World Literature

Alex La Guma

 

BORN: 1925, Cape Town, South Africa

DIED: 1985, Cuba

NATIONALITY: South African

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

A Walk in the Night (1962)

In the Fog of the Season’s End (1972)

 

Overview

Alex La Guma was a committed opponent of apartheid, and his overriding concern in his writings was to expose its evils and help bring about its downfall. Since this system of government has come to an end in South Africa, his fiction has become an important social and historical testament of the apartheid era. Through his vivid descriptions of person and place, and particularly in his accurate rendition of the idioms and peculiarities of polyglot Cape Town, he captured the appalling racial conditions that existed.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

In the Shadow of Apartheid. Justin Alexander La Guma was born February 20, 1925, in a working-class ghetto of Cape Town, South Africa. Like most members of their community, his parents were of mixed race, which meant that they were classified as ‘‘Coloured’’ under the South African government’s policy of racial segregation known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for ‘‘separateness.’’ This government-sponsored system involved designating certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races, and forbade people of different races from marrying. It also led to the segregation of living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups kept separate from each other. This allowed the white Afrikaners, the descendants of European colonists who made up a small percentage of the population, to remain in control of the large nonwhite population.

His father was Jimmy La Guma, president of the South African Coloured People’s Organisation and member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, which was the first nonracial political party in South Africa; his mother, Wilhelmina Alexander La Guma, was a worker in a cigarette factory. In 1942, Alex La Guma left high school without graduating, but completed graduation examinations in 1945 as a night student at Cape Technical College and in 1965 was a correspondence student at the London School of Journalism. In November 1954, he married Blanche Herman, a nurse and midwife, with whom he had two sons, Eugene and Bartholomew.

Political Activity. A member of the Cape Town district Communist Party until it was banned in 1950, La Guma worked on the staff of the leftist newspaper New Age. He came to the government’s notice in 1955, when he helped draw up the Freedom Charter, a declaration of rights for all South Africans, regardless of race. In 1956, he was accused of treason because of his political activism. In December of that same year La Guma published his first short fiction, ‘‘A Christmas Story,’’ in the journal Fighting Talk.

In 1961, he was arrested for helping to organize a strike and was detained for seven months. In 1962, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. This meant that he was barred from leaving his house, communicating with friends, participating in politics, and practicing journalism.

Up until his banning, La Guma continued to work as a journalist for New Age. Besides his news reports, he wrote a weekly column and in 1959 created a political cartoon strip. During the time leading up to his house arrest and then while in confinement, La Guma also wrote the majority of his short stories. They are of limited number—only sixteen in all were published—at first appearing locally and then in international magazines and anthologies. Collectively, the stories form a powerful indictment of the evils of apartheid, particularly in relation to the colored community of Cape Town.

A Walk in the Night and First Novels. La Guma’s only novella, A Walk in the Night (1962), was written prior to his banning and was first published in Nigeria. It immediately became prohibited reading in South Africa. All of the characters in A Walk in the Night, whether black, ‘‘coloured,’’ or white, suffer as a result of the social system of apartheid. In varying degrees, all have been dehumanized and impoverished by it.

With the publication of A Walk in the Night, La Guma established himself as a protest writer of international repute. In October 1963, he and many others were jailed because the government feared a mass insurrection after several major figures of the antiapartheid movement were arrested. La Guma spent five months in prison, three in solitary confinement. In the following year, he published his first full-length novel, And a Threefold Cord (1964), mostly written while in jail. Once again La Guma created a world that is inhabited by slum dwellers unable to escape the limits of their socially proscribed existence.

Although La Guma’s next novel, The Stone Country (1967), was written while he was under house arrest, it was not published until after his departure from South Africa. In 1966, he and his family left for England on permanent exit visas, where he worked in radio and insurance, and as a freelance writer. The Stone Country, which draws on the author’s own experience of life in South African prisons, appeared some months after his September 1966 arrival in London. Through the central character, George Adams, daily existence in this harsh and alien environment is described in graphic terms, a condition made all the worse for nonwhites by the brutal application of the law governing apartheid.

For eight years he served as chairman of the London branch of the African National Congress, the antiapartheid political organization. During this period, he traveled extensively within Britain and abroad, and, on one occasion, toured the Soviet Union for six weeks. Having been presented by Indira Gandhi with the distinguished Lotus Award of the Afro-Asian Writers Association in New Delhi in 1969, he later attended its Fifth Congress in Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan), and then became its secretary general. In 1975 he visited Vietnam as a delegate to the World Peace Congress.

