While browsing through Twitter one day I came across the fascinating account of Peter Anderson
When I heard about his novel The Unspeakable, I knew this was a man I needed to talk to. Any South African and indeed anyone with an interest in the compulsion of indoctrination and the wheres and whyfores of why a group of people will act in the way they do needs to read this.
It’s the mid-1980s, the era of so-called reformist apartheid, and South Africa is in flames. Police and military are gunning down children at the forefront of the struggle. Far from such action, it seems, a small party of four is traveling by minibus to the north of the country, close to the border with Zimbabwe. Their aim is to shoot a documentary on the discovery of a prehistoric skull that Professor Digby Bamford boasts is evidence that “True man first arose in southern Africa”. Boozy, self-absorbed Professor Bamford is unaware that his young lover, Vicky, brings with her some complications. Rian, the videographer, was once in love with her, and his passion has been re-ignited. Bucs, a young man from the townships, is doing his best not to be involved in the increasingly deadly tensions. Told in the first person by Rian, it centres on the conflicted being of the white male under apartheid. Unlike many of the great novels of the era, it renounces any claim to the relative safety zone of moralist dissociation from the racist crime against humanity, and cuts instead to the quick of complicity.
What was your inspiration behind writing this book?
I had hit a blind wall, wanting to write, but not knowing what. I remember reading Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which inspired me to write what was then the opening sentence: “It is so long ago that our speed steadied out that we seem as though stationary on this flat and unchanging road, heading north.” I had also for a long time, years, wanted to write a story about a search for the absent father, a deeply loved but catastrophically flawed figure. Inspiration came and went, fleeting as always, but a stubborn, gut-level compulsiveness to write and keep writing, proved steadier, more solidly reliable. The blind wall turned into blind will, so to speak.
You’ve captured the scene and setting well — the visual imagery of the farm and the road trip, the reference to things like a kombi instantly brings images of David Kramer to mind. On the surface a Utopia, but beneath that surface, all wasn’t very well. Almost like a pot that was simmering but hadn’t quite boiled. Does the book intend to expose that? Can you tell me more about that?
White utopia, black dystopia. There was tension in everything. The slightest act was politically fraught. One night I stepped out of my house in Yeoville, Johannesburg, and the entire sky to the north was aflame. Alexandra township was burning. I wanted to write the tension into The Unspeakable. The era was exhilarating in its way, because you knew you were living in the End Times of white baasskap [overlordship] in South Africa.
Bamford offers an interesting theory that apartheid is penis envy. It could have been, right?
Right. You remember Shakespeare, The Tempest? Caliban, the slave, his name an anagram for Cannibal, is supposed to have tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and is fiercely punished for it by the old wizard. White male angst about black sexual potency runs right through the centuries in our literature. Faulkner’s Light in August culminates — climaxes, you could say — in the castration and murder of a man apparently black. Envy, penis or otherwise, is a particularly vicious emotion, since envy seeks to destroy that which it can never be. The killing of black men by white mars our history. I live today in a town in North Texas where, in the 1930s, a black man, falsely accused of making sexual overtures to a white woman, was lynched, his body burned, and the remains dragged around and dumped on the poorer (black) side of town. Apartheid’s Immorality Act, banning sexual relations between races, was nothing if not a blatant admission of white angst. Freud’s inimitable phrase could in my opinion well be applied to it. Ironically, maybe. But it sticks.
Is the character of Rian semi-autobiographical or is the book completely fictional?
Oh, I am not Rian. I am not “I”. My own father was an opera singer turned all-in wrestler, a rotund guy who used to refer to himself as the Little Fat Man. Nothing like Rian’s Pa. My upbringing in South Africa, conscription into apartheid’s military, and various racist incidents that I inevitably witnessed, all contributed to the novel. What weighed on me when I
encountered the work of outstanding English-speaking white South African writers like Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, and J.M. Coetzee, was their apparent need to occupy the moral high ground. It seemed to me that an attempt was consistently made to project all evildoing on to the Afrikaners, indicting them with due irony as the truly monstrous Other. However, my sense was that you could not escape so easily. Irony was no defense. If you lived in South Africa you were of South Africa. The complicity of the white community was ubiquitous. What Rian does in the end is to take upon himself all the guilt of the crime against humanity that is racism. This obviously runs strictly against the grain of the preferred liberal narrative, which — at the expense, it seems to me, of the reality — wishes to valorize the good in order to gloss over their own continual submission to the status quo. working for a news magazine during the Soweto uprising of 1976, I sometimes saw photographs that were not published because they were considered “too graphic.” In one, a little township girl, no more than three years old, had had her cranium torn off by a “stray” bullet fired by the police. Dostoevsky once asked, if the salvation of the world depended upon your murdering, torturing to death, one little girl, would you do it? I think the questions should stand: Why does Rian do what he does at the end? How does he feel about it? Is he at peace with himself? In what way, if any, has he achieved completion?
