In relation to the question of a ‘national literature’, I can’t help wanting to borrow and bastardise a quote by Pablo Picasso: ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth’.
After the Writers’ Conference event in Cape Town on 21st September 2012, the subject of nationality and national identity has surfaced a number of times at subsequent author talks in the Open Book Festival. So, understandably, has the subject of apartheid. Evidently, eighteen years after the end of South Africa’s shameful period of repression and racism, authors are still struggling to come to terms with its past and there is a powerful desire for the country to emerge from Apartheid’s shadow.
It is equally evident that Apartheid is not something that exists as a solid, incontrovertible fact, a true history waiting to be exposed by scientific research. On the contrary, like all of history it is a mutating idea; a set of representations, each created from a different perspective. We know that two people witnessing the simplest of events will offer different testimonies; two translators working on the most straightforward of texts will always produce different results. Histories are not facts, but events people think they experienced. Perhaps this is why we have such a strong urge to tell stories.
Stories are to a greater or lesser extent, made up. They are, in Picasso’s language, ‘lies’. Yet it seems we often find them a more useful tool for understanding the world around us than the more apparently-objective tools of reportage and journalism. Alberto Manguel makes the same point in today’s Guardian review of Ismail Kadare’s newly-translated book The Fall of the Stone City: ‘In Kadare’s admirable and vast literature … mythology and history are equally competent to bear witness, except that the former is better at illuminating facts than the latter at reporting them.’
Stories are lies that make us realise the truth. But stories are also ineluctably rooted in place. Whether they’re South African, Indian or Scottish, it’s perhaps not surprising that some novelists should want to resist having nationalism imposed upon them, but they are nonetheless producing stories that emerge from a certain place or places. So, Jamala Safari’s new book The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods may not be set in South Africa (it is the story of one boy’s journey from the Congo to Mozambique), and Safari himself has only lived in South Africa for a few years. Yet at a discussion today Safari conceded, like it or not, that his novel has to be considered as part of South African literature. At another discussion, the South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes argued that her short stories form small pieces of a mosaic that make up our understanding of her country.
In effect, storytellers cannot divorce themselves from the elements that make up their identity. Nationality is one of many lenses through which we can try to understand ourselves and our relationship with the world, and it is therefore my contention that every novel makes some sort of contribution to a ‘national literature’.
Nick Barley, 23rd September 2012