In the Fog of the Seasons’ End and Later Work. In the Fog of the Seasons’ End was published in 1972, in London, six years after La Guma left South Africa. It had been conceived and substantially written while he was living in South Africa and became his most explicitly autobiographical novel. The subject matter is now directly political, and for the first time there is a clear call to action. The novel develops the familiar theme of the devastating effects that the apartheid-based socioeconomic and political system has on the oppressed people. In the Fog of the Seasons’ End is La Guma’s best-received work. Described by several critics as a major achievement in African literature, it has been translated into twenty languages and has outsold his other books.

Time of the Butcherbird (1979), was the first of La Guma’s novels to be conceived and written in its entirety outside South Africa. Free of constant harassment and surveillance by the South African security police and able to place all his energies behind the struggle of the liberation movement in exile, he was able to address a central question of South African society in a more revolutionary way. Unlike La Guma’s other stories, Time of the Butcherbird moves beyond the personal background of the characters into the nation’s cultural and political history. The customs and traditions of white Afrikaners are given much greater scope than in his previous novels, with family histories outlined that stretch back to the Boer War (1899-1902) and earlier.

Time of the Butcherbird was La Guma’s final completed novel, published in London a year after he settled with his family in Havana, Cuba, in 1978. There he served as chief representative of the African National Congress in the Caribbean until his death from a massive heart attack on October 11, 1985. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the Order of the Friendship of the Peoples of the USSR.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

La Guma's famous contemporaries include:

Chinua Achebe (1930-): Nigerian novelist and poet; best known for Things Fall Apart, which dissects the effects of colonialism on traditional Nigerian society.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985): Belarusian-French-Jewish artist known for his sinuous figures and vivid colors.

Elmore Leonard (1925-): American mystery novelist and screenwriter. Movies adapted from his work include Get Shorty and 3:10 to Yuma.

Pol Pot (1925-1998): Leader of the Khmer Rouge, a communist faction, and president of Cambodia (19761979). He is known for his brutal regime and social restructuring under which millions of people died.

Walter Sisulu (1912-2003): South African antiapartheid activist and secretary general of the African National Congress (1949). He was jailed for twenty-six years for his political activities.

 

Works in Literary Context

The ‘‘Englikaans’’ Style. La Guma’s style shows multiple influences, including elements of popular culture from such forms as pulp fiction, American gangster B- movies, and journalism. La Guma combines these elements to startling effect in his short stories, developing a style of writing based on what has been termed “Englikaans,’’ a dialect of Cape Town’s mixed-race ghettos that blends Afrikaans with English. ‘‘What he gets into the English dialogue,’’ remarks writer and critic Lewis Nkosi, ‘‘is really the Afrikaans accents and rhythms of the Cape Malay coloureds’ taal [speech] and he merges it with English more successfully than any South African writer has done, white or black.’’

Propaganda and Protest. Because La Guma was concerned primarily with racial injustice in South Africa, his work has come to be considered part of the tradition of protest fiction that include the works of such writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe ( Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906), and Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940). While there is no doubt that well- crafted protest novels can exert a huge impact on the public, critics tend to look down on protest fiction, even labeling it propaganda, because, they believe, the writer’s art is subjugated by the writer’ political message, and characters and plot tend to be less fully rounded than they are in other types of fiction. This point is debatable, but La Guma’s literary reputation has suffered somewhat because of his political focus.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Apartheid, which in the Afrikaans language means "apartness" or "separateness," was the system of racial discrimination and white political domination adopted by the South African National Party when it came to power in 1948. It ensured the political and economic supremacy of the white minority, which made up less than 20 percent of South Africa's total population in 1948 and less than 13 percent of the population in 1994, the year apartheid was abolished. Here are some other works that deal with the experience of apartheid.

A Human Being Died That Night (2004), a nonfiction work by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. A black South African clinical psychologist tells of her interviews with Eugene de Kock, who commanded state-sanctioned death squads during apartheid.

And They Didn't Die (1990), a novel by Lauretta Ngcobo. This novel tells the tale of a mother in rural South Africa under apartheid, caught between the political system and traditional cultural restrictions.

