September 2014

Rebecca Jones


An Interview with Peter Anderson

Peter Anderson was once a professor of mine at Austin College in North Texas, and long before The Unspeakable was published and won the Alex la Guma Award for International Fiction, I asked him for the manuscript and read it. I was curious to see what he'd written, but I also had the idea that I might write an article on the combined effect of the electronic revolution and the Great Recession on literature and publishing. Since he'd received numberless rejections at the time, Peter was perfectly willing, joking (half seriously) that his only hope now lay in samizdat. I don't know why, but I somehow expected a stiffly academic piece of writing.

Here, however, was a riveting, intensely powerful narrative, set in the mid-1980s, the terribly violent era of so-called reformist apartheid (Peter is South African). In addition, The Unspeakable struck me as very different than the predictable black-and-white moral parables that arose from most writers under apartheid. I read the whole book very quickly, all in a day or two. I found it hard going at times, but I couldn't put it down. I also found I had plenty of questions. Then came publication and the award. I suggested an interview, so we met at a local coffee shop.

First, I have to ask: Who was Alex la Guma? What does the award mean to you?

Alex la Guma was a leading, but paradoxically, little known South African writer of the twentieth century. Biracial, and on the far left, he was one of the first to be targeted by the apartheid régime -- long before African nationalists like Mandela and Sobukwe. Imprisoned, banned, forced into exile, he died in Cuba in 1985. His best-known novel is In the Fog of the Season's End. However, to my mind, his most vivid writing is not confined to a single masterwork: it bursts out here and there, everywhere, blossoms unexpectedly. For instance, in The Stone Country, I remember an image of birds alighting on the outstretched arms of a prisoner standing in sunlight in the prison courtyard. It is an image of an almost Christ-like beauty and symbolic power. La Guma was an extraordinarily talented writer. He admired Hemingway, and a short story of his, like "Blankets," is easily the equal of a Hemingway. It is a measure of his talent that, even when doing his utmost to comply with deadly Stalinist strictures on "good writing," he would at times break free, and soar. I am more honored than I can put into words that The Unspeakable should have been given an award named after Alex la Guma.

You grew up in a white working class family in a suburb near Johannesburg, in South Africa, yet your narrator grew up in rural South Africa. How did your experiences there play into the action of the novel?

A hard white working class suburb, yes. Far out on the West Rand, where the gold mines were on the verge of being depleted, and some already stood abandoned. Mine dumps dominated the horizon, supine, sway-backed, with wisps of ghostly white dust rising from them on windy days. Artificial lake like a mirror in the middle of the town. I've written about this elsewhere. But my father, unlike Rian, my narrator's car-mechanic pa, was full of life and fun. First an aspirant opera singer, then a saxophonist in a swing band, and finally an all-in wrestler, he spent all day, every day, toting up complaints about broken-down or interrupted service for the telephone exchange. As for my mother, unlike Rian's, she was a presence right into my full adulthood. She lived to see my own children born. But there are details between the book and my life that interconnect. For instance, my mother kept a photograph of herself as a young woman of sixteen or seventeen, slim, elegant on her wedding day, nailed to the wall above her bed. And, like Rian in the novel, I was fascinated by that early picture. Because my mother as I knew her was a plump middle-aged platinum blonde with plucked eyebrows, quite passive in her ways, by day a hardworking seamstress in a garment factory, but beyond that, an intensely kind and gentle person, more than a little fond of a tot of brandy at the end of a week. Given the sweatshop conditions of her working life, you might have expected her to be politically conscious. In reality, however, she hated and feared all forms of politics. The reason was rooted in her childhood. In the miners' strike of 1922, her father, a Swede who had reached the level of mid-management on the mines, was seized one night by marauding strikers, and dragged out in his underclothes to be shot.

The tenor of those times can be gauged from a banner that the miners raised: "WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE AND FIGHT FOR A WHITE SOUTH AFRICA."

