Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor

Tainted by the poison of South Africa's past

By Barbara Trapido
Friday 12 December 2003 01:00

This South African novel tells a powerful story of how the toxins of apartheid still seep into the life of one small"Coloured" family: individuals from that group who, in their physical attributes, their cultural baggage, their surnames (Viljoen, Oliphant), carry the history of the conqueror's more intimate conquests. Thanks to Nadine Gordimer and others, the white dissident experience has been documented. Achmat Dangor's novel not only fills a gap, but does so with the elegiac beauty of a work by John McGahern.

The catalyst in this family tragedy is the reappearance in the life of Silas Ali of Francois du Boise, a loutish white security policeman who, 20 years earlier, raped Ali's wife having thrown Silas into a police van. The rape was an ugly, drunken affair, accompanied by racial insults. Now du Boise has reappeared, pathetic, disfigured by skin cancer, seeking amnesty for multiple rapes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Silas, meanwhile, is a lawyer close to the ANC goverment and a participant in the Commission. But the story, for all its political context, is stonger for keeping its focus on the evolving family drama, which it does through a series of interior sequences devoted in turn to Silas, to his wife Lydia, and to their meltingly beautiful but troubled and somewhat Oedipal son, Mikey.

Silas is the estranged grandson of a revered Johannesburg imam. Not unusually, the imam took as second wife Angelina Pelgron, daughter of a white working-class Afrikaner, a woman whom the apartheid state saw fit to wrench away for rehab in a bleak white suburb. Silas grows up a streetwise, secular township adolescent, who goes on to move in multi-ethnic dissident circles, though he marries a beautiful, apolitical nurse. Lydia Ali, also from a Coloured family, has grown up a devout Catholic in Natal until hardship drives her family to Johannesburg. Lydia never learns to be comfortable in her husband's world. Her solace is in a kind of telepathic devotion to her son and her hospital duties, while her leisure pursuits are severe. She reads challenging literary fiction and listens, through headphones, to the music of Philip Glass.

After the rape, Lydia's two decades of unspoken grief suffuse the house. In an extraordinary vignette, we see husband and wife in what appears a reconciling embrace, a sort of erotic dance, until we realise that Lydia is "dancing" with bare feet on broken glass.

Mikey is one of that blessed first generation of post-apartheid youth. He is winning golden opinions at university, both for his English Literature essays and his pale brown body, which older white women can't resist. He has more than his fair share of identity problems which, stewing in the strained atmosphere of home, are about to reach the boil. This is a haunting story of a family disintegrating, wonderfully authentic on its context, gender and generation, its progress like slow dancing.

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