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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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A house/a story hanging by a thread: Ivan Vladislavic’s The Folly


The reader of this novel will have to follow the author into a strange world where words seem to have a reality of their own, and where the everyday suburban life is confronted by the world of fiction and imagination, and into a strange theological parable about creation and annihilation.1 Stumbling over an anthill on his desolate and neglected plot, the enigmatic main character of Vladislavic’s novel, Nieuwenhuizen, “stood on top of the hill and turned his face ceremoniously to the four corners of his inheritance.”2 The territory is highly unpromising, both for a future home and for a novel about to unfold: a plot one acre in size and “a single tree in the elbow of the hedge” (2). Apart from this tree, an unruly hedge bounding the property on two sides and a prefabricated cement wall decorated with abstract wagon wheels and suns, of which nobody is certain whether they are rising or setting) there is only a gate and the decrepit remains of barbed wire fencing off the property from the road. The plot itself – “smaller than he had been led to believe,” obviously a parody of the “wide open spaces of the colonial novel” – is overgrown with tall grass and weeds. On this plot the hero sets out bravely, “his eyes fixed on the horizon,” to conquer the empty space, recycling the waste created by urban misplanning, and to marry himself to the earth in a ritual of strange ballet-like movements. Quite perceptively...

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