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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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The mysterious patterns of everyday life in a colony: Christopher Hope’s The Love Songs of Nathan J. Swirsky


Nathan Swirsky arrived – fictionally – in Badminton – a housing estate built outside Johannesburg “on the main road to the dynamite factory”1 for returning soldiers of World War II – just before Christmas 1950, five years before I arrived on the Zuiderkruis in Cape Town.2 Both events have for me the curious unreality of far distant “historical” events despite their vividness. I remember being driven around the Cape Peninsula on a thirty-five degrees Celsius February day in a decrepit Austin (similar to Sally and Tony’s blue Austin A40), and later riding on the Blue Train the vast distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg. I remember the first “garden” I ever inhabited, a thin strip of grass with a few begonias and one bougainvillaea shrub – the back yard was a solid rectangle of cement where the previous inhabitants had repaired their cars. The narrator of Hope’s book could have lived next door, and I might have met Nathan Swirsky on my way to the shops at the other end of the street, figures like Mr Govender, the greengrocer, and Errol, the man who sold topsoil, populate my past, too; but then again not, because such vivid and extraordinary characters populate nostalgia, dreams and fiction, not the reality of Norwood in 1955. However, Hope’s book is not merely a trip down memory lane, feeding on the nostalgia of what some of his characters would now call “better times”, when people with large families “might have as many as four servants, ← 183 | 184...

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