Saturday, April 30, 2016

Alex La Guma: Time of the Butcherbird (1979)

Original jacket, pulpy fun that blithely (or perhaps carefully) by-passes the novel's racial context

This is the second La Guma novel that I've read. I've gone straight from his first (A Walk in the Night, 1962) to his last, Time of the Butcherbird (1979).

It was a controversial novel, and the implication of its relative inferiority to its predecessors has tended to linger on. (Maybe the original jacket didn't help much.)

South Africa was in crisis, and the novel partakes in that crisis. Violence spills over. (La Guma never pretends that violence is accurately-directed. Murile hits his bull's-eye with Hannes Meulen, but he also takes out Edgar Stopes, a man he's never met.) The novel laments individuality but sees it as dispensible, even unwanted, in present circumstances. For the first time La Guma devoted much of his novel's energy to white characters, but the prose is tense with its struggle to see those white characters as other than empty shells. There are two very different brands of racism in the bigoted Afrikaner and complicit English groups, but both are equally destructive. That of course is a humanist way of looking at it. Time of the Butcherbird could be seen as a novel where the novel's intrinsic humanism is in distress and is tested. Also tested is the noir style that La Guma began from: that too depends on a security of humanist response, on which its hard-bitten manner plays a piquant variation.

Noir, nevertheless, remains an important bedrock of the book. Whether it's Meulen talking to Steen or Mma-Tau talking to Murile, the prose makes no explicit judgments, it merely narrates. The compression and selection still accounts for a large part of the book's power and poetry.

I think it's a fantastic book. It certainly is less perfect than A Walk in the Night but then it's twice as long and much more ambitious.

What might be, and has been, considered thinness in the characterization is really down to a deliberate honing of repeated motifs. These are sparse people in a sparse country. Shilling Murile is nearly always "the one who was called Shilling Murile", and his only prop is his pair of boots. Madonele is always thinking about the tobacco. (Both the tobacco and the boots are connected to Murile's ten years in jail.) The unfortunate Timi is excited and innocently drunk: what else do we need to know about him? And characters of whom we see much, such as Edgar Stopes, turn out to be obsessively narrow in their outlook, always thinking and feeling the same things. In the drought (endless, so far as the book is concerned), nature too is composed of the faintest variations on repetition: every day the sun burns and the dust swirls. It's the passing of time, but it's also, as the title says, a time. A static condition. "Our course is set," says Hannes Meulen.

The primary images are of faces, land and sun. La Guma's writing  is unashamedly inventive on these subjects, like a pulp author.


'There,' her father said. 'You see you are going to have a wife who will out do you in public activities, so be careful, son.'

Meulen chuckled, 'She can help me with my speeches.'

'What -- about wild flowers?' Rina asked and they laughed.

The rest of the meal was frikadells, yellow rice cooked with raisins, boiled vegetables, beet salad and apricot chutney. They passed dishes among them and Steen called on the servant to bring the peach brandy from the lounge.  (p. 63)

Rina wants to borrow trucks to transport drought-stricken wild flowers to parks where they can be preserved. Meulen is happy to lend her the trucks, once they've been used to take the evicted kaffirs to the railway for transportation into the pitiless Karoo. (La Guma anticipates the "green colonialism" described by Naomi Klein.)

Conversation at dinner is high-toned, about the challenges and duties of preserving God's culture and racial purity in a time of liberalization.

Before dinner, Steen had mildly cajoled Meulen for using the word "kaffir": - "We call them Bantus now." But a few moments later he says:

'I suppose those black things will move?'

Steen inherited money and hasn't needed to farm for a few years, but he's still very interested in making his pile from the minerals concession.

La Guma's book really has some admiration for the principled, orderly lives of the Afrikaners; compared to the shallow, hopeless, unhappy consumerism of the British South Africans Edgar and Maisie.

So he sees the ingrained racism of Steen and Meulen as a tragedy for their own people as well as for the peoples they oppress.

How far the depersonalization of Steen's remark can go, comes out in the account of what happened ten years before, during the wedding night of Meulen's sister.

