30 July, 2007
Subject: And the Dead Watch Over Us
AWOL in Swaziland in 1981, I came across Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. It was a time when I had difficulty with any reading besides pornography and Doris Lessing. The devils of the military were on my tail and I struggled to concentrate. But I read Mandela's speech from the dock and finally realized why he was in jail. It came as a shock because it was so simple. So down home, common sense simple. The lies about why he was in jail were convoluted and gothic. I grew up on a gruel of those lies. Fed and fattened I was, on lies about why Nelson Mandela was in jail.
I was born in South Africa in 1955 and until I fled the army I had little idea who Nelson Mandela was. I grew up on a farm in the Amatole Mountains. Amatole is a Xhosa word meaning "the calves". The Xhosa are a cattle-loving nation and the name is a measure of their affection for the high forests and grasslands where they took refuge from their enemies, and fattened their cattle when the pastures were sweet.
"And The Dead Watch Over Us" is narrative faction, autobiography as novel, a memoir which steals techniques from fiction. On a peak overlooking the farm, my father is in conversation with a Xhosa Chieftain. The men, long dead, observe the life of the protagonist as he passes through childhood, education and a kind war. And they swap stories. Rharhabe tells of the cattle killing, and the hundred-year conflict which ended with his land passing into English hands. James Whyle Senior tells of his battle with the Hun in the trenches of the Somme, and of the English bullet that sent him to Africa so that he could marry a German and buy the valley that once belonged to Rharhabe's people.
The book is about what it was to grown up as a white, rural, South African under apartheid. It's about the land, and the extraordinary coupling of European and African cultures. I'm 60 000 words in at present, and the final product will be around 80 000.
When I have finished, I will have placed a character, myself, against the back drop of two histories. The first is the war for the land I was born on. The second, the struggle for democracy as it was concealed from my generation, the concealment of Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela. When these strands are woven together, the book will end in a place like this:
"The old man walked out of the play school with his grandson and two low-key bodyguards. A white mother recognized and greeted him. He chatted to her. It occurred to me to introduce myself, to tell him about running away from the army, about reading his speeches on the mountain above Mbabane in Swaziland. But the warm, Johannesburg morning was so peaceful. A grandfather was picking up his daughter's child from play school. Let it be. Mandela smiled and nodded to the woman, listened. After a couple of minutes he drove off in a black Mercedes. I looked around. A domestic servant was chatting to a friend on the corner. An Hassidic man hurried into the Shul. I could hear my wife calling to the children."
Would you like a look?
You will find my biography by Googling me.