Where I Stand 10/04/16

Notes on a new fiction called The Albertsburg Judgement:

The Albertsburg Judgement is a conscious collaboration with the tradition of colonial and post-colonial fictions whose anti-realism is not necessarily hostile to the real. Its direct literary progenitors, whose works are interlaced within the text, are the fictions of Albert Camus, J.M. Coetzee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kamel Daoud, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and, perhaps slightly contentiously, Joseph Conrad, in a work like Nostromo, George Orwell and Franz Kafka[1].

Coetzee is an obvious influence. I am acutely aware that within my own writing and my own position, as an ‘uncomfortable male colonial’, my concerns mirror his and that certain of his themes are replicated within my work.  One such disquiet, as explicated by Gayatri Spivak in her discussion of Coetzee’s Foe, is the awareness and opposition to the Sartrean idea that:

Every project, even that of a Chinese, an Indian or a Negro, can be understood by a European…there is always some way of understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive man or a foreigner if one has sufficient information.[2]

Much like Coetzee’s Friday in Foe, the story of the character Thales, the umbrella salesman murdered by the police during a colonial or apartheid era, is not fully retold despite Judge O’Higgin’s attempts to reconstruct it from compromised judicial records. Instead what remains of are the threads and vestiges of a revolutionary narrative corrupted and distorted by the politics and rhetoric of the past and the present, as well as by cultural distance.

In The Albertsburg Judgment I attempt to be conscious of limits, of who and on what terms fictional characters can become the proxies for the specificities of culture and gender.  Whose voice is claimed and who ‘they speak for’ is of paramount concern to me, and it is in accordance with this that my characters tend towards being amalgamations of various identities, inhabiting the grey spaces betwixt and between. In saying this, however, I do not endeavour to deny distinctiveness. There are specific identities within the text but I wish the reader to be cognisant of the fact that I speak for, and on behalf of, no other ethnicity or gender – I claim, as a writer, no knowledge (or at the very least only a dim one) of anybody’s specific history or cultural inheritance.  To adapt Seamus Heaney’s formulation: whatever I say, I say nothing. Or perhaps the idea was even more appositely found in the mouth of Albert Camus when he stated: ‘I speak for no one: I have trouble enough finding my own words.’ With this in mind characters like ‘the engineer’ and Judge O’Higgin’s husband are silenced, their presence is limpid and taciturn and they offer neither political nor personal revelations.

However, this attitude is not derived from a position merely of ‘uncomfortableness’. I do not wish to avoid pronouncement or withhold judgment, but instead it derives from my own colonial status within Africa, a status which is a ghostly one. As such I try to acknowledge and explore of the point made by Coetzee, Jacobson and Watson when they argued that the English speaking whites of South Africa are in many ways identityless and rootless.  As Dan Jacobson once wrote, ‘[t]he white [South African] writer is a member of a society which has no roots in the past, or no past at all; his present so far as it is stable, is tawdry, vulgar and thin.’ As Watson has said of Meursault: ‘he carries at his core that malady of the soul, the self, which afflicts all men without a past, without history, who must perforce live without a cultural ballast which might give some substance to their self and otherwise stabilise their identity.’ (149)

But if there is a form of stability for this reality then it is one delimited by hybridity. For if there is a primogenitor to the South African pied-noir then it is in the mixture of Irish, English, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, French Huguenot, Lebanese, Italian, German, Afrikaans, Jewish, Greeks and Portuguese. For whites such as myself have no culture, only the strains of distant disinherited cultures. We speak an antiquated and pidgin Victorian dialect, infected with words and constructions from Afrikaans or ‘Kitchen Dutch’, Xhosa, Zulu, Yiddish and Portuguese.  We are the adulterated sons and daughters of the pursuers of profit, of empire builders, wanderers, colonial adventures, colonial administrators, refugees, apartheid-era fellow-travelers, prisoners of war and parvenus. It is with this specifically in mind that the language of the novel derived and the personalities of the police and the mayor of are created.

This awareness is, however, not only a personal one and is not simply constructed with a colonial identity in mind.  It is most importantly an awareness of a post-colonial state and its hybridity. It is this that adds another layer to the idea of ‘version’ or influence that I am attempting to create and explicate. For I do not wish to deny identity but instead acknowledge its penumbra within the post-colonial setting.  Here I follow Edward Said when he said: ‘my principal aim is not to separate but to connect and I am interested in this for the main philosophical and methodological reason that cultural forms are hybrid, mixed, impure.’ Like Kamel Daoud, in The Meursault Investigation, I am concerned with the post-colonial notion of duplication, of just how the post-colonial world has replicated the colonial and what this means for the cultures that inhabit these spaces. In line with Homi K. Bhabha I would argue that there ‘is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.’ (1)

[1] Although Orwell and Kafka are not colonial or post-colonial writers per se I have added them to the list not only because of the influence on my work in general and this work in particular but because Orwell’s formative experiences in the empire and Kafka’s position within a the Austo-Hungarian Empire.

[2] Spivak, G. C. (1990). Theory in the Margin: Coetzee’s Foe Reading Defoe’s “Crusoe/Roxana”. English in Africa, 17(2), 1–23. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40238659

 

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