Two journeys into the heart of darkness
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:47 PM
Anyone who has been pregnant knows that during those nine months you're a magnet for a multitude of horror stories related to pregnancy and birth. Perfectly nice, normal, kind people turn into bearers of bad news, as if unable to help themselves
I'm here to tell you that the same thing happens when you have a child living in Africa, as I do. My daughter, Courtney, is living in Eritrea for two years, where she has no running water and only sporadic electricity. The other day, I told a friend of mine that Courtney is thinking of taking a brief vacation this summer to South Africa, where she hopes to see beautiful sights and even, perhaps, get a real shower. My friend immediately mentioned that friends of hers were shot at while visiting South Africa. Another time, when I told someone that my daughter had been admitted to the hospital twice to be rehydrated while in Africa, they told me that their best friends' daughter fell into a coma and had to be airlifted out of that continent. It's not enough that I'm worried about the land mines that litter Eritrea, or that the country is in border disputes with two adjoining nations. Or that Courtney happened to be swimming in the Red Sea when the tsunami hit.
What does all this have to do with books? Apparently, all those kind, well-meaning people have book suggestions, too. One of the young doctors my husband works with said that Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart was a must-read. So, hoping to stay informed, I read it.
This was a mistake.
Don't get me wrong -- ``My Traitor's Heart'' is a good book. It's just not a book that is geared to easing the worried heart of a mother whose child is in Africa.
Malan's prominent, centuries-old Afrikaner family helped create apartheid, the official policy of racial segregation practiced in South Africa for decades. The book is subtitled ``A South African Exile Returns to Face his Country, his Tribe, and his Conscience.'' As a young newspaper reporter in the 1970s, Malan wrote about the atrocities perpetrated in South Africa under apartheid. In 1977, he left South Africa to avoid the draft, and moved to the United States for eight years. Malan returned to his country in the mid-1980s, and in 1990 published this memoir.
The book doesn't have much of a linear narrative. It's anecdotal, and it's tough reading. Malan doesn't spare the details of the horrors of the race war. I felt at times that reading the book was the equivalent of watching a movie rated X for violence. But Malan is a thoughtful, introspective guy, and it's worth reading about his struggle to understand and deal with the conflicts of South Africa.
Malan says of his youth, ``It was a more or less generically Western childhood, unfolding in generic white suburbs where almost everyone subscribed to ``Life'' and ``Reader's Digest,'' and to the generic Western verities they upheld.'' But as a teenager and young man, the liberal Malan couldn't cope with the injustices he saw every day -- and he certainly couldn't join the military to defend his country's political stance.
But going into exile wasn't a good fit, either. Malan writes, ``It struck me, after a few years in exile, that I had thrown away something very precious by leaving South Africa. Maybe it was just nostalgia, but in my memory my former life seemed somehow charged with meaning. Every day had been a battle against howling moral head winds. I had lived amidst stark good and evil, surrounded by mystery and magic.''
The catalyst for Malan's decision to go back to Africa was a letter he received from Miriam, an old servant of his family's, who wrote him in 1985 to say how terrible conditions were. ``Each time I opened my mouth to speak about South Africa, I betrayed myself again,'' writes Malan. ``I always said the obvious things, the easy things, always presented myself as the Afrikaner dissident, too noble to carry a gun for apartheid. This did wonders for my political reputation, but nothing at all for the millions of Miriams. I was without honor: as an Afrikaner, as a liberal, as a reporter, and as a human being.''
Malan's book is an effort to restore his honor, if only by using his reporter's skills to document some of the atrocities that occurred during apartheid, and during its death throes. But the kind of questions Malan posed when he returned to South Africa are difficult ones to answer, then as now: ``How did you fight apartheid and build a just society if the people you were doing it for stoned you because your skin was white?''
One of the most powerful characters in Malan's book is Creina Alcock, a white woman, who with her husband, Neil, had gone to live among the Zulus, helping to set up a sustainable rural development project in one of the tribal homelands. Even after her husband is murdered, she stays on, and her perseverance is the hope that glimmers at the end of this grim book. She says to Malan, ``You said one could be deformed by this country, and yet it seems to me one can only be deformed by the things one does to oneself. It's not the outside things that deform you, it's the choices you make. To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because it is the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total, obliterating darkness.''
And it only gets worse
You would have thought that after finishing ``My Traitor's Heart'' that I would have had enough -- but no. Sure enough, someone who knows I like the works of novelist Russell Banks, and who knows I have a daughter in Africa, thought I should read his latest novel, The Darling.
Being a glutton for punishment, I bit. And re-entered the heart of darkness.
``The Darling'' is the story of a privileged American woman, Hannah Musgrave, a political radical who in her youth belonged to the Weather Underground. In her 30s, she finds her way to Liberia, the country founded in 1822 as a haven for freed American slaves. There she meets and marries an African government official and has three sons. The book's characters become embroiled in the political intrigue and brutal violence that enveloped Liberia from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. The setting, public figures, and political events are all historically accurate, which makes the novel that much more disturbing.
Banks does a masterful job of portraying Hannah. She's a complex character who seems emotionally bankrupt. A serial abandoner, she lacks traits that would make her a more empathetic character, like maternal instinct. And yet you can't help but admire her honesty, because she's well aware of her deficiencies as she tells her tale in a dispassionate, if mildly regretful voice. In one passage, she talks of her love for the chimpanzees she takes care of in Liberia, and contrasts that with her feelings for her children:
``When my sons were babies and little boys, certainly when they were newborn infants, I was diligent and careful and nurturing in all the ways of a good mother. No one faulted me then and no one can now, not even I. But nonetheless I was detached from my babies, detached in an unusual way, and I know this, and knew it at the time, too, because, with regard to my chimps, I was not detached and could tell the difference. I could look into the round, brown eyes of the chimps, even the eyes of the large and often fierce adult males, and could see all the way to their souls, it seemed, deep into the mystery of their essential being. But never, not once, could I see that deeply into the blue eyes of my sons.''
Banks is an amazing writer who is able to shift back and forth in time without confusing the reader. He uses foreshadowing with great effect, and weaves a story with consummate skill. If you've never read Banks before, you might want to start with some of his earlier works -- ``The Sweet Hereafter'' (the first Seattle Reads choice, in 1998), ``The Rule of the Bone,'' or ``Continental Drift.'' Then, once you're hooked, and know you can handle the darkness, you can find your way back to ``The Darling.''
Breck Longstreth is an Island resident, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.