Thursday, April 05, 2012

apartheid eyes

Alex La Guma published A Walk in the Night in 1962, two years after the Sharpeville Massacre and a year after the Treason Trial finally came to an end. (La Guma was himself one of those arrested in 1957, though not one of the final thirty defendants; some, maybe all, of the book was written in jail in 1959.)

A Walk in the Night is a thrilling, grimy novella set in Capetown's District Six. In La Guma's book District Six is presented as an arena characterized by wretched poverty, crushed aspirations and desperate brags in the face of apartheid's brutal suppressions.

Four years later the area was designated Whites Only. Existing residents were relocated (1968-82) - mainly to the bleak Cape Flats - and buildings were bulldozed.

Government officials gave four primary reasons for the removals. In accordance with apartheid philosophy, it stated that interracial interaction bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races. They deemed District Six a slum, fit only for clearance, not rehabilitation. They also portrayed the area as crime-ridden and dangerous; they claimed that the district was a vice den, full of immoral activities like gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Though these were the official reasons, most residents believed that the government sought the land because of its proximity to the city center, Table Mountain, and the harbor. (Wikipedia)

The government might well have referred to A Walk in the Night to justify their portrait of District Six. They probably didn't, though. It would also have publicized the book's portrayal of ingrained police brutality, corruption and racism.

Perhaps because it was bulldozed, District Six is sometimes remembered in rather a nostalgic spirit, with former residents emphasizing that it was a site for relatively unpoliced mingling of races and cultures, and a meeting-place for musicians, writers and politicians engaged in the struggle.

La Guma writes it differently. He produces a sort of pulp-noir-ish Capetown, but in which the heroes are definitely not the investigators. As with a lot of noir the language is frequently torqued into simile. La Guma's similes often derive from pulp but effloresce in a way that I think of as characteristically African (basing this grossly inadequate idea on Moore's and Beier's Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry).

Here's one of the epic motifs of Borden Chase's 1946-9 Red River (which I wrote more about here)

A bull of a man. A brute of a man. Thick-necked, low-jowled, with eyes that looked out at you like the rounded grey ends of bullets in a pistol cylinder.

It's easy to see connections between Thomas Dunson, brutal hero pioneer, and the brutal white police constables in A Walk in the Night. But the efflorescence of the eye image in La Guma is not limited to Police Constable Raalt. The shape of eyes, and the opacity of the things that eyes are compared to, become important.

They saw the flat grey eyes under the gingerish eyebrows, hard and expressionless as the end of pieces of lead pipe, pointed at them.

These eyes can stare unblinkingly at the monster of injustice that should blind them. For to see is to accept. This makes them, in a terrible sense, strong.

They can also, as the word "pointed" indicates, fire bullets. Early in the book, when Michael Adonis is routinely hassled and searched, it's emphasized that you never look into the eyes of a police officer.

When it comes to Michael and Willieboy, on the other hand, what's emphasized are, not the seeing irises, but the colours of the whites of the eyes; what lies behind; what betrays itself; vulnerability and victimhood - but also a human soul. In their present state of existence the humanity tends to be expressed as sullenness and resentment.

The simile of the lead piping is intellectual and then sensuous. It is not something that instantly evokes eyes, but you can work it out: the collar of lead is the iris, and the hole in the middle is the pupil. The same intellectual element exists in this metaphor:

Night crouched over the city. The glow of street lamps and electric signs formed a yellow haze, giving it a pale underbelly that did not reach far enough upwards to absorb the stars that spotted its purple hide.

A crouching beast does not instantly evoke a clear night, but La Guma does draw out two unexpected resemblances, i.e. the pale underbelly and the spotted hide. It's an intellectual work-out, but the result is an emotion, the sense of feeling crushed by gargantuan forces.

*

Michael Adonis and Willieboy have a great deal in common, intentionally so. (The law makes a mistake, and pursues Willieboy for Michael's crime, but the terms of "crime", "innocence" and "guilt" are all problematic here.) Both are boys in trouble, but Michael at the start of the book is more or less going straight; he has just been dismissed from a legit job. One of the reasons for the dismissal, aside from the bosses being gits and bastards, is that Michael takes exception to being incorrectly called black (as opposed to coloured). It's a distinction he mentions several times. Willieboy is also concerned with his ethnic identity, but it comes out in a different way: he objects to foreigners (white sailors) muscling in on "our girls".

* My copy was published in the Heinemann African Writers Series, to which I owe so many great debts over the years. The series is probably moribund, but it isn't easy to tell. Naturally I supposed that Heinemann might have a web page devoted to celebrating and selling it. But no. http://www.heinemann.com and http://www.pearsonschoolsandfecolleges.co.uk/International/International.aspx are both nearly useless. All distribution is apparently via arcane local offices and trade channels.

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