The South African Novel of Ideas

Rhodes Must Fall. Photo by Desmond Bowles via flickr.

Henrietta Rose-Innes. Green Lion. Penguin Random House South Africa, May 2015.
Imraan Coovadia. Tales of the Metric System. Penguin Random House South Africa, October 2014.

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which talk about African writing centers on how to talk about African writing. The most common topic of debate is the Caine Prize, a high-profile short-story competition based in London and open only to authors of African descent (earning it the derivative and slightly patronizing epithet “the African Booker”). Each summer when the shortlist is announced, there is a flurry of op-eds and interviews with African writers who decry the neocolonial hold of British institutions on their careers. Many writers go on to question the very idea of a prize designated for “Africans,” arguing that it threatens to impose false geographical and thematic restrictions on a vast range of writers.

Such resistance is meant to push back against the way African writers are packaged by the international literary market. But it can actually create further confinement. Questioning “Africa” as a literary classification often becomes a facile questioning of all classification. The Commonwealth Prize–winning novelist Aminatta Forna, for example, this year published an essay in the Guardian in which she argued that “all this classifying . . . is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality.” Fellow novelist Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, took a slightly different tack in an essay for the same paper. Her problem was not that novels and novelists were slotted into the category “African” but rather that things like the Caine prize narrow the idea of what an African is. “No one novelist can bear the burden of representing a continent and no one novel should have to,” she wrote, before calling for more diversity in how international publishers represent African experience. Her frustration recalls Binyavanga Wainaina’s in “How to Write about Africa,” a well-known satirical piece from Granta in 2006, which mocks Western literary stereotypes such as “The Starving African.”

Acknowledging Africa’s full complexity is obviously important, but these approaches still leave us with two flawed literary heuristics. Forna’s argument takes the conceptual shortcut of dismissing categorization altogether, while Selasi’s argument retains categories only insofar as they can be multiple. Both writers rely on an ideal of “universality” without fleshing out what it means: for Forna people are fundamentally the same regardless of location, while for Selasi we are united through infinite difference. Selasi has often served as the default spokesperson for “Afropolitanism” since writing an essay, “Bye-Bye Babar,” on the term in the now defunct American alt mag the LIP in 2005 (Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have also been described as Afropolitans). A quintessential Afropolitan novel, such as Ghana Must Go or Adichie’s best-selling Americanah, takes for granted that “Africa” isn’t limited by geography, as Selasi suggests in her essay, and chronicles a new generation of Africans who “belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.” Its characters move between African and diasporic locales, demonstrating that Africanness is always being reconstituted.

Neither the universalist argument nor the plea for infinite variety address the notion of what binds people together in a given time and place, what notions they must appeal to in attempting to understand who they are. And so another critical tack now might be to consider how African novelists imagine the significance of abstract or de-personified thought, which presents an alternative to the twin traps of “individuality” and “universality.” But this is a surprisingly difficult shift to suggest. It demands an analytic as opposed to an affective writerly temperament. And the former isn’t much in evidence in most of the deservedly praised writing from Africa at the moment, which veers, often with luminous effect, toward the registers of sensuous detail, emotional texture, and the personalization of history through autobiography. Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2012 hit memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place, for example, reads like a synaesthetic symphony of its narrator’s experiences coming into his own as a writer. Yvonne Adhiambo Uwuor’s novel Dust, also Kenyan, might be described as a prose poem into which the history of political violence seeps through family trauma. As this year’s Caine Prize winner Namwali Serpell noted recently of her own work, on the blog Africa in Words, “to understand is only one of many ways to read and it is not always the most important.” The rise of such affective narration makes sense in our present transnational context, in that it rejects the exclusive “individual” of Western liberal history by further individualizing and, by default, de-occidentalizing, the available range of literary experience. Literature in this mode values empathy and immersion more than it seeks philosophical depth.

For these reasons it is difficult to imagine what the status of ideas, as opposed to, say, perception, might be in this climate of revelation and self-becoming. There is an important contradiction in play here. The critical ideology behind affective prose aims to redress the subjective exclusivity associated with Western literary institutions. It does this, though, by further texturing subjective experience rather than by trying to represent something different. This means that in the broad African context and, arguably, our global intellectual moment, individuality is both the main subject of and the main method of critique. The notion of the “self” hasn’t fundamentally run out of steam so much as demanded more filling in.

