La Guma gave a voice to the voiceless
Alex La Guma’s second novel is a truly harmonious marriage of aesthetics and politics, writes Lindsay Johns.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a novel which changed my life for ever and made me who I am today. Published in 1964, Alex La Guma’s second novel, And A Threefold Cord, is an exquisitely powerful masterpiece which tells the tragic story of a coloured family of shanty dwellers on the Cape Flats and their daily struggle to survive amidst crushing poverty, violence and the unforgiving Cape winter.
Set against the iniquities of police brutality, township squalor and apartheid decadence, it is a lyrical and compassionate portrait of human misery and defiance. Racism, sickness, birth, murder and death all play their part in the novel’s terse, bleak but ultimately uplifting greatness. The stark reality of the lives of the ostracised and the impoverished is never depicted by La Guma with bitterness or self-pity, but simply with an eye for detail, and all this couched in seductive, spell-binding prose interspersed with Cape slang. At the time of publication, the book succeeded in not only giving the coloured community a much-needed voice, and what’s more, a humane and dignified one, but also in exposing the horrors of apartheid and the challenges of life on the Cape Flats to the outside world.
Fifty years on, corrugated iron shacks and dilapidated tenement blocks still remain, as does the gnawing indigence and cruel lack of opportunity. And A Threefold Cord is still as painfully relevant today as it ever was. The novel’s title – itself a quotation from Ecclesiastes about human solidarity in the face of adversity (“And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4, 12) is a bedrock of humanism worthy of Terence, Montaigne and Camus.
Reading it first as a recalcitrant teenager, I grew up wanting to be like Charlie Pauls, the novel’s protagonist. Not only did I learn from its pages the importance of steadfast resilience and dignity in the face of suffering and hardship, but the novel also taught me about the real meaning of life: love, helping others and the nobility of the human spirit.
Inspiring me to write in order to try and articulate the concerns of the dispossessed, La Guma is both my literary and intellectual hero and also as a man of principle, a beacon of integrity whose example guided me into adulthood.
La Guma not only wrote beautifully moving stories about characters I could relate to, but he used his formidable literary prowess in the service of the disenfranchised, those whom history had conspired to deny a voice.
Thanks to And A Threefold Cord, I am now also in my spare time a youth mentor and a homeless shelter volunteer. The novel prompted me to actively pursue my education, to go to university and then seek to give something back to society. It encouraged me to want to stand up to injustice and to want to help alleviate human suffering wherever possible.
Truth to tell, La Guma – the Black Dickens – whose work has both the sweep and moral power of his infinitely better known Victorian predecessor – has a magnificent but sadly neglected oeuvre. His debut novel A Walk in the Night was published in 1962, then clandestinely disseminated throughout his homeland.
This remarkably assured first work, written while its author was under house arrest for his political journalism and anti-apartheid activism, articulated many of the themes which would come to dominate La Guma’s writing over the next 20 years: fierce opposition to apartheid, a lyrical celebration of the working class coloured community, a potent use of nature as a mirror for the psychology of his protagonists and, perhaps most distinctively, a sensuous and ornate prose style, heavily infused with a Dickensian realism.
Hewn from the miasma of poverty and oppression that was the enclave of District Six, A Walk in the Night unrepentantly celebrated the lives, hopes and fragile dreams of the down-and-outs, prostitutes, skollie boys and gangsters who inhabited this tawdry, bohemian slum. The title’s Shakespearean allusion (a quotation from the ghost scene in Hamlet) set the tone for La Guma’s body of work in which he seamlessly combines and juxtaposes the coloured proletarian plight with a style deeply influenced by the Western literary canon.
The Stone Country (his prison-set third book) and In The Fog of The Season’s End, chronicling the machinations of the underground anti-apartheid resistance movement, ought to have sealed La Guma’s literary reputation. His last novel, Time of the Butcherbird, was an apocalyptic, vengeance-driven gem, telling the tale of an African man who kills his village’s Afrikaner oppressor when faced with the forced removal of his people. The novel was published in 1979, six years before La Guma’s untimely death from a heart attack aged 60 whilst serving as the ANC’s political representative in Cuba.
So why do we not hear more about La Guma and his novels today in post-apartheid South Africa? Where is the statue (or even the plaque) in his honour in his native Cape Town? And why are his books not on the national high school English syllabus?
Apart from winning one minor literary prize in 1969, La Guma’s work has been consistently overlooked in favour of arguably less talented, but more politically expedient authors. Despite several recent biographies and critical works, he has singularly failed to move beyond the confines of marginal black South African protest writing and hermetic PhD theses on to the mainstream stage dominated by his white and now black African (as opposed to coloured) counterparts.
To what can we attribute this sad turn of events? Some would argue that his work is dated, a product of a now obsolete Marxist literary aesthetic of art in the service of politics. Others might point to the inter-ethnic rivalries of the new Rainbow Nation, where coloureds, especially in the Cape (where they are in the majority) are now arguably being marginalised at the expense of those deemed to be bona fide “Africans”.
According to this view, La Guma has been overlooked because the colouredness which he passionately espouses and eloquently celebrates in his novels was unpalatable both to the old Afrikaner and now to the new and unashamedly Afrocentric government. There are those, too, who see his florid, almost Ciceronian prose style as overwrought and out of step with the more spare style that rules modern literary fiction today.
Whatever the reason, it is high time for this appalling and demeaning neglect to stop. La Guma’s novels are superb works of literature, highly crafted and stylistically complex, with a devastatingly original use of imagery, together with splendid narrative verve and brio.
Moreover, to see his novels as too didactic in their anti-apartheid stance is grossly simplistic. Whilst abhorring the wrongs of racism, capitalism and prejudice, La Guma was no mere preacher. He lived and died a consummate storyteller, full of warm humanity and palpable compassion for the downtrodden and oppressed, wherever they might be found and whatever their skin colour.
La Guma’s oeuvre is in fact that rare thing: a truly harmonious marriage of aesthetics and politics, of art for art’s sake and literature in the service of human liberty and dignity, and as such, it deserves to be celebrated far more widely. In the pantheon of great writers, let alone great African writers, his name deserves not mere inclusion, but a special place.
* Lindsay Johns is a writer and broadcaster from London. He has been visiting his family in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Newspapers.