New South African writers such as Damon Galgut, nominated for the Booker Prize for The Good Doctor, have been largely ignored by the UK literary establishment. “If you’re not one of the Holy Trinity – Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink and J M Coetzee – you’re unlikely to get reviewed, asked on to the radio or interviewed on TV,” says Isobel Dixon of the London literary agency Blake Friedmann, which represents a dozen South African authors.
Yet the South African novel has moved on, for the better in many ways, since the Holy Trinity established their reputations. Then, it enjoyed the added allure of being protest literature. It was inextricably rooted in apartheid, a dramatic platform for any writer, and a mesmerising backdrop for tales of passion and tragedy, cruelty and courage. That served to intensify the power of talents such as Brink and Gordimer. But it also provided a leg-up for lesser writers. Atop the high altar of protest, some rather slight artistic offerings could still give the impression of size.
That was as true for playwrights as for novelists. And when apartheid ended, some thought South African writing would founder on the loss of its principal theme. This seems to have happened in the theatre, which has also suffered from the virtual disappearance of state funding. But despite the gloom of critics such as Roy Robins (see main piece), fiction, after some false starts, shows signs of reinventing itself.
“There has been a struggle to find something other than the protest mode,” says Dr Michael Titlestad, who runs a creative writing programme at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. “The flamboyantly optimistic ‘rainbow nation’ literature of post-1994 wasn’t viable. A new identity had to be found and it’s emerging more fully fledged now.”
The novels now appearing don’t have a common theme or style, though they share a new confidence and individuality of voice. There remains a preoccupation with history, if more ghostly than before – the ghost of a police rape in Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, the ghost of the Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse in Zakes Mda’s enthralling The Heart of Redness. But there is a lighter touch, more accomplished storytelling and, where race and identity surface, the treatment is less polemical, more subtle and human. The certainties of apartheid are gone, to be replaced by something – as The Good Doctor shows – more ambivalent and unsettling, but also rather more interesting. “Writers are claiming a new identity that’s no longer simply ‘I’m white, you’re black, I’m guilty, you’re suffering’,” says Professor Stephen Watson, head of English at the University of Cape Town.
None of this is making much impression in Britain. Mike Nicol, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk, Ivan Vladislavic are all writing front-rank fiction, and most have been published here, more or less invisibly. Mda, perhaps the most original voice among them, is very successful in the US – “face out”, as they say in the book trade – but almost unknown here. Zoe Wicomb’s first work, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, is now out of print in the UK though recently reissued in the US. Her latest, David’s Story, is published in the US but not in Britain, even though she is a university lecturer here. “I don’t bother with the UK any more,” Wicomb says. “I go straight to the US, where there’s a huge black readership.” She has made similar appearances in Germany and Italy.
Watson says: “It’s a first world/third world thing. The first world is so glutted, people have very little mind space for other literary scenes. So they take one, perhaps two or three, writers as representative of another culture. Then there’s a resistance to acknowledging that there could be others.”
But it is true that these writers struggle for an audience in South Africa, where the number of literary publishers has halved in the past decade. When Galgut’s Booker nomination was announced, he got a flurry of calls from South African newspapers and TV. These were the very same people who, when his book was published locally, had shown absolutely no interest at all.