By the time I knew him, a wrestling injury had left my father with partially paralyzed vocal cords, so his voice sounded jingly when he spoke. He was a tubby guy who referred to himself as the Little Fat Man.

Okay, so we were all basically English. But within the household until her death when I was seven, my Afrikaner ouma [grandmother], ruled with an iron fist. She never let any of us forget that as a child she had been incarcerated in one of the concentration camps that the British had used against Afrikaner women and children during the war over the gold, the Boer War, at the turn of the century. Ouma virtually raised my brother and me. I suppose that Rian's being raised by his father's elder sister, Tant Koba, may constitute something of a parallel, though honestly, my ouma was a far fiercer, more daunting character. The hair on her head used to dance like dark flames. Her youngest brother, Hendrik, was feeble-minded, and always sat around with his hands hanging down, and a little smile on his face. Rian's brain-damaged uncle, Frikkie, may owe something to Hendrik, though not much. And that's it. I can't think of any further parallels.

In short, I am not Rian. Or, as I like to phrase it, I am not "I." What happens to Rian did not happen to me. No baboon was kept chained up in the backyard. My father had no love of guns. My father himself did once write a novel, though. In Afrikaans. In the purplest of purple prose, a bodice ripper called Minnie Minnaar (something like Bella Beloved). He copied it out in a school exercise book. I lost that book in coming to America.

In the end, I'm afraid there is no direct match between the events in Rian's life and mine. The emotions driving the action are another matter. I have in my own life felt every emotion inscribed into The Unspeakable. What I sought in the plot of the novel as this unfolded was an objective correlative for those emotions, which is, I think, what just about every novelist seeks.

The tone of the novel is highly masculinist. Do you think that this would possibly alienate women readers?

I don't like to think so. But okay, this is not Jane Austen. The Unspeakable is more like the part -- the massively significant part -- that Jane Austen leaves out of Mansfield Park: the brutal realities of imperialist colonialism upon which the pleasures of genteel liberal culture were (and in many ways still are) floated. You remember how in Heart of Darkness Conrad's Marlowe, on returning to Belgium, goes to pay his respects to the fiancée of the man he knows to have been a monstrous colonial mass murderer, Mr. Kurtz. However, face to face with the beautiful young woman, Marlowe feels compelled to produce a sentimental lie. Instead of telling her that the dying Mr. Kurtz's last words were what they were -- "The horror, the horror" -- he claims that Kurtz spent his final breath whispering her name. To many readers it seems that Marlowe made the right move: men should not only protect women from the truth, but also promote a belief in the existence of a kinder gentler world, a rose-tinted view of things that requires continual reinforcement in order to be sustained. Among comments I have heard: "Let's not look at that. It's not nice. Women don't think like that." For my part, I honestly do not support Marlowe's move. Beautiful lies and wishful thinking are heartbreak in the making, not worth preserving. Bluntly, it may take balls to read The Unspeakable, but I believe women do have the balls.

I claim solidarity with women like Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, one of the most powerful novels ever written. "No coward soul is mine," she declares in a superb line, "No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere..." It seems to me no coincidence that Wuthering Heights, a nineteenth-century work, should also readily lend itself to an anticolonial reading, when Mansfield Park shows no consciousness at all of its complicity with colonialism. "Bronte" was a literary nom de plume: the family's real name was Pronty. They were Irish. Emily Pronty was as keenly conscious of being a colonized subject as were, say, James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. Her Heathcliff is "black." Beyond Emily Bronte or Pronty and Wuthering Heights, however, I could name others: for instance, Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea; Marguerite Duras and The Lover, The North China Lover, and even The War. (This last on the basis convincingly put forward by major Africanist thinkers like Aimé Cesaire and Frantz Fanon that the Second World War was nothing if not the inexorably brutal imposition of colonialism upon Europe itself.) Given the fact that there are in addition plenty of clean-minded, upstanding men who would I am sure also be aghast at the "masculinism" of The Unspeakable -- the Edgar Lintons of this world, to extend the Wuthering Heights analogy -- it seems to me that what you see as alienation from my novel cannot be explained in terms of a simple gender binary.

