It is difficult and dangerous to generalize about population groups when talking about apartheid

Patrick Flanery was born in California and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. He has written for the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Daily Telegraph. His first novel, Absolution, was published in 2012.

What is your relation to South Africa?

The simple answer is that my partner is South African, and that through his influence, and our family and friends there, I have come to know the country intimately. But as a child in Omaha, Nebraska, I attended schools that had been racially desegregated by order of law, meaning that I was taken by bus from the largely white neighborhood where I lived to a school in a part of town whose residents were, for the most part, African-American. The curriculum of the schools I attended was, by design, concerned with teaching lessons about racial integration, equality, and civil rights. By historical coincidence, I happened to be in school during the final days of apartheid, so Nelson Mandela’s release was what is now so often described as a ‘teachable moment’, which my teachers did an admirable job of addressing and relating to the history of race relations in the United States. That is all by way of saying that South Africa was present in my mind from an early age—present as a country engaged in a dramatic and suggestive kind of transformation, present as a model for a polity remaking and reimagining itself, present also as an example of the defeat of tyranny.

Absolution is your first novel. What motivated you to write about a subject as complex as the traps of memory in post-apartheid South Africa?

While I was writing Absolution I was also doing research on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the course of reading parts of the vast archive of testimony recorded during the hearings I began to be struck by the ways in which multiple versions of the same event were presented by witnesses and those involved in apartheid atrocities. The Commission sought to allow for different kinds of truth: narrative truth (the memories of those affected), forensic truth (the scientific truth, we might say), discursive truth (which I have understood as the truth generated by the dialogic dynamic of the first two kinds of truth), and restorative truth (or the end point in the whole process: the reconciliation and reparation towards which the hearings of the TRC were aimed). (The South African critic and scholar Mark Sanders has written about these dynamics very interestingly in his book Ambiguities of Witnessing, which was an illuminating text for me as I was writing Absolution.) Drawing on these different possible forms of truth is a boon to a novelist working in a late-modernist or post-modernist tradition, where ambiguity is often favored over the narrative closure or third-person omniscience of so many novels written in a more uninterrogated realist vein. What better way to embrace and exploit narrative ambiguity than by animating the failures, manipulations, and highly personalized ‘truths’ of memory?

Clare Wald publishes a novel under a pseudonym and then writes a report under her real name recommending South Africa’s censorship committee ban the book. What does this action mean?

For Clare, the action is one approaching farce. She wrote the book as a test of institutionalized censorship, as an attempt at writing the kind of novel that ought to be banned (according to apartheid censorship regulations) but that was unlike her other work—the work she was publishing under her own name. By coincidence, the novel is sent to her for review (because she acted as a reader for what was known as the Publications Control Board) and, seeing no other choice, she decides to report on the book according to the letter of the law: to point out everything in the book she has secretly written that ought to make it a candidate for banning. And, thus, she helps ban a book she has written. Ultimately this is a comment on the absurdity and arbitrariness of any form of censorship; Clare might just as easily have found ways of arguing that the book she wrote could pose no harm because it was a work of literature and would never attract a mass of readers who would be influenced by it (this was frequently the logic of censor reports on the works of writers like Coetzee and Gordimer, as Peter D. McDonald has so significantly revealed in his study of apartheid censorship, The Literature Police). Even when codified in the language of reason, even when censorship presents itself as a force for good, it is almost always reliant, in the end, on the entirely subjective opinion of one or two people (and these people have usually been men); this is why censorship as act and ideology is both so absurd and so radically dangerous.

In the literary confrontation between the young scholar who has to write a biography and the famous writer, there is also the reader of your book who has to interpret what is happening. Could you please tell us a few words about how you structured the novel? Did you intend to keep the suspense going?

Having read (and taught) Barthes’ and Foucault’s essays on the idea of the author and authorship (‘The Death of the Author’ and ‘What is an Author?’ respectively) I could not help being conscious of the ways in which authorship itself might be engaged as a theme of my first novel; it seemed to me that authorship perhaps should be the proper theme of a debut novel. At the same moment, however, Absolution as a whole repeatedly undermines the authority of the author (both my authority as author, and the authority of Clare and Sam, the two authors—however different they are—who circle each other in the book). With Absolution the reader ultimately has to piece together various bits of information and reach a conclusion about what might or might not have happened. ‘Suspense’ was not the goal, but more the effect of two things: introducing narrative ambiguity and calling into question the authoritativeness of the authors involved (me, my characters). The novel began not as a mosaic of texts but as separate novellas; it was only in breaking these novellas apart and reassembling them in the final structure of the book that the sense of ‘suspense’ emerged.

The feeling that lingers after having read your novel is that there was a kind of intertwining of facts and human relationships during apartheid (at least among white South Africans), which militates against final judgments. Your two characters are looking for forgiveness, and, eventually, this seems paradoxically easier for the older generation represented by Clare Wald. Did I get this right?

I think it is difficult and dangerous to generalize about population groups when talking about apartheid (‘the majority of whites did X’, and so on). It is both safer and easier to talk about the effects of apartheid in retrospect; I do not think it is controversial or incorrect to say that the vast majority of whites benefitted from apartheid, for example. I think your question comes back to the TRC’s idea about multiple forms of truth: the narrative, the forensic, the discursive, the restorative. So, on the one hand, a reader can come to the end of Absolution and know that Sam and Clare have different memories of the same events, that there is also some kind of forensic record of those events (partial or obscured though it might be), and that the two characters attempt their own personal forms of examination or inquiry. In this inquiry the different versions are aired and the known (forensic, historic) facts are placed in dialogue with the subjective ‘facts’ of memory in order to move towards something like forgiveness for past crimes, and restoration—however incomplete—for what both characters have lost. On the face of it this seems easier for Clare, but perhaps only because she remains the one dictating the terms of every encounter: the power dynamic is almost always tilted in her favor. In the end, however, I think it is in Sam that we should place our hopes: beyond the borders of the book we might imagine him living a different kind of life, and finding a place again in the country he thought he had lost.