The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

 

Even though one has learned from prior reading experience that autobiographies written by politicians should be treated with care - and good examples of this tendency are the memoirs written by Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder – they still oftentimes become bestsellers. But Mandela’s memoirs stand for themselves in their straightforwardness and warmth – and deserved becoming a bestseller. Nelson Mandela will probably rank with Mahatma Gandhi as a major formative figure of 20th century history. Both men experienced the beauty as well as cruelty of a country of deep social rifts. Mahatma Gandhi worked as an attorney, defending fellow Asian-Indians, who had come to South Africa originally to work on the sugar plantations of Natal and were also victims of segregation in a racist society, before returning to India to develop the concept of non-violent resistance. Nelson Mandela is one of the first black lawyers in South Africa and as a leading member of the ANC he resorted to violent forms of resistance before his imprisonment on Robben Island, where he developed and organized non-violent resistance against the apartheid regime. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Willem de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa, he paved the way for a transition to a young democracy still plagued by extreme social differences in a peaceful way most had not deemed possible. This autobiography gives the reader an intense insight into a unique country as well as into a unique man!

 

Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee

 

The Nobel-Prize winner J.M. Coetzee was born 1940 in South Africa and was awarded his second Booker Prize for this outstanding novel, being the only author to date to have received this renowned award a second time. The novel is set in the post-apartheid period and describes in a subdued style of utmost clarity the fate of a professor who is accused of sexual harassment, is forced to leave university and attempts to grasp a new life, living on the farm of his daughter. The matter-of-factness of Coetzee’s choice of language makes the crime which takes place assume an even more foreboding quality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Traitor´s Heart by Rian Malan

 

Rian Malan was born in 1954 and Daniel Malan, one of the “architects of apartheid” was his great uncle. As a young man Rian Malan already started to liberate himself from the confines of his ancestry and this book describes his experiences as a reporter in South Africa, as it slowly slides into the violent repression, determined resistance as well as senseless cruelty in the second half of the 1980’s. But it also portrays the ambivalence of a man torn between his past and present, hope and despair. John le Carré came to following concise conclusion: “Here is the truth-telling at its most exemplary and courageous!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and Times of MICHAEL K by J.M. Coetzee

 

This “piece” was awarded the Man-Booker Prize in 1983 - a veritable laconic verbal sculpture - which hits the reader where it hurts most. Michael K. is a foundling, who stumbles through his accorded time on earth - and is still capable of retaining a simple but constantly endangered dignity in the face of a total lack of respect and understanding. Is he a South African Kasper Hauser? Born in total destitution he flees the chaos of the city and survives in the beyondness of stark nature - is he a South African Robinson Crusoe? Coetzee’s sparse language is crystal clear, straightforward and a testimony to sober empathy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Dust by Gillian Slovo

 

The film bearing the same title was impressive - nonetheless the book is even more impressing. Slovo’s exiled mother was murdered in Mozambique because of her opposition to the apartheid regime. Her father, already suffering from terminal cancer, was Nelson Mandela’s first Minister for Public Works and Development. Gillian Slovo is one of the leading white South African authors. She portrays contemporary South Africa without false pathos and Red Dust deals with truths arsing from the tension between lies and the insecurity pervading all the shades of grey.

 

 

 

 

 

The Covenant by James Michener

 

Once again the recently deceased James Michener enfolds his prodigious talent as a storyteller. This historical novel is of the same high - as well as enjoyable - standard as “The Source” or “Chesapeake”. Time flies - starting out with the conquest of the native San population by the migrating Nguni tribes, a historical canopy enfolds reaching from the first European settlers at the Cape to the human tragedy of apartheid. The characters, fictional as they are, seem more real than actual persons given Michener’s talent and empathy.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer

 

Nadine Gordimer was born 1923 in South Africa and she embodies the development of this country in the 20th century with her unrelenting style and vitality as an author. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and has continued to work prodigiously. She wrote this book in 1999 and its laconic description transcends the boundaries of South Africa.  A car breakdown is the beginning of a relationship between a white South African woman and an illegal immigrant from an Arabian country. The reader also starts to realize why South Africa has become a place of hope and refuge for many Africans (for example vendors and road construction workers from Mozambique) and is starting to run the risk of developing a new type of apartheid.

