... about your share of the vileness of racism? About the decades of apartheid in South Africa, and the decades of Jim Crow laws and lynchings in America? That sort of shame will necessarily suffuse any white man's reading of Athol Fugard's only novel. Fugard is a white South African, born in 1932, now internationally acclaimed as a playwright. The characters in his plays - the two that I've seen anyway - and in this novel are all black South Africans, victims of white racism and abject poverty, but Fugard has claimed them, wrapped them in himself as the Rabbi Jesus once claimed the poor who were to inherit his kingdom. The people of Fugard's writings are his People, color notwithstanding. His is an amazing empathy, deeper than Mother Theresa's. I'm in awe of him as a human. This novel, Tsotsi, which Fugard never actually finished or submitted for publication on its merits, is sadly flawed as a piece of literature. Despite its agonizingly realistic depiction of the horrors of apartheid, it is riddled with inconsistencies and impossibilities, and the ending is unacceptable. Botched. A brief sermon and a perfunctory dismissal of a future that might have been even more a test than the present. But I ask, considering the sheer power of the subject and the emotional investment of the author, how could I carp at issues of literary craft, or give the book less than five stars?
Fugard wrote "Tsotsi" in ragged drafts and notes in the early 1960s. He wasn't satisfied with it, but like most writers he couldn't simply throw it away. One of the drafts survived in a suitcase of papers which turned up in a museum archive in the late '70s. A researcher named Stephen Gray found the draft, got permission to 'edit' it, prune it, and shape it, and it was published in 1980. I mention this because the history of the novel shows through in its flaws. It is a 'first novel' and an editor's creation, and Fugard persists in regarding it as unworthy of much attention. But now it is perhaps his best known work, as a result of the box-office success of the film based on it. Fugard's play are on a different level of artistic craft; I recently saw a production of his newest - Going Home - and I was profoundly stirred by it.
The novel Tsotsi tells of a three-day crisis in the life of a black teenage thug - a 'tsotsi', a word meaning a criminal gang member - who has suppressed all hopes and memories, who feels no attachment or empathy for any human, whose fiercest anger is directed at anyone who tries to crack his isolation or touch his humanity. He is, if one wants to rationalize his state of mind, an extreme case of post-traumatic stress - amnesiac, apathetic, hyper-sensitive to any shock that might trigger a flash-back. He is a killer who finds a thrill of identity in killing. His basic rule of life is to follow his urges and never to relent. Then something happens that totally disrupts his sociopathic but functional anomie. I'm sure other reviewers will already have revealed what, so I won't.
I have no idea whether Fugard had read William Faulkner, but both the prose style and the structure of Tsotsi are remarkably Faulknerian: extended sentences accumulating toward rhapsody, a narrative point of view that unhesitatingly reveals the minds of his characters in images and poetic phrases beyond the capacity of those characters for expression in their own words. Both writers confide in their ability to perceive the depths inside of stupid things, the spirit inside of dead things, the complexity inside the banality of simple acts. Both writers are motivated by something moral, some need to write the truth about the world they find themselves in, about viciousness, suffering, and endurance... and in the case of Fugard, about redemption through religion.
Now I'll have to see the movie ...