But the novel has never been just about “stories” and experience—it has also always been interested in disembodied observation. This is true not just of its refinement by French Enlightenment philosophes or Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. The novel’s distance from its contents is the precondition of critical irony (the legendary South African writer Lewis Nkosi comes to mind here), and it also made possible the African “struggle” literature of the 1970s and 1980s, when novelists were writing explicitly political fiction allied with the fight against apartheid, fiction that sought to mold its readers into abstract types that were yet to exist. Surely there should be room, in the present surge of interest in African writing, for a slightly colder way of positioning the novel in relation to its subjects? For a bit more head, perhaps, along with the heart?

There is—but very little. Diasporic writers, presumably granted a bit of historical distance, seem like the most intuitive place to find writing that errs more toward the philosophical than the experiential. And that hunch is not altogether wrong: the Edinburgh-based Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu, to take the most prominent and promising example, is unusually bold on this front. Each of his novels—2011’s The Hairdresser of Harare and last year’s The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician (the first already republished and the second forthcoming with Ohio University Press)—explicitly sets out to capture ideas as things that guide but stand apart from personal experience. The first book even contains a subplot involving a forest philosophy circle of unemployed Zimbabwean men, whose leader declares his belief in gay rights through a lengthy discursus on universal forms. Huchu, though, is the exception rather than the rule. The Afropolitan Selasi is more representative on this score, in that the diasporic strain of African writing serves largely as a canvas for enhancing rather than relativizing subjectivity.


South Africa seems like the least likely or desirable place to reimagine the novel of ideas. The country is in the throes of a powerful resurgence of Black Consciousness and a rough storm of racial self-assertion, and it has been the site of a series of student-led political movements, such as Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Cape Town. And yet two South African writers, Imraan Coovadia and Henrietta Rose-Innes, have recently skirted identity politics in favor of works that foreground how people interact with concepts that they take to exist outside them. Taken in tandem, Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System and Rose-Innes’s Green Lion amplify the external force of ideas themselves, while nonetheless speaking to the historical hand they’ve been dealt. Rather than interrogate one key concept (e.g. free will, or guilt), both writers chronicle the search for a shared conceptual language. Absent the clarity of a “defining idea of our time,” the idea of ideas is the next best provocation.

Tales of the Metric System is Coovadia’s fifth novel (he’s also produced a collection of essays and a monograph on V. S. Naipaul), and his experience shows in the confidence with which he grounds “global” hyperconnectivity in a socially divided South Africa. A number of critics have made stock comparisons between Coovadia and the English novelist David Mitchell and the Nigerian Adichie because Tales of the Metric System hops around a lot in time and space. But that’s getting it the wrong way round. The book isn’t about how the world network defines our new reality: it displays Coovadia’s lingering investment in mapping a single nation. He does this across ten different plots divided into sections headed by references variously to their period or setting (“School Time”; “Soviet Embassy”), to a significant object (“The Pass”; “Vuvuzela”), or to a central event (“Truth and Reconciliation”). These sections, each of which appears only once, are arranged in nonchronological order and cover timeframes from 1970, when the metric system was introduced in South Africa, to 1999, which saw the close of the postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to 2010, the year of the World Cup.

Characters introduced in one plot sometimes reappear in a later one, disrupting the reader’s emotional or sensory attachments and drawing attention, instead, to the book’s design. (This is a distancing technique, incidentally, that Tendai Huchu also uses in the three interwoven novellas of The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician.) A thief named Mr. Shabangu, for example, is first introduced as a somewhat sympathetic figure dealing in illicit government “pass books,” an official form of nonwhite apartheid identification. Later he takes a more cynical turn in helping a mob kill a fellow black noncitizen, a contrast made more unsettling by Coovadia’s consistently matter-of-fact tone. Statements of factual absurdity—“The segregation rule applied to the ocean and not to the land. You could step on the sand, be you Indian or African, Chinese or Mexican, without a policeman being able to ticket you”—are delivered in a wry but humane register just barely set apart from more revealing descriptions of character. “Sebastian waged an insurgency against authority in each and every one of its manifestations,” Coovadia writes of one character, who is also a novelist. “There was nothing bad-tempered about it.”

