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At the Margin of One/Many Languages

Essays on South African Literature


Peter Horn

The essays collected here are responses to books of poetry and prose published during the transition period from the apartheid regime of the mid-1980s to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The volume comprises a variety of texts written during the crucial mid-1980s – the time of the «Emergency» and the height of oppression – up to and including the installation of the first freely elected South African government in 1994.
In the years of anti-apartheid struggle, the immediate political conflict was pre-eminent in the minds of many poets but extended to broader concerns about race, writing and colonialism, such as the debate about the imbongi (African praise singer) as the true antecedent of the contemporary African poet. After the end of apartheid new challenges came to the South African book publishing industry and, thus, to South African writers, as they tried to make sense of the past and draw tentative lines into the future. The works of J. M. Coetzee, Njabulo Ndebele, Kelwyn Sole, Sandile Dikeni, Vincent Swart, Heather Robertson, Patrick Cullinan, Seitlhamo Motsapi, W. P. B. Botha and more are read against this changing social and political landscape.
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I am dead: you cannot read. André Brink’s On the Contrary


A voice speaks or writes from the darkness of the slaughterhouse.1 A voice destined to die violently sets out to tell the story of its existence. Dying, the voice needs a story. Language and story give the functions of an individual meaning. Language reaches as far as the supra-individual reality of the subject, because the operations of language are the operations of history.2 The necessity to create a coherent story of oneself, to justify oneself and one’s actions by means of language is the necessity to acquire the agreement, the desire of the other, although Estienne Barbier, the main character of the novel and its narrator, says: “I have given up trying to explain either others or myself. This is just a story” (4).3 But the word “just” underplays the importance and the necessity of telling the story in the face of imminent, if fictional death. Stories are always “just” that, stories, but they are always also more than “just” stories. Both the story of Don Quixote and the legend of Jeanne d’Arc, integral parts of Brink’s novel, demonstrate how “just stories” determine the content and the style of human lives.

In a wonderful creation myth, attributed to the slave woman Rosette, it was one of those whose voice has been devalued, a woman, who “spoke a world into being”: “In the beginning there was only […] a Storyteller and she was a woman.” But then, according to this myth, she was forgotten ← 163 | 164 → by...

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