Such a celebration ought, you would think, to bring reconciliation between people; and that's how the drunk Murile sees it. Actually its effect on Meulen is the opposite: to make him even prouder, even more repulsed by the subject race, and even more punitive. Murile and his baby brother are treated to volleys of "baboon" and "filth" as they're lashed to fence posts with electric flex. But most telling of all is Meulen's reponse to Murile's plea of acquaintance.

'Baas, you know me. This is a bad thing to do, boss. Why, you know me. I carried the buck which you shot, I cleaned your guns, you know me.'

'Know you shit,' Meulen said with contempt. 'Since when do I know a kaffir? One kaffir looks just like another as it concerns me.'

It's important for Meulen's self-respect not to recognize "kaffirs". (Ten years on, there's a careful irony in Meulen not recognizing the man in the hotel garden who's carrying his shotgun.)


For Meulen, his fairy-tale beloved and his Dominee the racial hierarchy is imagined to be sustainable. Edgar and Maisie are more consciously troubled. Theirs is no fairy-tale romance, in fact each wishes the other dead most of the time. And their backgrounds are socially precarious; the shop of Maisie's parents has black customers and they live in a dubious neighbourhood. Edgar is conscious of being treated like "a bloody nigger". They aren't attractive people themselves and they achieve no enlightenment but the book shows this as a missed opportunity, that whites on the edge of society may have more in common with the urban blacks than they realize.

Lanius collaris

[Image source:]

In southern Africa the "butcherbird" is the Southern Fiscal (Lanius collaris), a kind of shrike. (Unrelated to the Australian butcherbirds, which are in the magpie family.)

The bird was named from its habit of impaling insects and other food on thorns. The butcherbird is considered beneficial, especially by farmers whose animals were tormented by ticks. He is "a hunter and a smeller-out of sorcerers", as Shilling Murile says.

So the novel meditates on a time of violent cleansing.


The wealthier Afrikaners have stinkwood furniture in their homes. This is Black Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata), formerly prized by cabinet-makers for its beautiful close-grained timber, but no longer commercially available due to over-exploitation.


When Meulen arrives Steen is reading "a story by Potgieter". This was the Dutch author Everhardus Johannes Potgieter (1808-1875), romantic, extremely patriotic, a firm believer in trade and a good businessman.


Extensive essay by Kathleen M. Balutansky (Google Books has nearly all of it) in The Novels of Alex La Guma: The Representation of a Political Conflict (Three Continents Press, 1990). Structured around the symbolisms of the title and the opening and closing paragraphs.

Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, "Sharpeville and its Aftermath: The Novels of Richard Rive, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma and Lauretta Ngcobo" Argues that Butcherbird suffers from the author's long exile and resorting to a non-South African readership; it is less concretely imagined than his earlier urban works. Says there are minor mistakes "such as putting Sesotho words in the mouths of Xhosa-speaking Africans from the Cape where his novel is set".

Annie Gagiano, '"The Tree Goes on":Reconsidering Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird' in English in Africa Vol 24 No 1 (May 1997).  Available on Jstor:
Troubled by the novel's apparent celebration of Murile's revenge killing.

Louis Tremaine, 'Ironic Convergence in Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird'. . In the one-page extract, Tremaine refers to La Guma's observation, a few years earlier, that the colour bar made it impossible for any South African writer to portray both white and black characters with equal inwardness, and points out that Butcherbird is his first book to attempt to portray white characters at length.

Anders Breidlid, "Resistance and Reaction in Alex La Guma's And A Threefold Chord". Thinks in depth about Benita Parry's criticism that La Guma's realist fiction isn't an adequate form for a genuine resistance literature or oppositional discourse.

Simon Lewis's review of Nahem Yousaf's Alex La Guma: Politics and Resistance (2001) . Asks the question, how do we read La Guma's Fanonism now, given that the apartheid regime ended without a civil war in 1994? (La Guma died in 1985.)

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers & Empire has a chapter on La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End, (Selected pages on Google Books.) He points out that some of the changes disernible in Butcherbird, compared to its predecessor, are down to the  intervening Soweto massacres following the children's uprising in 1976.  Time of the Butcherbird was written when the long-foreseen civil war seemed to be already under way.


My earlier piece on Alex La Guma's first novel, A Walk in the Night

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