The book defies synopsis, which isn’t to say it is meandering: Coovadia homes in on key historical moments to chart minute recalibrations of balance among public events, private lives, and the intermediary zone of civic institutions. Along with the varying section headers, there are small black-and-white illustrations of sections’ namesake objects (like a vuvuzela, the infamous little horn from the 2010 World Cup) and other objects that serve as quaint, inviting lead-ins to what are often their socially fraught contents. A section called “Sparks” is headed with a gun, in reference to the career—aide and protector to African National Congress leadership in the struggle against apartheid—of its main character, Sparks (and the real-life figure he’s based on). “Where there was Sparks there was fire,” the chapter opens, a pun on Sparks’s literal role as a “last line of defense” in the tumultuous 1980s: he was known for packing heat in his vinyl briefcase. Coovadia, though, focuses on the end of Sparks’s life, which he bases on former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s notorious HIV/AIDS denialism.

Finding a balance between metrics that work for individuals and metrics that work for a country is the book’s big task. Its driving concept throughout is captured by one of its own lines: “In a play or a novel we keep sight of each person and we demand to know what happens to him and to him and to him. In real life, we lose track of people all the time.” This also describes the flickering effect of the many different modes that Tales of the Metric System takes on, as if auditioning ways of telling South Africa’s recent history. Just as we acclimate to, for example, an affluent domestic setup, Coovadia moves on to a different cast of characters in a Durban township. Likewise, he plays with counterintuitive points of entry into narratives with clear political significance. The first section of the novel, “School Time,” begins with the line “The Jaguar wouldn’t start,” an announcement of white, suburban privilege. But this story is based on the life of the radical South African philosopher Rick Turner, whose fictional avatar illegally teaches black students in his home as his wife makes lamb for dinner. (The real Turner was assassinated by apartheid’s National Party government in 1978.) A more familiar approach to demarcating multiple plots might, like David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, run through a gamut of quirky first-person narrators. But this would cede too much ground to individuation. Coovadia keeps his eye on objectivity by revealing life from multiple angles, not multiple voices—in short, he aims for a Tolstoyan ideal.

In heavier plotlines, particularly one called “The Necklace” that takes place in 1990 as the antiapartheid struggle reached its zenith, we face the dark side of de-emphasizing individuality in favor of ideas. On the one hand, the section depicts people who are anaesthetized by the power of their convictions, and on the other, there is the aestheticized reality of the violent scenes to which these convictions lead. The catch, though, is that there is no clear benchmark by which to declare this simple “dehumanization.” People aren’t people, Coovadia seems to say, by virtue of a need for intimate connection; they are people because they need more than just intimate connection, more than just “stories” to confirm that the world is a diverse place.

As many readers will know, necklacing was a famous practice during South Africa’s struggle years, when the townships were made strategically “ungovernable” by their inhabitants and the state helped seed internecine violence within them. It generally entailed township residents placing a rubber tire around a fellow resident’s neck and lighting it aflame, sometimes for alleged political betrayal. Its image has resurfaced in recent xenophobic attacks against intra-African immigrant workers in the country. Victims often take as long as twenty minutes to die, and the practice has an iconic power to raise fears among the white middle class of “black-on-black” violence in South Africa.

Coovadia has the refreshing audacity to fictionalize the practice in a way that is neither overwrought nor minimizing of its horror. In carefully meted out clauses—“He leaned on a length of pipe, listing the allegations”—he describes how a young man named Shabelo is made into the object through which a consensus on moral wrongness is calculated and affirmed. He is thought to be a thief, when in fact the pass book dealer Shabangu, from an earlier section, is the guilty party. As members of Shabelo’s Durban neighborhood decide whether to burn him alive, Coovadia narrates Shabangu’s considered thoughts as he watches it all take place: “How did you measure the right punishment? What were the right units to balance the crime and penalty?” The boy, meanwhile, experiences a refinement of the senses that approaches the sublime: “As if in a dream he saw a woman in a red blouse carrying a petrol tin past him. She poured glittering petrol over the tyre, the liquid shining in the sun as its penetrating scent spread.”

