Africa dreaming

Country of My Skull

Antjie Krog <em>Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99</em>

The Burden of Memory, t

South Africa and Nigeria are, actually or potentially, the twin giants of the African continent, even if their appallingly bloody recent histories threw up seemingly impassable barriers against a more hopeful future. South Africa seems to have come through those barriers, in a transformation that is routinely, and not foolishly, called miraculous - though it would indeed be foolish to understate its fragility or ambiguity. Nigeria, still under military rule after several failed or deliberately aborted transitions to democracy, has its future hanging in the balance.

A key element, perhaps the most truly magical one, in South Africa's "miracle" has been the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most remarkable moral figures of our times, it was charged by the new government with compiling the fullest possible picture of past human rights abuses; to establish the truth of that terrible recent past, and through doing so prevent its perpetuation. Truth and reconciliation were seen as inseparably linked; neither was possible without the other.

Country of My Skull is an observer's account of the TRC's hearings and the events around them by a South African radio reporter and important Afrikaans poet. Simultaneously, Wole Soyinka - Nigeria's (and perhaps Africa's) greatest writer, but also its most famous political dissident - has pondered the wider meanings of the TRC and asks what lessons it may carry for his own country and indeed for the whole continent. Krog's and Soyinka's books, composed thousands of miles apart though equally impassioned, are thus yoked together with surprising intimacy.

Krog's account is compelling, well written and moving. But it is open to some sharp criticisms - and they've not been lacking in responses to the book within South Africa. In placing herself, her reactions and mood swings so much at the centre of the story as she follows the appalling testimony of the victims, is Krog not displaying a distasteful narcissism? Doesn't her "postmodern" scepticism about the notion of historical truth, interspersing her documentary account with fictionalised autobiographical passages, involve a kind of intellectual frivolity when set against the weight of pain the commission documents? And her confrontations with her own prejudices, including the admission that she cannot "read" the emotions and body language of her fellow black citizens as easily as the whites, might be thought either admirably honest or disconcertingly self-indulgent.

Krog's book should ideally be read alongside the TRC report itself (available in its entirety online at The report, not just a dry summation, allows victims, survivors and perpetrators to speak for themselves. It includes the commissioners' own reflections on what makes people become oppressors, or on the links between masculinity and violence.

Soyinka's latest non-fiction book is less impressive, and seemingly less carefully crafted, than its immediate predecessor on the Nigerian crisis, The Open Sore of a Continent (1996). Indeed its two halves - the first more directly political, musing on the ideas of reconciliation, reparations, forgiveness, truth and memory in the aftermath of tyranny; the second a more literary reflection on the legacy of the "negritude" poets - are only loosely articulated, with the South African example the connecting thread. The text veers between acute insights and portentous generalisations.

Soyinka arouses passions, especially among his fellow Nigerians, as strong as those he expresses himself. The pro-government Nigerian press has recently been filled with unpleasant and, if even a quarter true, damaging stories about Soyinka's behaviour. That's only to be expected, and could easily be dismissed were it not that some of the same accusations are repeated by more independent-minded critics, and are circulating widely among the global Nigerian Internet community.

Soyinka brings to his political writings the same taste for polemic and satire that make his plays so compelling. He is a forceful, scathingly funny critic of his literary and political opponents; but he is not a discriminating or magnanimous one. He may not be the "tribalist" that some enemies have called him but he can refer, gratuitously, to people's ethnic origins, and his justified pride in the cultural achievements of his own Yoruba tradition sometimes shades towards chauvinism. And he couldn't be called a consistent political thinker. In some places he warns solemnly and movingly against the desire for revenge that so often follows the fall of dictatorship and which South Africa has so far impressively avoided. It is clear, though, that Soyinka himself cannot resist the impulse to vengeance.

Wole Soyinka aspires, it seems, to become Nigeria's Vaclav Havel: a philosopher-president overseeing the country's passage back to democracy. He certainly has the intellectual standing and courage for the role. It remains to be seen whether he can achieve the generosity of spirit - the capacity to bring people together - of a Havel, Nelson Mandela or Tutu. Despite being a country of such potential wealth and creativity, Nigeria remains mired in autocracy, corruption and factional violence. Soyinka may be too volatile, too much the angry old man, to attain the required qualities to lead the country back to democratic health.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis