Absolution | No Time Like the Present

Visions of life beyond apartheid.

Johannesburg vigilantes
Living with violence: some Johannesburg residents take the law into their own hands, not trusting police.

Absolution
Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £12.99

No Time Like the Present
Nadine Gordimer
Bloomsbury, 432pp, £18.99

The South African novel under apartheid was a relatively straightforward thing, a piece of propaganda or protest, anti-imperial allegory at its most indirect. The novel of the post-apartheid years - coming up to 20 of them - is required to be subtler and more discerning, comfortable with paradox and shades of grey, alert to what the journalist Rian Malan has called the amicable coexistence of "mutually annihilating truths". Towards the end of Nadine Gordimer's magnificent new novel, a former combatant reflects that there's "irony that didn't exist in the clarity of the cadres, you were for or against, simply a matter of life or death, apartheid the death-in-life". One complication, one site of irony, has been the emergence of new kinds of language in South Africa - the quasi-religious language of reconciliation and rehabilitation and a political language of promises and pledges, mottos and mantras.

Thankfully, there are novelists up to the task of making sense of these languages in language of their own - in Gordimer's case, a bespoke style, at once rich and pure, which combines modernist intransigence with a fable-like naiv­ety. The American writer Patrick Flanery uses a number of styles in his first novel, Absolution, an attempt both to calculate the costs of the armed struggle against apartheid and to scrutinise the ways in which the costs are calculated, the private and vested always getting in the way of a sober historical reckoning.

The protagonist of Flanery's tale is Sam Leroux, a young academic who returns to South Africa from the US to write a biography of Clare Wald, the celebrated and reclusive author of Cacophony, Dissidence and In a Dry Country. Wald has something in common with Gordimer, who fell out with her own generally authoritative biographer, Ronald Suresh Rob­erts, and something in common with J M Coetzee, whose views on state censorship she shares, but it's clear enough which of these writers has had the more decisive influence on Flanery. An inquiry into the ethical accountability of the writer and the ethical and epistemological problems of "life-writing", written (some of the time) in the present tense and using third-person autobiography, Absolution invites comparison with such books as Slow Man and Summertime. But Flanery is a warmer writer than Coetzee, his relationship with the reader more conventional, and the book's flaws are generally earthbound ones - flaws of craft rather than vision.

As a character, Sam is a truth-seeker, but as a narrator, he has a tendency to withhold, and for spurious reasons. If the book is to function as a thriller, then Sam must not only conceal things but also inform the reader, quite obtrusively, of the concealment. On the first page, when he arrives at Clare's house, he recalls a meeting, five years earlier in Amsterdam, and then writes: "There was the other time, too, of course." Soon after, he insists: "I can't allow myself to think of the past, not yet." The upside of such compromises is a terrific amount of excitement and tension, just as the tidiness, the ounce-perfect freighting, of certain developments bring with them the benefits of Flanery's historical intelligence.

The novel builds up a glorious mosaic of forms, though some of the pieces are slightly chipped. Sam's unfolding account of his return to South Africa and his encounters with Clare is vivid, especially in its evocation of Cape Town and Johannesburg, but also prone to melodrama. Flanery gives him a second means of self-exploration (a third-person memoir of his childhood) but then has the adult Sam, the Sam we know, poking through, to inform us that the character is "me, or some version of me".

Clare's private diary, addressed to her missing daughter, an anti-apartheid campaigner, is identified as "this fractured narrative of longing and lamentation". Only the excerpts from Clare's "volume of fictionalised memoirs" and the transcripts of (invented) Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings are offered to the reader without anxiety, apology or justification. Yet what emerges is a portrait of South Africa as a land of aftermath. Children live under a cloud of anger or guilt about the actions of their parents, and vice versa. Survivors of apartheid speak not of their fortune but of their isolation. They are the ones left behind, victims of other people's risks.

The South Africa of today is seductive territory for a novelist - seductive enough to attract the attention of someone born in California - not least because of its symbolic compactness, its hint of psychic trauma. The idea of the Rainbow Nation, a remarkably convincing mirage, flourished not because the problems had been dealt with but because some had been dealt with (legalised racism, authoritarian rule) and others ignored (Aids, the need for land reform). What's left is notionally a multi-ethnic dem­ocracy, but a multi-ethnic democracy with only one electable party in which the old problems of race, by no means solved, have been joined by new ways of construing identity, of building barriers.