As Shabelo burns to death, he, like Shabangu, contemplates justice in an eerily academic way. Coovadia tells us that “you could hear Shabelo talking softly but determinedly to his assailants. You heard him explain his plans, reminding them that he had never stolen anything more than a bag of white sugar to make caramel. You heard him distinguish between the man who stole as a luxury, as a way of testing his relationship to God, and the boy who was hungry enough to sell false information and who might have done nothing more than call up the talking clock to find out the time. He muttered that accusation wasn’t the same thing as proof.” Neither Shabangu nor Shabelo’s reasoning leads to Shabelo being spared, but they are also the only two people in the scene who rise to the level of “character.” Coovadia presents mob action as having its own accepted logic and presents abstract thought as something that is missing from the polity but has an unrecognized capacity to bring people together. Politically, Coovadia seems to hold out hope for the latter. It’s telling that mixed up in Shabelo’s efforts to save himself, down to the very last second, is a philosopher.


Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Green Lion is less prone to state concepts outright, but it too shifts focus from who people are to what problems of mind occupy and direct them. Whereas Coovadia’s estrangement of his readers is mainly structural, Rose-Innes’s is stylistic. Her closest technical predecessor is J. M. Coetzee, with whom she shares a penchant for imagining the world stripped of people. Coetzee, in fact, awarded her a South African literary prize in 2008 for a story called “Poison,” which won the Caine in that same year. It features a youngish woman named Lynn on the run from a chemical disaster in nearby Cape Town, exhilarated by standing in the middle of an empty highway. Ultimately she elects to strand herself in a deserted gas station, relishing her access to unpopulated infrastructure and hiding from other survivors when they appear.

Green Lion, Rose-Innes’s fourth novel, continues to explore the insufficiencies of contemporary humanity for satisfying even human needs. Much as Lynn in “Poison” embraces the chance to dissect her own apocalypse, Green Lion’s main character finds love only through his alienation from its object. The protagonist, Con, an employee at a rundown zoo near Cape Town, becomes enamored of one of the zoo’s lions, Sekhmet, a caged-in creature whom he cannot actually approach: he encounters her first as the smell of “old meat and straw, and under it something else, sharp and inorganic,” and then as “some huge hot weight throwing itself against the metal,” letting out a “liquid chainsaw roar.” This all takes place at some indefinite point in the future, when virtually all wild animals have gone extinct. Sekhmet the lion and her now-deceased mate were bred back into existence using DNA technology based on South Africa’s real-life Quagga Project (an effort to revive an indigenous subspecies of zebra). Con gets the job at the zoo when his childhood friend Mark, who had occupied it before him, is attacked and nearly killed by Sekhmet’s mate. Mark, too, found the lions weirdly irresistible.

As Hedley Twidle has argued, reviewing the novel in South Africa’s Sunday Times, Green Lion seems prescient now because of its historical context and the ongoing Rhodes Must Fall movement. Cecil Rhodes founded the fictional zoo where Con spends his days: Green Lion refers often to the grotesque, ornate memorial to the magnate nearby. In a deeper, allegorical sense, the zoo’s halfhearted efforts to preserve some skimpy traces of nonhuman life represent the obsolescence of Rhodes’s vision for southern Africa. Con must strain to imagine a world where Rhodes is even residually present: “There would have been red deer standing between the trees then, descendants of the deer introduced by Rhodes himself in an attempt to make the landscape more English; and Himalayan tahrs, further up on the crags, offspring of those that escaped Rhodes’s zoo.” Just before Green Lion went to press, Rhodes Must Fall succeeded in toppling a large statue of the “Cape to Cairo” antihero. Rose-Innes’s novel thus appears to address the morbid allure of artificially maintaining the past, instead of moving on to mourn the loss of what’s been squandered, and build something new.

Like Coovadia, Rose-Innes tries to capture the point at which organizing concepts begin to dovetail with our experience of pungent realities—at which the genus of “lion” helps the reader to make sense of a real animal. Though Con fantasizes about directly interacting with Sekhmet, he is permitted only to work in her peripheral vision, supplying food for the lion’s later consumption. Their contact is mediated by the very labor Con exerts to keep the connection alive: for him to move freely in Sekhmet’s space, the lion must be cordoned off. “Sekhmet” as a nonhuman character thus never quite emerges from the distant, more generic presence of a lion (Con often just hears and smells her), and yet she is more significant in therefore inviting us to contemplate the relation of specific to general. Both ends of our perception—as Coovadia might see it, the metric and what’s being measured—are essential to writing multidimensional fiction. Unlike Coovadia, Rose-Innes sees humanity on its own as inadequate to the task of developing a holistic worldview. Green Lion’s treatment of animals thus unearths numerous senses of the word “conservation.” It is not an eco-activist’s plea for the salvation of life, though there is something of that aspect there. Green Lion is also about the frustrating, wistful effort to conserve “pure” forms along with our endlessly individuated archive of experiences, to see things as they are instead of as we filter them.

