An old Russian proverb holds that sometimes the best lie is the truth. How better to test that subversive notion than by examining the life stories told by a famous novelist — one of those professionals whose trade, it may be said, is to lie for a living? Set your story in South Africa, where governments are not just economical with the truth but downright miserly, and the stakes are even higher.
Absolution, the first novel by Patrick Flanery, is likely to disturb anyone with settled views on South Africa. In part a literary detective story, it is a deeply unsentimental portrait of a society where freedom came recently and a lot of people are not entirely sure whether to embrace, ban or shoot it.
Clare Wald is a celebrated novelist who lives comfortably in Cape Town, until the night her house is invaded by a mysterious gang who want neither her money nor her life but a piece of her past. Later on, when a young academic, Sam Leroux, returns to Cape Town after years abroad with a commission to write the biography of the reclusive novelist, he is after something similar. Leroux is not quite what he seems, but then the stories Wald spins are not reliable either, and a dangerous duel takes place between the older writer and her young inquisitor. He is her confessor, there to hear her sins. The question is whether he can ever absolve her of crimes, real and imagined.
Among the ghosts who haunt Wald is her father, a good judge in the apartheid years, whose liberal ideals she failed to match and whose wig turns up in unlikely places, a reminder of her shortcomings. There is her daughter, Laura, who backed violent resistance against the apartheid state and paid with her life. There is her sister, also murdered, but in her case for supporting the old regime. Both deaths now seem to the old woman increasingly senseless, and she is convinced that she is somehow to blame.
Absolution is a book of questions about what is right and who is pure. Might a liberal writer such as Wald have flirted with the censors who banned her work? Was the truth and reconciliation commission more than a carillon of high-sounding cliches, a theatre that showcased the exuberant cruelty of those who ran the apartheid machine but did little to assuage the sufferings of its victims? In a nice doubling of ironies, Wald is writing her version of how she came to betray herself, and others, in a work she calls Absolution, while at the same time her life is being recorded by Leroux. In one of the dramatic surprises Flanery does so well, it turns out that Leroux is closer to Wald for reasons each finds too painful to face.
Flanery has set Absolution in the years before and after South Africa’s first free election in 1994, when white nationalists ceded power to black nationalists, who seem to grow, uncannily, more like the regime they have replaced. One of the constant strengths of this novel is the way it faces the violence of everyday life and the unpalatable reality that, nearly two decades after the coming of democracy, while party functionaries fatten themselves, the poor riot in the townships for a better life and the rich lock themselves behind suburban walls and electric fences.
Perhaps it helps that Flanery is an American; it gives him distance and a different take on things. His South Africa is familiar, yet slightly, strangely, off-key. His portrait of Cape Town in its eerie sedateness is very good, even if Johannesburg eludes him. But where it counts he gets it right.
Wald’s dilemma is how to face her failings and stand up for what she has written. Writers of all stripes have a history of provoking South African regimes, all the way back to the very first settlements. The apartheid government took words into state ownership, perverted the meaning of some and forbade the use of others. And many people accepted this as normal.
But then as another American writer, Allen Drury, remarked nearly 50 years ago, after traveling through the country in a state of perpetual astonishment, South Africa is “a very strange society.” His book of that title was banned by the masters of apartheid. With censorship now likely to make a comeback under the current government, what writers do becomes increasingly important. And a novel like Absolution is timely.
By Patrick Flanery
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