 

 

 

 

 

The Children´s Day by Michiel Heyns

 

Experience an Afrikaans childhood in the 1960’s - in Verkeerdespruit, a dorp permeated by the light of the bright highveld sun as well as empathetic humour. How does a boy experience a world formed by crass social differences, eccentricities and the puzzle of love? Plagued by feelings of wanting to belong to as well as rejection of the world of grown-ups, Simon  tries to find his way through this puzzle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

 

Shortly before the millennium Coetzee, who was born in Cape Town in 1940, focuses on his own childhood, which is also characterized by the contrast between Cape Town and the small provincial town of Worcester. The “culture gap” appears to be much greater than the mere 100 kilometres between the two cities, a contrast which still is apparent in South Africa today. Coetzee describes his personal experiences and his trademark typical lucidity and “economical” style force the readers to reinvestigate their own childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elections & Erections by Pieter-Dirk Uys

 

Along with Johnny Clegg, the White Zulu musician, Uys, and especially his alter ego Evita Bezuidenhout, are South Africa´s most popular cross-cultural figures today. During apartheid Uys’ cabaret performances as Evita confronted the white minority with all its quirks and prejudices and in this book - a “memoir of fear and fun” - he recounts Evita’s development from the Afrikaans wife of a diplomat to the fictitious homeland of Bapetikosweti to a leading protagonist of the Anti-Aids movement. But this book does not deal with death but with a life in dignity. And Uys remains true to himself: “Apartheid cannot be combated with good taste!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

 

Doris Lessing is, without any doubt, one of the leading authors of contemporary English literature. She was born 1919 in Persia, the daughter of an English military officer and grew up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She maintained an intimate relationship with Africa throughout her life after she settled in England. Even though this African tragedy takes place in Rhodesia the reader is conscious of the fact that the social conditions were very similar to those in South Africa. Published in 1950, this was Lessing’s first novel but it is already characterized by a remarkable maturity of style and conviction. For this reason when Mary Turner, who herself is a victim of social forces beyond her control, is murdered by her black house servant, it is an inevitable development. And Lessing’s autobiography “Under the Skin” (1919-1949) is an ideal backdrop!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Betrayal by Gillian Slovo

 

Gillian Slovo’s talent comprises the detective novel as well as excruciating portraits of South Africa. In 1992 Slovo wrote this book on the period of transition by depicting the lives of Alan, a white ANC member accused of betraying fellow ANC members, of Rebecca, a black woman the ANC chose to judge him and of Sarah, a young English woman whose love for Alan forces her to confront the secret police. Suspense without a trace of superficiality penetrates the book to its last page. Truly an exciting and disconcerting book!   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

 

This book bears no similarity with “dime-store doctor novelettes “. Galgut’s first novel was already short–listed for the Man-Booker Prize 2003 and it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2004. This book of many facets describes in a quiet but spell-bounding style the situation at a rural hospital in a former homeland where a young doctor starts medical training. Galgut has become one of the leading author’s of contemporary South Africa and deserves to be mentioned along with Coetzee and Gordimer, because he has the same talent at describing the human predicament in transition, imbedded in a social no-man’s-land. His unobstrusive story-telling is most compelling as it slowly exposes a lethal tension which culminates into catastrophe disrupting the initial superficial harmony.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking on Darkness by André Brink

 

André Brink immigrated to Europe in 1967 but decided to return to apartheid South Africa because he wanted to “accept full responsibility for everything I write - not as a member of a small white enclave, but as a writer belonging more to Africa than to Europe.” Since then he has been awarded many literature prizes for his novels, which he writes with the same prowess in English or Afrikaans and has taught generations of  students (for example as professor for Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of Grahamstown). This novel recounts the fascinating life of a coloured man who leaves a childhood in poverty behind for a career as an actor and playwright and writes his autobiography on toilet-paper in a prison cell before his execution for killing his white lover.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wilderness Family by Kobie Krüger

 

Kobie Krüger is the wife of a game ranger in the Kruger Park and she recalls her fond memories during her years stationed at different camps with her family. Her style makes the suspense of living in the wilderness come across and is - on the other hand - intentionally slightly naïve, so one tends to smile and acknowledge this resolute woman and the way she solves the “day-to-day” problems. It is breathtaking how Krüger describes the splendour and danger of nature, so one sometimes has the impression of reading a well-written thriller. 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don´t Let´s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

 

An African childhood on farms in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia – and the tension which arises between the unprejudiced perspective of a child and the barren reality of African life. Alexandra Fuller accomplishes her task masterfully and therefore it is only understandable that this book received unanimously positive reviews in America as a “modern classic“ of autobiography. She is able to unite tragic events with a love of Africa, which she has been able to cherish in the course of a life that has led her to Wyoming. To our knowledge her second book “Scribbling the Cat - Travels with an African Soldier”, which describes the turmoil of white professional soldiers in Africa, has not yet been published in German. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

 

Alan Paton (1903-1988), who started off as a teacher after his university degree in mathematics and physics before becoming the director of a reformatory for thirteen years, was not only an author but also the president of the Liberal Party which was prohibited in 1968. While he was inspecting prisons and reformatories in Europe and America he started to write this formative novel of modern South African literature in 1947. Because of his impressive skill at describing the prevalent social conditions of the discriminated black majority, the world focussed its attention on apartheid for the first time. The fate of a father, who searches for his son in a labyrinth of racism and crime as well reconciliation, is a realistic portrait of a torn South Africa. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Smell of Apples by  Mark Behr