What is at stake between you and me here is the question of appropriateness of discourse. Specifically, of literary discourse. Questions regarding appropriateness of discourse in literature can only be decided in terms of what the work itself sets out to reveal, not of imposed standards of what happens to be acceptable. I could not have set out as I do in The Unspeakable to reveal what Marlowe's reply to Kurtz's fiancée conceals if I had opted for an approach bent upon protecting the sensibilities of a societally endorsed femininity.

Beautiful lies and wishful thinking are of course perennially popular. Good, kind-hearted, decent people wish to think no evil, no matter how bleak our prospects, or grim our reality. It was popular pressure that caused Dickens to set aside his original, and provide a happy ending for Great Expectations (another work with a sunken colonial dimension). Such is the prescriptive power of illusion over literature. The problem for facile optimists is obvious, involving, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow once warned, "a continued successful rejection of much of the depths of human nature." Call such a plunge into the depths "masculinist," if you like. I hold to it. Ich kann nicht anders.

How does your novel relate to other works of literature under apartheid?

Eesh! What are you asking? My country has eleven official languages, and "literature" is "orature" among the majority of these. Only now is scholarship beginning to encompass the diversity of practices that could in (South) Africa be called "literary." But okay, I know what you mean. That thin slice of literature that can be seen as a literate rather than an oral practice.

For most of the global English language reading public, South African literature of the apartheid era is largely associated with three white writers: first, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, both Nobel Prize winners, then also Athol Fugard. Of course, there was always a smattering of political support for the work of Anglophone black writers in exile: prominent among them, Dennis Brutus, Lewis Nkosi, Es'kia Mphahlele, and Alex la Guma. As for Afrikaans writers, apart from the inimitable Breyten Breytenbach, few seemed able to break the politico-cultural barrier. André Brink did. But even as ingenious a postmodernist as Étienne Leroux, in my opinion the most gifted of the breakthrough Afrikaans writers known as the Sestigers, has fallen out of print in English.

Nevertheless, there has always been, and continues to be, great and profound writing by Afrikaners. Afrikaans also has a certain advantage: over the centuries it has shaped itself to the land in a way that South African English has not, and perhaps never will. In all, Afrikaans is a rich, strong, vital, poetic language. Yet another of the terrible things that apartheid did was to precipitate a struggle between poetry and politics for the soul of the Afrikaners -- a struggle that, to my way of thinking at least, poetry has won.

Anyway, to get back to the liberal white English-speaking triumvirate: Coetzee, Gordimer, Fugard. I admired their writings formally, but always felt troubled. Gordimer's short stories are among the best in all of English literature in the twentieth century, but her relentlessly imperious claim to the moral high ground has always roused my dissatisfaction, not to mention incredulity. Coetzee (who, incidentally, has aligned himself with Étienne Leroux) tends in his most brilliant writing to construct parabolic worlds that treat the South African reality allegorically, not to mention ironically: Waiting for the Barbarians is a case in point. However, in certain of his later works, like Age of Iron, and certainly in Disgrace, he does come back to earth. As for Fugard, despite Coetzee's charge that he writes a language that no South African has ever spoken, he has attempted to develop a slightly Afrikanerized, very slightly Africanized, English with interesting rhetorical potential. Much of his work is marred by a heavy-handed existentialism, but a less ambitious play like Hello and Goodbye strikes me as opening a vein worth developing.

What troubled me in the work of all three great South African liberal authors was White Angst, and its corollary, the unremitting need to produce a Good Impression. The project seemed to me dubious at best, and at worst, disingenuous. It occluded the underlying horror, upon which it also battened.

It was therefore with great joy that not too long ago I stumbled upon a (deliberately) crude panel in "More Death Wish," a comic strip carried by the anarchistic post-apartheid graphic narrative series Bitterkomix, which declares outright, and all in caps:


Active contribution, I might add. From the ground up. You could not live in South Africa under apartheid and not be of apartheid.