Journey of a Hope Merchant (2004), a memoir by Neal Peterson. This uplifting memoir by Peterson, a professional yacht racer, tells about his life, including growing up "Coloured" (mixed race) and disabled in apartheid- era South Africa.

Kaffir Boy (1986), a memoir by Mark Mathabane. A professional tennis player and writer describes his youth growing up black under apartheid in South Africa.

Mine Boy (1946), a novel by Peter Abrahams. This com- ing-of-age story was the first novel written by a black South African to show life through a black South African's point of view.

 

Works in Critical Context

Lewis Nkosi states, ‘‘The qualities which make La Guma’s fiction so compellingly true and immediate are not simply its fidelity to its own source materials—which is a life of complete and naked brutality under a repressive regime—but the quiet exactness of its tone and the adequacy of its moral pressures.’’

However, David Rabkin believes that La Guma’s fiction increasingly shows ‘‘a consistent departure from the typical procedures of the novel form, being concerned rather to illuminate the moral character of South African society, than to portray the personal and moral development of individual characters.’’ A crisis, he concludes, arose in the relation between form and content, turning some of La Guma’s later novels into propaganda rather than art.

A Walk in the Night. A Walk in the Night, says Shatto Arthur Gakwandi, avoids ‘‘being a sermon of despair [while also evading] advocating sentimental solutions to the problems that it portrays. Without pathos, it creates a powerful impression of that rhythm of violence which characterizes South African life.’’ He concludes, ‘‘All these characters are victims of a system that denies them the facility of living in harmony with fellow human beings and their frustrations find release in acts of violence against weaker members of their society.’’ Michael Wade, who considers the issue of identity as central to A Walk in the Night, believes that a ‘‘guerilla struggle’’ is being ‘‘waged by life against the forces of negation.’’

In the Fog of the Season’s End. American novelist John Updike, writing for the New Yorker, said of In the Fog of the Season’s End that it ‘‘delivers, through its portrait of a few hunted blacks attempting to subvert the brutal regime of apartheid, a social protest reminiscent, in its closely detailed texture and level indignation, of [Theodore] Dreiser and [Emile] Zola.’’

South African writer Nadine Gordimer took a somewhat different view, saying: ‘‘Alex La Guma... writes, like so many black exiles, as if life in South Africa froze with the trauma of Sharpeville [a massacre of black South African civilians by the police in 1961]. Since he is a good writer, he cannot create at the newspaper-story level, and cannot, from abroad, quite make the projection, at the deeper level, into a black political milieu that has changed so much since he left.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Do you think the commission’s work was necessary or unnecessary? Can a country heal without forgiveness? What does it take for the world to forgive a country that has committed serious crimes against humanity? Is this actually an impossibility?

2. Find out more about the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 by reading Life in the Time of Sharpeville (1995) by Humphrey Tyler. The book includes firsthand accounts of events leading up to and during the bloody atrocity.

3. Research the lives and action of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, two American civil rights leaders with very different ideas about the best way to achieve change. Write an essay that compares their ideas, and argue for what you think is the better approach to social change.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur. The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa. New York: Africana Publishing, 1977.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. Johannesburg: Spro-Cas/Ravan, 1973.

Gwala, Mafika. ‘‘Writing as a Cultural Weapon.’’ In Momentum: On Recent South African Writing. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1984.

Nkosi, Lewis. ‘‘Alex La Guma: The Man and His Work.’’ In The Transplanted Heart: Essays on South Africa. Benin City, Nigeria: Ethiope Publishing, 1975.

Wade, Michael. ‘‘Art and Morality in Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night.’’ In The South African Novel in English: Essays in Criticism and Society. New York: African Publishing, 1978.

Wanjala, Chris L. ‘‘The Face of Injustice: Alex La Guma's Fiction.'' In Standpoints on African Literature: A Critical Anthology. Nairobi & Dar es Salaam: East African Literature Bureau, 1973.

Periodicals

Maughan-Brown, David. ‘‘Adjusting the Focal Length: Alex La Guma and Exile.’’ English in Africa 18 (1991): 19-38.

Mzamane, Mbulelo Vizikhungo. ‘‘Sharpeville and Its Aftermath: The Novels of Richard Rive, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma, and Lauretta Ngcobo.’’ ARIEL 16 (April 1985): 31-44.

Rabkin, David. ‘‘La Guma and Reality in South Africa.’’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature 7 (June 1973): 54-62.