Of Con’s girlfriend Elyse, with whom he has a flat to nonexistent emotional relationship, we are told, “He liked her best naked. The first time he’d seen her that way, her long, pale back had made him think of bones, the smooth curves of the animal skeletons at the museum in London where they’d met. That spare. It surprised him to see her shy. But then he realised, no, the turned back was not timidity. When she rotated towards him it was a measured unfolding.” Rose-Innes estranges Con from Elyse in order to estrange us from both of their inward “selves,” drawing our attention to the abstract forms that comprise rather than deny an inner life. We can refer back to Tales of the Metric System, which urges its readers to think about design as much character, for a comparison here. Green Lion likewise slows readers down in moving from generic perception to personal meaning; its mode of description holds us off rather than yanking us in.

This is potentially a riskier move than it seems when you’re writing from and about such a robustly politicized place. To be sure, South Africa has mostly moved beyond its critical debates of the 1980s and 90s, which, crudely put, pitted Marxist imperatives against the politics of language as an end in itself, as in the respective canons of Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee. But there is significant new pressure in South Africa to either proclaim a political position or—what is probably more common—proclaim a politicized dismay at being “boxed in.” The latter has been the bigger recent influence on literary form and reception, as a reactionary refusal of “labels” often equates hybridity with difficulty. Rose-Innes’s work, in its focus on an array of species, seems to suggest itself for this sort of heuristic (her 2011 novel Nineveh is about mysterious insects). Again, though, Green Lion does something more offbeat. In moving from depicting interactions between humans to depicting interactions between humans and formerly extinct animals, the novel is about how people try to conjure certain forms—this species, with these attributes—into being.

Green Lion, like Coovadia’s novel, asks how we take the measure of a system, be it social or ecological, if we can’t even get a hold of the fundamental units it comprises. The club of what can only be called animal fetishists with which Con links up is best read in this frame, as a search for real, immediate contact that nonetheless transcends individual experience. Upon meeting a fellow Sekhmet enthusiast, who stalks the lion’s enclosure from a nearby bench, Con is taken to a weekly gathering to view wildlife films, where a different animal “guest” attends each week. “Bryan actually has a horse,” one member enthuses. “We go out to his small-holding sometimes. Other people have less to offer, but they try. Maryke has nice fish. Just pets, if that’s all we can manage. Cats, dogs. Even a hamster, once. The snake is always exciting, but she gets stressed.” While Con finds plenty that is wanting about his new friends, they present an opportunity to come together, as Rose-Innes puts it, in search of “something outside themselves.”

By the end of Green Lion, Sekhmet, the novel’s namesake and the enigmatic catalyst of Con’s induction into the world of animal lovers, has escaped from the zoo and roams free somewhere in Cape Town. The zoo has decided to move from housing live animals to taking care of taxidermied ones, and people dressed up as the real thing entertain happy guests at public events. As he tends to the stuffed dead things he now oversees, Con thinks to himself, “It is important to preserve things.” Rose-Innes here suggests that there is value in artifacts, with Con’s regard for stuffed rodents standing in for a more measured and dispassionate form of caring.

Green Lion thus dovetails with Tales of the Metric System in its interest in a literal conservatism—an attempt to press pause on change for just long enough to come to grips with what’s before us—that in the wrong hands could be mistaken for withdrawing from South Africa’s social tumult. Neither novel is satisfied with the flaccid forms or politics of writing against categories, but both are wary of the social and psychic damage that a zeal for firm identities and positions might wreak. Rose-Innes and Coovadia are careful writers: in different ways, they interrogate exactly which practices, values, and objects we want to save or destroy. And in what terms, both ask, with what common metrics do we justify these choices? In light of such searching investigation into how people reconcile their ideas about the world with what it means to inhabit it together, these writers’ identities are the least interesting thing about them. For that, they achieve a quiet but determined relevance.

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