In 1990, the year Mandela was released, and white racist rule effectively ended, a remarkable work of literary journalism appeared: My Traitor's Heart, by an Anglophone Afrikaner, Rian Malan. Although I couldn't help being embarrassed by the occasional hysteria and hyperbole of the book, Malan's unquestionably daring honesty, his absurdly self-conscious anguish, his daring decision to come totally clean and face without prevarication the appalling brutality of the truth about racism, was purgative, cathartic, for me.

Rian, the narrator of The Unspeakable, is named after that Rian. So. Go figure.

The central relationship in the novel appears to be between Rian and his father. In what way does this relate to the politics of apartheid?

I once saw a television documentary of a murder trial. At the end of the trial, the man, a father, was found guilty. On hearing the death sentence, his daughter cried out, "Daddy, daddy, I love you, daddy! I'll always love you." That young woman's crie de coeur hit me hard. Love subverts justice. As a general principle, this was a realization that so disturbed the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that he returned to the problem time and again, trying to find a foundation for an ethics that the practice of love, essential to Christianity, would not undermine.

Of course, from a strictly political point of view, love is mere self-indulgence. When Albert Camus was asked by activists why he did not support terrorism during the Algerian liberation struggle -- for instance, the placement of bombs in areas like the town square where ordinary pied noir citizenry might congregate -- he said simply: "Because my mother lives there." And he was pilloried for it.

Rian, the "I" of my story, loves his father. But his father was a racist. Rian struggles to define himself as different from his father, but finds that there are moments when he is conscious of thinking and even acting like his father. As a woman might think and act like her mother. There is no getting away from our childhood. It is ours for life.

You said in an interview that this book began as a way of "writing back" to Margaret Atwood's great novel Surfacing. Could you tell us more about that?

Surfacing is a novel I love. I often assign it to my classes. What struck me when I first read it is that Atwood's narrator is in search of her father, who has disappeared. She is on a journey with other young people of her age, and the young guys are making a movie called Random Samples (which the young women privately call Random Pimples). As you know, the making of a small video documentary is pivotal to the plot of The Unspeakable. I had thought before of a novel based on the theme of a quest for the father. Surfacing got me writing that novel, but it was also a "writing back," a reply to Atwood from the very core of the South African experience under apartheid -- a far more fraught experience, I realized, than that of her protagonist in the backwoods of tame Canada.

You also mentioned that you would categorize the book as gothic. In what way, if any, can the book be understood as gothic?

Good question. I see gothic exactly as Foucault does in his essay on the Marquis de Sade -- a bolt of lightning in a wild night of storm, a searing flash that serves only to reveal the darkness all around. That darkness is our own. It is what Jung called the Shadow. None of us is without it, and the more we deny it, the more split we become, and the more split, the more susceptible we are to its operating on us unconsciously, until, as Freud saw, the repressed returns, only in an overpowering and unfamiliar form. The Unspeakable, I hope, transmits that flash of terrible insight. To all, I mean, who do not shut their eyes.

A clear strategy in the novel is to shift from present to past, past to present, by way of comparison and contrast. What were your intentions here?

An early working title for the novel was The Latecomers. In that version, I used an epigraph I taken from W.G. Sebald's novel, Austerlitz. At one point, Sebald's narrator is standing at a railway station, looking up at a monumental frieze that unfolds an idealistic tale of Belgium's colonial rule in Congo. The reality, which Joseph Conrad saw at firsthand, was the mass slaughter and exploitation of the Congolese people. By the turn of the twentieth century, over six million Congolese had been (to use Mr. Kurtz's phrase) exterminated. The words I used were: "At that time, now so long ago, although it determines our lives to this day..." I appropriated them because in the interests of political expediency the idea in South Africa today is to deliberately forget the apartheid past, and thus to live in denial. But, as Sebald saw, our past "determines our lives to this day." Hence, in my novel, Rian's past is stronger and more vivid to him than is the relatively thin and tedious present, and operates largely as a rehearsal of the present.