Apartheid was about dehumanizing people in a huge way. I sometimes think that everyone in our country would benefit from intensive therapy. In 1994, did you envisage South Africa as it is now? And how do we heal from here?
Yes, the Rainbow Nation vanished long ago, I fear. In 1994, I believed we had extraordinary potential, the chance of constructing a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic-socialist state. Instead, we have spiraled downward into a vortex of corruption, making us a Sewer Nation. We have one of the most advanced and admired constitutions in the world — on paper. As a matter of quotidian reality, we have nothing but horrific criminal violence, one of the highest rates of domestic violence, and very possibly the highest incidence of rape in the world. The poor have seen no improvement in their lot since the fall of apartheid; in some estimates, they have grown poorer. The ANC is loyal to itself rather than accountable to the people, and there is no viable opposition. South Africa is effectively a one-party state. Race has long fallen away as the dividing factor, only to be replaced by class. A couple of years ago, when I was in the country, I watched a number of rail-thin men at the end of a wedding celebration stacking the chairs and tables from an empty hall into the back of a truck, while a row of fat-bellied soldiers sat along one wall, all the remains of the feast before them, chewing and drinking without a thought to sharing. Political equality is no substitute for what we really need: economic equality. But how to achieve it, no one knows.
There’s a hint of adulterous, incestuous relationships which further complicate the dynamic. How do you think these relationships impacted on the society of the day?
I don’t think apartheid South Africa was unique in its sexual dysfunction. As far as narrative is concerned, a warped sexuality is more interesting than a straight. Sexuality twists and turns. It can’t be controlled, it has to be controlled. We all live in terms of this impossible dynamic.
It seems it’s also a tale of survival?
Certainly. But one person’s survival is another’s betrayal. I think it was Solzhenitsyn who pointed out that the good do not survive. Bucs, the black guy, the marginalized hero and martyr of The Unspeakable, is the Christ figure. The section that ultimately focuses on him is called “Place of the Skull.”
I think that the trip signifies a sort of coming to terms with the past, a closure for Rian. Would I be correct?
As a reader, you have every right to your own interpretation. I do not believe that the writer is the final authority. Often, the writer, who has necessarily to be focused upon the how of the writing, allows the what to take care of itself. As long as the what is flowing along, the writer has other fish to fry. (Which is of course why Plato, annoyed that writers didn’t know what they were doing, wished to banish them from his republic.) Yours is a very kind and hopeful interpretation. Another reader, Carol Daeley, sees the ending differently. “The Unspeakable,” she says in an Amazon review, “demands that we recognize that some things cannot be atoned for, cannot be erased.” As a journalist
Many times white South Africans will say that they weren’t aware of the atrocities that were taking place. In your book, Rian was aware and was very conflicted by what was taking place. He was a witness to violence perpetrated upon black people, and their degradation. What could he in his personal capacity have done differently? Do you feel that most whites were aware of what was happening and simply chose to be apathetic? Or were we brainwashed by the government and media of the day? In the ’80s when the trip takes place, things were starting to change in South Africa, and one of the participants of the trip was a black man. Had his circumstances improved from those of Ou Willem? Would it have been seen as liberal for whites to travel with a black? Was this in itself a stance against apartheid?
Yes, some of the worst things — a place like Vlakplaas, for instance, and its resident killer, Eugene (“Prime Evil”) de Kock — were kept a close secret by the regime. We didn’t know until afterwards. But it is difficult to maintain that we didn’t know for a fact that atrocities were being committed. Opponents of the government were said to have leapt to their death from the tenth floor of police headquarters, rather than answer questions; to have slipped on a bar of soap, to have stumbled down a flight of steps, while in police detention, breaking their necks; to have hanged themselves in their prison cells “in order to embarrass the government”. And so on. It seems to me it was, and is, pretty impossible to claim not to know. Besides, the claim itself tellingly echoes that of the Nazi populace after Hitler’s demise. Rian certainly is witness to racist violence and degradation. He is also intensely conflicted. Generally, I don’t buy the notion of political apathy. I suspect that those who appear to be apathetic are essentially comfortable with their political beliefs. Apathy may be a mask for an underlying complacency, and therefore complicity. Similarly, those who accepted the propaganda of the white racist regime at face value were those who wanted to go along with it. P.W. Botha’s reformist apartheid amounted to the preposterous idea of Racism with a Human Face. Nothing is more dangerous for an authoritarian government than the attempt to reform. It was Botha who poured the army as well as the police into the townships. In my novel, Rian and Bucs are a video crew with ACE-TV, an acronym for Academic Centre for Educational Television, a production unit based at the liberal university where Bamford is a professor. In a time of reform, a liberal university would of course push the envelope a little, for instance by allowing a young black man like Bucs to become a technician in training. Bucs would therefore be fortunate to have opportunities denied rural laborers like Ou Willem, not only in the days of Rian’s childhood, but also in our day now. No doubt, it was mildly oppositional to reformist apartheid to have someone like Bucs travel along with whites. Such a gesture was about as far as liberals were prepared to go. Typically, they tended to obey the law, even though the law itself was nothing short of a crime against humanity.
