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"Worlds in One Country": an essential survey of South African writing

First designed as a preface to an anthology of South African literature in French commissioned by the Institut Français, Denis Hirson's text for “Worlds in One Country” has quickly proliferated to now stand as a volume on its own. The book published by Jacana Media with the help of the French cultural network in South Africa is an ambitious project that aims to survey the entire scope of the South African literature from the nineteenth century to 1994 in a mere 100 pages. The final result is a densely-written but entertaining text; a resourceful, informative book that not only compiles key-works of South African writing but also succeeds in replacing them in the broader context of their historical, political and artistic time.


Scattered beginnings

The roots of South African writing roots are diverse and scattered. The first Europeans to write about South Africa in the first part of the 18th century are explorers and missionaries whose texts constantly compare African landscapes to the European ones – which engages them in a “self-defeating process” reminds Hirson quoting JM. Coetzee, for “in each particular in which Africa is identified to be non-European, it remains Europe, not Africa, that is named”. Giving more importance to the oral tradition, Africans nonetheless begin to write in local languages around the same period. The Iimbogis, both praise-singers and political commentators who combine metaphors, hallucinatory rhythms and historical knowledge now write down their speeches to kings and people. One of the best-known iimbongi was the Xhosa Mqhayi, who impressed the young Mandela when coming to his high school and once addressed the Prince of Wales in these daring terms:

You sent us the truth, denied us the truth
You sent us the life, deprived us of life
You sent us the light, we sit in the dark
Shivering, benighted in the bright noonday sun

Literature as a reflection of its time

With a great sense of the occasion, Hirson uses South African writing as a mirror of the country's history. He shows how the strong Afrikaner sense of identity after the Boer War echoes in Afrikaans literature – with authors like CJ Langenhoven, famous for his poem “Die Stem” which would later be put to music to become the Afrikaans version of the national anthem. He also reminds how land seizures and a growing need for manpower in the mines have fostered a massive exodus of young, African males to urban areas. Detailed in several novels of that time – most notably in Alan Paton's masterpiece “Cry, the Beloved Country” – the phenomenon altered the African psyche forever. But the worst was yet to come.

The “crushing cliché” of Apartheid

A significant part of “World in One Country” then examines the period of Apartheid – a political process which, as shows Hirson, had major literary implications. South African writers became obsessed by racial polarization. A prominent black writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele observed that “the main weakness in South African writers is that they are hyper-conscious of the race problem. They are so obsessed with the subject of race and colour than when they set about writing creatively, they imagine that the plot they are going to devise (…) must subserve an important discovery they think they have made in race relations”. For years to come, police brutality, prison, revolution and exile became common themes in literary works that were most often banned – Hirson recalls the incredible number of 18 000 censored books under the Apartheid.

Bonded by his first project – a mere introduction of contemporary South African literature – Hirson stops his survey in the beginning of the nineties, at a “near historical” point formed by the culmination of the struggle for freedom and the CODESA negotiations. He does so recalling huge fears inhabitants of “new South Africa” had for each other (with Malan's “My Traitor's Heart” for example) but also the immense hope generated by freedom and the return to the homeland (as in Ingrid de Kok's “Familiar Ground”). Closing the book, one feels a great sense of continuity between the many works and themes presented by Hirson. Above all, one wishes to get to the library and dig further in South African literature – which is probably the book's main achievement.

Hadrien Diez


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