinch, you know the answer is gun-toting Jaco, who was once spared by a shark and now knows how to live amid violence. As South Africa’s reality of armed robberies, hijackings and killings seep into McAllister’s life, he almost shamelessly thanks Jaco for being there.
Soon, McAllister is forced to realise he is going to be in exile forever. He realises that it’s never easy to understand a people and a country as difficult as South Africa: “History will always be a mystery, never fully trustworthy, never wholly or fully understood by those who come after. History is a narrative written for a purpose…but it is seldom able to convey the essence of being human.” One can almost hear Professor David Lurie of Coetzee’s Disgrace saying, “One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet.”
Cartwright’s book is intense, but on the question of South Africa, its past, present and future, there have been more searing reads, not least Disgrace, which won the Booker.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer