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A Kafka for South Africa : ADVANCE, RETREAT by Richard Rive (St. Martin's Press: $16.96; 131 pp.)

December 31, 1989|Charles Johnson | Johnson's forthcoming novel is "Middle Passage." He is the author of "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970."

In the fictional world of Richard Rive, a black South African writer, the social evil of apartheid appears in the guise of a banality so extreme it can be expressed only in the form of darkly comic, Kafkaesque parables. For example, in his story "The Man From the Board," a teacher named Isaac Jacobs is called upon by "a dumpy little man wearing a khaki safari suit." This droll creature, Mr. Johannes Bredenkamp, arrives to inform Jacobs that since his racial classification is "colored," he must leave the white area where he is living.

Yet Bredenkamp bears no whiff of hostility toward Jacobs. A petty bureaucrat with "brilliantined hair," he is recognizable in any country and at any time as a funny little government functionary far more interested in Jacob's choice in television sets ("Stick to a Sony. The colour is OK"), and his philosophy of life than in racism; and he lavishly compliments the teacher on his life style: "Lucky you, being a bachelor and spending most of your time just lecturing and reading."

Grotesques like Bredenkamp fill the 12 stories collected in "Advance, Retreat," their presence reminding us, as in the fiction of Flannery O'Conner, that evil leads inevitably to social monstrosities, to a madness we have come to accept as the status quo. We laugh nervously, as Rive wishes, at a society so blatantly premised on racial prejudice, but the humor holds within itself the horror of our own absurdity.

A case in point is "Drive-In," which illustrates how the stupidity of segregation turns even South African liberals into insensitive louts. Here, Rive's narrator and nameless protagonist, a black writer, is trying to escape from a boring "informal get-together, a social occasion of would-be writers and weekend poets." Before he can flee, a white teacher named Jenny, who is "ostentatiously progressive and liberal," insists on giving him a ride. "Everything about you people fascinates me," she says.

Although the narrator does everything he can to shock her into seeing her own bigotry, she is unflappable and spirits him off to a segregated drive-in where she insists they be served. The manager, "a huge Greek who for the first time in his life realized that he was a white man when he emigrated to South Africa," rings for the police. Jenny digs in, oblivious to the gnawing panic of her black passenger, insisting, "If you have no guts, I'm prepared to call his bluff." Finally, the narrator convinces her to leave, but not before undergoing the humiliation of confessing to a woman blinded by her own zeal and indifference to his situation, "Yes, I have no guts."

The courage required to oppose apartheid is lost on the Jennys of South Africa, according to Rive, but not to Karlie, a simple black man who discovers the real meaning of resistance in "The Bench," easily the most memorable tale in this volume and one that takes us behind the newspaper headlines into the heart of civil disobedience. Karlie would be the last man to think of rebellion. However, one day he hears a speaker proclaim, "It is up to every one of us to challenge the right of any law which willfully condemns any person to an inferior status." To Karlie, "the man on the platform seemed to be rolling out a new religion, which said that he, Karlie, had certain rights, and his children would have certain rights. What sort of rights? Like a white man for instance?"

Although frightened by the thought that he "was as good as any other man," Karlie moves almost hypnotically to a train station where "There seemed a cocoon around each person. Each has his own world. Each moving in a narrow pattern of his own manufacture." He locates a bench with the legend WHITES ONLY and sits; he waits for the arrival of a policeman, who strikes him down, then handcuffs him. The scene, we know, has been played countless times, and one might think Karlie's victory is Pyrrhic--all the white observers see is another black arrested--but Karlie has achieved "if not a victory over them, then one over himself," over his fear and the propaganda of inferiority.

Critics may accuse Rive of writing not stories but sketches where his meaning is thinly veiled. This is true of "No Room at Solitaire," a Christmas story set in a South African inn where a black Joseph and pregnant Mary are turned away by the owner, who realizes his error too late.

But even with its flaws, "Advance, Retreat" is a collection to be highly recommended to anyone who wishes to experience the texture and feel of black South African lives before they are rendered in the language of politics.

And it must be read for another reason: Rive's talent is clearly world-class. These stories have appeared in more than 12 languages and in more than 22 countries, but "Advance, Retreat" is the last we shall see of this wizardry. Richard Rive, after a writing career of 30 years, was murdered in his home near Cape Town on June 6 of this year.

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