Gordimer manages to tell a great deal of this story in No Time Like the Present without unbalancing or overloading her portrait of a marriage. Steve and Jabu were united by the "ethos of liberation" and became comrades and lovers during the "Struggle". But in the years of "freedom", when they are forced to make decisions about lifestyle and child-rearing as well as survival, their most basic priorities, the tastes shaped by their upbringings, become newly prominent. "You never know when you've rid yourself of the trappings of outdated life, come back subconsciously," Jabu thinks, after Steve (white, middle-class, Jewish) suggests that they move to a suburban enclosure. Yet Jabu is sympathetic, recalling that, on visits to her Zulu homeland, "she finds what her studies by correspondence would call an atavistic voice of submission replacing the one in her throat".

Steve and Jabu have few difficulties with their first child, Sindiswa, who was "born at a time when the new life of freedom was just three years old, child of change". But Sindiswa's younger brother, Gary Elias, though he takes his first steps "in the security of the suburban house", is a child of renewed upheaval. On a trip to London, he has "the air of someone nowhere, self-misplaced". His very presence on the holiday feels like a reproach, reminding Steve and Jabu of problems left behind in South Africa - university students in his case, "the exploited" seeking legal representation in hers. It's a relief when Gary Elias shows enthusiasm for visiting Jabu's father, a Methodist preacher "who could read the being of male children".

Public life in the new South Africa is presented as topsy-turvy, out of joint. Government ministers show a taste for Cuban cigars not out of "brotherhood with Castro" but to exhibit their capitalist rights, their capitalist riches. The Struggle has produced heroes but heroism cannot help but have "an imperialistic halo", its emphases on individual achievement so at odds with the idea of the "cadre". As Gordimer puts it, "an irony (again)", "contradiction (again)". For Steve, it's just a tale of dashed hopes and decline, with the younger generation becoming "inured to disturbance". He proposes a move to Australia and fights hard for the idea but he's never quite comfortable with it, for the same reason that Malan found it "odd" that Coetzee emigrated to Australia. Why remove yourself from the drama "while it's still under way"? A free South Africa is all that Steve and Jabu have ever cared about; life elsewhere, whatever its comforts, would be no life at all.

Gordimer's style - prophetic in its tone, primitive in its punctuation, Latinate in its syntax - is occasionally reminiscent of Henry Green in his early novels, Henry James in his late ones. Abstract nouns are given concrete use - "a single sensuousness" refers to a man and woman making love, "an emerging awareness" to a child's mind rather than what it possesses. Question marks are withheld (for questions, anyway). Synonymous verbs are set down side by side without so much as a comma to separate them. The result is about as far from being like a windowpane as prose can get but it succeeds in its only aim, of hacking through the thickets of false consciousness to find a realm of hard-worn truth.

The novel opens with the thought that Glengrove Place, where Steve and Jabu lived during "clandestinity", must have been named "by a Scot or Englishman for features of a home left behind". Language, harnessed to power, cannot be relied on to describe or define, only to contort and dissemble. Gordimer sometimes takes a phrase, liberates it from speech marks and damns it in its own utopian terms: "Jacob Zuma will change all that hasn't been changed to make better the better life for all." An obscurantist rhetoric, all self-serving euphemism and corner-cutting doublespeak, emerges as the language not just of the African National Congress but of the whole republic during this age of corruption and failure.

Gordimer's title might sound glib but it opens all kinds of thematic territory and prompts a powerful question: when will South Africa have a present? Its "process of becoming" seems an interminable one. If the present isn't suffering from a "hangover", as one character puts it, it's being burdened with impossible hope. Gordimer might have been a descendant of the European novelists of the 19th century but history prevented it; her freedom to become a practitioner of bourgeois realism is inextricably tied to her country's dream of conventional civilian life.

It's a dream that the new novel, though contemptuous of false optimism, is reluctant to abandon in despair. Occasionally, Gordimer uses the word "immediate" to suggest not a substantive, fully accomplished present but a transitory sense of now, as when Steve and Jabu are distracted from talking about Australia and their vision of a life after post-apartheid: "Normal life takes up attention and energy. The immediate on its track."

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Tags:Africa