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Monday, 21 March 2011 02:00

Wall of Days

By  Chris Thurman
I have approached this review with some trepidation, not least because of the debate about South African reading, writing and critical practices that continues to dominate both literary online chat forums and the books pages of major local newspapers. Indeed, it occurs to me that - even though I have presumed to weigh in on the discussion - it has been many months since I last wrote a straightforward "book review". Caveat scriptor!

Then again, I suppose this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill review. The other reason I've been apprehensive is that Alastair Bruce's debut novel Wall of Days has already been reviewed (and highly praised) on this site by Karina Magdalena Szczurek. When Karina approached me to write a "counter-review", or at least provide an alternative voice, my initial response was to say no: I feared either falling into the trap of tautology or playing the role of the grumpy nay-sayer. Upon reflection, however, I realised that this response betrayed nothing so much as my conditioning from growing up - and starting a career - in a world of newspaper reviews, a world of tight budgets and limited column space, of editorial constraints and inevitably, to some degree, of stunted intellectual or aesthetic engagement with literary texts.

Slowly it dawned on me: of course it makes sense to have more than one review in an online journal. Why? Because you can! And, of course, there is no such thing as tautology when it comes to the reception of fiction: everyone has a different view, no matter how minor or nuanced those differences may be. And, of course, one doesn't have to disagree with another reviewer simply to find something new to say - that, arguably, is where most "lit crit" careers go astray (but there's a topic for another day).

Indulge me, then, as I embark on an exercise in meta-criticism and construct my review around Karina's review of this intriguing, complex and finely crafted book. By now you will know the novel's interesting premise (a post-apocalyptic, flooded world) and its basic plot (banished Bran returns from his perennially wet island to the settlement to which he has given, or from which he has taken - it is never made clear - his name). So let's get into the details.

Firstly, Karina endorses a pre-existing and arresting comparison between Wall of Days and J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. The similarities may not be obvious or immediate, but they are there nonetheless. We have, for instance, a narrator-protagonist who is haunted by a sense of guilt but spends most of the text suppressing that guilt, attending instead to practical concerns and implying - sometimes insisting - that he had little choice: his past actions are not to be judged in absolute moral terms because they stemmed from his compromised position as a figure of authority. As the narrative progresses, that denial becomes hollow; it becomes evident that he is complicit in the suffering not only of his supposed political enemies or his bewildered flock of survivors, but also of the woman he claims to have loved. We become aware that this narrator (like most story-tellers) is unreliable.

Yet perhaps the more compelling resonance with Coetzee's work lies in the style employed to insist on this unreliability: it is terse, "clipped", deceptively simple, drawing us into a false confidence in the "facts" recorded for us. Hard facts often turn out to be mere slippery perceptions, as Bran himself discovers. Moreover, the past and present are conflated - again, an effect achieved through a subtle stylistic device as the past tense narrative shifts, occasionally, into a present tense exposition.

Secondly, there is - potential spoiler alert! - Karina's mention of "mythical allusions" and the "open ending". Bran returns to his castaway island with a sense of grim relief that he is, once more, alone. But the island (which is really one of the main characters in this novel) won't give him that solitude. A prehistoric body, preserved in a peat bog, forces its way to the surface; Bran overcomes his terror and salvages the body, planting it outside his cave as a totem or as a message to anyone who should travel to the island. No-one will see it, of course, but Bran imagines himself to be recreating one of the myths of his "people" - he envisions himself as a human deity, sacrificing himself for the collective good. There are echoes here of the Tollund Man and other ancient corpses that have survived into the twenty-first century, their curiously wounded and adorned remains indicating that their deaths resulted from ritualistic killings.

There are also echoes of the body that refuses to sink in Nadine Gordimer's 1974 novel The Conservationist - a corpse that acts as a stubborn reminder of the complicity of Gordimer's (anti-)hero, Mehring, in a South African history defined by land appropriation, economic exploitation and political oppression. Making this South African connection is by no means a requisite response to Wall of Days, which is, after all, more easily read as a universal fable than a national parable. Still, I think some insight can be gained from doing so.

Thirdly, then, we have Karina's description of the book as "allegorical" and "rich in socio-historical ... allusions without being overloaded by them". The author bio on the back cover of the book notes that Alastair Bruce was born and bred in the R of SA but has been living in Britain for a decade or so. Wall of Days, if we think of it as "South African fiction" (it is published by Umuzi, the local imprint of Random House), in some ways represents a fairly recent departure - what has been called the "post-transitional" turn in South African literature - that is, a new literary mode in which authors no longer feel compelled to address the burden of South Africa's history and current affairs directly, if at all. The novel offers two primary interpretive possibilities: as an exploration of human beings "red in tooth and claw" (if we are a species driven to survive by killing others, what separates us from other animals?); and, a related concern, as a reaction to the ecological crisis towards which we appear to be heading.

But if we consider that Bran, like Bruce, has been living on a "mud island" for about ten years (and that he floats over a submerged Nelson's Column en route to his place of exile), it is tempting to read the novel as an expatriot's tale, or at least as a specifically South Africa-inflected allegory. The pre-occupation with the past, with "truth" (or rather, the veracity of our individual versions of history), speaks to a confrontation epitomised in South Africa by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the still-incomplete process it began. Bran tells his story repeatedly, insistently. Like many South Africans, white and black, he disavows his role as a persecutor and even presents himself as a victim.

Equally telling is the moment when we read that the motto of the settlement is (or was) "In unity, strength" - ex unitate vires, exactly what the Nationalist government told its white citizens. The unity of some, however, implies the exclusion of others; again, this is a theme as pertinent in present-day South Africa as it was under apartheid. Finally, we may note that Bran perceives a fervent desire among those currently in power in the settlement to expunge the inconvenient past - to re-write history, in fact to de-historicise. Bran may be a flawed narrator, but the author emerges behind his words: "Even if you hate [a] name and what it stands for, at least recognise it, stare it in the face." South Africans, poor historians that we sometimes are, would do well to heed this advice.
Wall of Days by Alastair Bruce
(Umuzi, 2010)
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