I can imagine that some readers might feel intensely discomfited by the way the narrative unfolds. Does this possibility make you at all uncomfortable?

This seems like a variation on a former question. It depends on what you want from literature. If you want to stay within your comfort zone, then there is plenty you had better not go near. For instance, you'd better never go to a performance of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's first play. In it a young woman gets raped, her hands are chopped off, her tongue cut out. You see her waving her stumps, the blood gushing from her mouth. Later in the play, a mother unwittingly eats a pie made from the corpses of her murdered sons. At the end, there is a viciously widespread swordfight on stage, an orgy of slaughter, which leaves us with a mountain of dead bodies, and memories of stabbings and throats being slit. Interestingly enough, Titus was Shakespeare's most popular play with Elizabethan audiences.

Father Trevor Huddleston wrote an early documentary account of apartheid, called Naught for Your Comfort. An iconic title, which, it seems, speaks directly to your question.

I would have compromised my integrity if I had written in any other way.

What if people were to see The Unspeakable as itself racist or sexist?

They'd be wrong. Mikhail Sholokhov's great novel of Cossack life in the buildup to the First World War, the war itself, and then the Revolution, shows the Cossacks as intensely racist and sexist, yet the book itself is neither racist nor sexist.

Politically correct frames or lenses, often taught under the rubric of theory at colleges and universities, readily turn into cookie-cuts that lead to restrictive reading practices. From the writer's point of view, the notion that the Reader Rules All is a form of tyranny. Reduced to a pretext, the endlessly intricate structure of open-ended meanings upon which the work itself is constructed -- in fact, which is the work -- is disappeared. Before theory, the critic Northrop Frye drew attention to the silence of the literary work. Because the work is in a sense silent, said Frye, it needs us to speak for it. This centering in literature in its own right is lost when the reader centers herself in one or other ideological frame instead. The frame becomes all-important, while the warning inscribed in the ancient tale of the Procrustean bed is forgotten, and reading becomes a matter of applying a critical technology. Words are not seen to be a matter of iridescent, kaleidoscopic energies -- they are flattened into concepts pointing to ideologies, which can then be neatly policed.

I am not trying to get away from the moral and political dimension of The Unspeakable, but to get into it.

The fact that we are all of us human does not guarantee that you or I can't or won't be inhuman. To regard criminal or evil acts as the exclusive domain of the Other -- as the white racist does in terms of anyone non-white, or, for that matter, the anti-racist of the racist -- is nothing more than a comforting illusion. Moralistic judgment becomes a projection onto the Other of all those qualities that we ourselves cannot bear to admit that we own but that we own anyway. To recognize that I am the Other is therefore a crucial moral step.

A recognition of our own latent culpability has the power to increase empathy to the point of identity with others, thus dispelling the illusion of an external Other. It is in order to support precisely such a moral (and by extension a political) understanding that I situate the reader in the "I" of my novel. You're right if you see in this a radical, and indeed a difficulty morality. It is challenging, yes. Extremely so. But it is far from an upstart notion. It preexists as much in Christ's observation about the log in my eye, the splinter in yours, as in the Delphic oracle's imperative: know thyself.

Your title, The Unspeakable, seems polysemic -- what many meanings are at stake here?

Hmm. Well, I guess I am not simply dealing with the unmentionable, as, say, D.H. Lawrence once did in attempting to take the word "cunt" out of the realm of obscenity, to bless it, love it, and grace it with deep warmth and intimacy. (Until Kate Millett came along and politicized the word, making it perhaps the most unmentionable in the language.) I am dealing with the unspeakable, as in "an unspeakable atrocity." But it's too easy to think of such a thing as capable of being committed only by some monstrous perp, a Ted Bundy, Charlie Manson, King Leopold or Mr. Kurtz.

"I am the Other."

Have you yourself ever done or perhaps simply thought something that you would never, ever, tell to anyone? Something that you would want no one to know about, even when you are dead? Yes?

That's it.