 

To our knowledge this book has only appeared in English, even though it was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1995. The leitmotiv of this engrossing novel is the observation of the 10 year old Marnus Erasmus of how “the dreams of the parents become the dreams of their children”. As a soldier of the South African forces fighting in Angola he recapitulates a happy-go-lucky childhood becoming increasingly influenced by his parents, a general and a musician. At the same time the reality of apartheid in the 1970’s encroaches on the double standards of the privileged white minority and finds its focus in a family tragedy. Any reader interested in an intimate account of the psyche of white South African society will definitely enjoy this book. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country by Gillian Slovo

 

Gillian Slovo ‘s memoir focuses on her yearning as a child to have “normal white” parents, a longing she attempts to amalgamate with the painful insights of an adult in the reality of her parents’ relationship and lives. Slovo’s mother was Ruth First, a political journalist and activist who was assassinated while exiled in Mozambique in 1982. Her father was Joe Slovo, a leader of the South African liberation movement as well as close friend of Nelson Mandela and South Africa´s first post-apartheid minister of public works, who died of cancer in 1996. Gillian Slovo describes with empathetic lucidity how her parents’ political activism as well as the intense ambivalence of their marriage influenced the life of a young as well grown-up child.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee

 

Coetzee’s other novels will always be compared with “Disgrace“, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature and this book bears additional testimony to Coetzee’s unique talent. Epic without epical length, painful without being self-pitying, Coetzee sketches how the life of a professor for English literature suffering from terminal cancer slowly comes to an end as well as how the cocoon she has spun around her life is torn apart by the upheavals in South African society. She is only able to share the disconcerting experiences of the unrest in the townships as well as the deaths of her maid’s son and a black political activist with a homeless alcoholic. This book  reflects the suffering of a country in the fate of an individual and for this reason this - at times depressing - novel invites  reflection; for example after an enjoyable trip through South Africa.  

 

 

 

 

 

Transvaal Episode by Harry Bloom

 

This book was published 1956, was awarded the British Authors Club Award 1957, and was censored by the apartheid government until 1982. It merits to be mentioned in one breath with Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  Paton sums up this novel as follows: “a brutal tale told without brutality…his story never happened, yet every word of it is true”. The confrontation of two men is the pivotal development of this novel. Walter Mabaso is a political activist, who organizes the resistance of a township and Hendrick Du Toit is the white commissioner - both are overwhelmed by an incident that develops into an uncontrollable conflict. To our knowledge this novel has only been published in English, for example as a paperback by Africa South Paperbacks in 1987, and can be obtained in second-hand book-shops. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reluctant Passenger by Michiel Heyns

 

Michiel Heyns was professor for English at the University of Stellenbosch up until the success of his debut novel, The Children’s Day, in 2002. His second novel is concerned with other aspects of contemporary South African society. A self-content lawyer slowly finds his inner core during a court case which deals with the fate of Cape-Baboons and their unwitting enmeshment in a net of intrigue, where the old and new South Africa meet. Clear perspective and disarming humour are characteristic for this book. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dry White Season by André Brink

 

The title of this book is a quotation from a poem by Mongane Wally Serote, one of the leading black African authors. A white teacher, Ben du Toit, loses his position, his wife, his family and his life because of his unerring search for the truth behind the murder of a black prisoner by white police officers. But he also – finally - finds to himself. The South African winter is the dry season, in which the white-shimmering highveld prepares itself for a new life - and is therefore the ideal metaphor for du Toit’s as well as for South Africa’s fate during apartheid. This book (1979) was censored for years along with Looking on Darkness (1974) but fortunately was acclaimed internationally and as a result made into a major MGM motion picture.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                        

A Life to Live by Yvonne Burgess

 

Once again the recently deceased James Michener enfolds his prodigious talent as a storyteller. This historical novel is of the same high - as well as enjoyable - standard as “The Source” or “Chesapeake”. Time flies - starting out with the conquest of the native San population by the migrating Nguni tribes, a historical canopy enfolds reaching from the first European settlers at the Cape to the human tragedy of apartheid. The characters, fictional as they are, seem more real than actual persons given Michener’s talent and empathy.  

 

 

 

 

 

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

 

Coetzee wrote this “coming of age” novel between a Booker and a Nobel Prize. A young man, aspiring to become a poet slowly turns into a computer programmer - a course in life leading from a “romanticised escape” from the confines of an isolated South Africa of the 1950’s to the sober reality of London. Coetzee’s style is characterized by a careful balance between unflinching analysis and empathy for the conflicts of growth. No wonder that Coetzee quotes Goethe: ”He, who wants to understand the poet, has to travel to the land of the poet.”