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Book Reviews : South African Tales of Displacement

August 19, 1987|PETER DREYER | Dreyer is the author of "A Beast in View" (Andre Deutsch), a novel about South Africans in exile, as well as of "Martyrs and Fanatics; South Africa and Human Destiny" (Simon & Schuster)

The Hottentot Room by Christopher Hope (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; 218 pages)

A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader edited by Andre Brink and J. M. Coetzee (Viking: $18.95; 256 pages)

"I feel that this is a country of which all the citizens are foreigners," my youngest brother wrote recently from Cape Town. Caleb Looper, the protagonist of "The Hottentot Room," would agree. South Africa, he muses, is "increasingly Balkanised into pseudo-states, principalities, Bantustans, casinostans, reserves, resettlement camps, tribal fiefdoms, Coloured ghettos, Indian townships, Chinese suburbs, white fortresses, and black locations. The old order, dominant for so long, held together by a single-minded ferocity, was collapsing. . . . There was no single country any longer. The unity that existed now was a unity of hatred felt by the majority for the present incumbents. When they went, what would be left, Looper wondered--except our hatred for each other?"

In a London they mostly detest, surrounded by caricatured Britons obsessed with penny-pinching economies and the weather, a band of exiled South Africans--black, white, "Indian," and "Coloured"--congregate at a drinking club called "The Hottentot Room," founded and presided over by Frau Katie, a Jewish Berliner who still imagines herself hunted by the Gestapo (a.k.a. "the disease" or "the old story") but queens it even on her deathbed over her adopted South African clan.

As for the "Hottentots," they spend much of their time methodically boozing, reminiscing of the "home," dreaming of Nuremberg-style trials for the Botha regime (but tending to speak Afrikaans when non-South Africans are present), and indulging in tortuous sexual relations. Frau Katie is all that holds them together: "Without the dying lady upstairs they had nothing left but each other, and they did not much like each other."

Hope has built this ambitious parable on a subtext that emerges as one ponders his tale: For example, Frau Katie's antecedents are clearly not random (it was at the celebrated Berlin Conference of 1884-85 that the European powers settled the division of Africa among themselves). Characters tend to have excessively contrived names (Frau Katie's late husband was a General von Sturz--i.e., Von Downfall or Von Overthrow) and personalities, but on the whole the "Hottentots" are as convincing a gallery of South African expatriate stereotypes as I have encountered since I left Berkeley. Caleb Looper, in particular, comes to life. Notwithstanding its satirical overtones, his story is a moving one. Hope is a novelist to watch.

I have one serious complaint against "The Hottentot Room"; there is much ado in it about the Hottentot (or better Khoikhoi) leader Xhore, or Coree, who was the first of his race to visit Europe (he was kidnaped by English sailors in 1613). But Hope anachronistically represents Xhore as a tool of Gov. Simon van der Stel and a bearer of the rottang , or cane, that was the badge of office issued by the Dutch East India Company to its Hottentot vassals. ("Coree's cane" is supposed to hang above the bar in "The Hottentot Room" and is bequeathed to Looper by Frau Katie.) In American terms, this is rather like making Sitting Bull out to have been an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Truman Administration.

"A Land Apart" is divided into English and Afrikaans sections, the former assembled chiefly by J. M. ("Waiting for the Barbarians") Coetzee, the latter by Andre Brink. Too much in Part 1 is, alas, painfully self-conscious. Notable exceptions are Modikwe Dikobe's "Episodes in the Rural Areas," Motshile wa Nthodi's story "Nokulunga's Wedding," and the autobiographical fragments by Maria Tholo (her "Diary" was compiled from tape-recorded interviews: its record of life in the Cape Town "location" of Guguletu in the 1970s, where Tupperware parties punctuate the rioting, rings all too true) and Joel Natlou. One can only speculate as to why Goetzee saw fit to include Jeremy Cronin's Stalinist fable "Walking on Air."

Afrikaans' writers have always been freer of provincialism than their English-speaking co-occupants, and there are powerful and original stories among the translations in Part 2, among them Elsa Joubert's "Back Yard," Etienne van Heerden's "My Cuban," and P. J. Haasbroek's "Departure." Along with these, unfortunately, Brink prints "experimental" silliness like Fransi Phillips' "Clown Stories" (avant-garde Afrikaner belles tend to have a thing for clowns--an oddity I had forgotten).

Christopher Hope is represented in "A Land Apart" by a poem: "The Flight of the White South Africans" To him I leave the last (is it overwrought or ironical?) word:

We go to the wall

But Mowgli, Biggles and Alice are not there:

Nongquase,* heaven unhoods its bloodshot eye

Above a displaced people; our demise

Is near, and we'll be gutted where we fall.

*A Xhosa prophetess who foretold in the 1850s that the whites would be driven into the sea if the Xhosa first sacrificed their cattle and burnt their crops: they unwisely did so, precipitating a famine in which the Cape colonists came to their assistance--perhaps the earliest known instance of food aid to Africa.

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