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Absolution | No Time Like the Present

Visions of life beyond apartheid.

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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