I’m interested in the golden thread of humanity. Actually my blog was inspired by the American actor John Ritter, and he said he would like to be remembered as someone who tweaked the golden thread of humanity. I think all writers, actors, musicians, have the power to do this. What are you hoping the impact of your book will be?
I’m afraid I would feel like a liar if I wrote a feel-good book about apartheid. I want people to know, to understand in depth. I want to challenge complacency, do away with the mask. Racism depends upon the unconscious projection onto others of our own darkness. If we see only the good, we look away from the darkness. Which is precisely what can make it all too easy to regard the dark as the property in particular of the Other. What The Unspeakable says is that I am the Other. A shock, sure, but it is my conviction that we have to come to terms with our own darkness before we attempt to seek it out in others.
working for a news magazine during the Soweto uprising of 1976, I sometimes saw photographs that were not published because they were considered “too graphic.” In one, a little township girl, no more than three years old, had had her cranium torn off by a “stray” bullet fired by the police. Dostoevsky once asked, if the salvation of the world depended upon your murdering, torturing to death, one little girl, would you do it? I think the questions should stand: Why does Rian do what he does at the end? How does he feel about it? Is he at peace with himself? In what way, if any, has he achieved completion?
Are filming and fossils subjects that interest you? I’m seeing a correlation between the fossil discovery in this book and ones which actually happened in South Africa.
“Deep is the well of the past,” writes Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers. “Shall we not call it bottomless?” Beyond the shallow history of South African colonialism lies the unimaginable immensity of humankind’s evolutionary prehistory. I set out to parody masculinist egotism in Bamford’s interpretation of the anomalous Wonderboy skull. And filming did once interest me, but no longer. Writing is and always has been my first love. What I wanted to do in the novel was appropriate if not subordinate film to writing, but I now realize that what I was writing could amount to the draft script of an interesting film about filming.
Did you have to do research for the book? If so, how did you go about it?
I read a number of books on the humanoid fossil finds, both in South Africa, and Africa at large. I also visited the Sterkfontein Caves, where so many of South Africa’s major discoveries were made. As for the video elements, I worked briefly as an educational TV producer. I liked doing camera, but was incompetent at the purely technical dimension (which is massive, definitive), and found I was lousy at collaboration with a crew. So, back to writing.
You no longer live in South Africa. Why the move to Texas? And would you go back some day?
I’m an academic. Academics have to go where they can get work. If I tried to return permanently to South Africa now, my age, race, and gender would count against me. It would be impossible for me to be employed. In America, “intellectual capital,” as it is unfortunately called, is highly valued. There is no arbitrary age limit for faculty. I can continue to teach until I drop. Since I have no option, I will indeed have to. As for South Africa, my heart is there, my head here. If I could find a way of going back, I’d take it at once.
Where can people buy the book?
Either directly from C&R Press, or from Amazon. Perhaps they should check my website first: writerpeteranderson.com. Excerpts from all my reviews are collected there, and a reader could gain a quick snapshot of what the book is like from other readers’ comments.
What’s up next for you?
I am pushing hard to complete a novella, “The Plunge.” Hope to have that done by December. I may then tinker with a literary critical study, Stone, Paper, Steel: Poetry in Prison under Apartheid, a revamping of my doctoral dissertation. What I would really like to do is return to South Africa in search of my brother. I haven’t had any contact with him for, oh, twenty-five years now. I think I could wind a memoir around that search. I would also like to get on with my next novel, since The Unspeakable was cast roughly as the first in a trilogy. It is the Inferno, so to speak.
Peter Anderson hails from South Africa, but currently resides in North Texas where he is an associate professor of English at Austin College. The author of a previous collection of poems, Vanishing Ground, his work in fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been anthologized in both America and South Africa. The Unspeakable is his first novel.