Secrets of the past

2009-04-02 00:00

The scene is Cape Town, the time, very recent, and gentle archivist (and erstwhile activist) Macaulay Vogel is surprised to be telephoned at home by Deputy Minister D. K. Biyela. Secret security documents had been seized from the home of a retired general, who had apparently retained them for blackmail purposes, perhaps to protect himself and other high officers from prosecution. Only Vogel, implies the jovial D. K., may be trusted with such possibly contentious information. He’s to have an indefinite leave of absence from the State Archives, and has been given a special room at the Castle in which to study and organise the files.

Vogel is delighted, even though the task is messy and somewhat overwhelming — until he suddenly comes upon a minutely detailed surveillance file about himself, and fails to recognise the youthful Macaulay Vogel. Who had he been? How had he evolved into the self he now is? Driven to find answers he revisits old friends, comrades and even opponents from the struggle days, only to discover that no one wants the past raked up any more. Those faced with his persistent, increasingly desperate questioning try to laugh him out of it. When he won’t be fobbed off, they become hostile. And still he can’t stop searching for the truth — a process paralleled by the excavation in central Cape Town of what may have been a secret slave burial pit. The disinterment occasions much racial and social anger, and violence threatens, the atmosphere thickened by brutal summer heat and the choking smoke and cinders from fires ravaging Table Mountain.

If Vogel has questions about his background, so do we. Why is he so solitary, living alone in the old family home, as dark and cavernous within as the sunlit street outside is garish? Who is the mysterious Marda, and why does he buy those extravagant bunches of flowers each week? And what is the skeleton, perhaps also one that has slave or racial connections, that Vogel keeps buried deep in his past?

This is a powerful novel, ironic and sorrowful in its rendering of today’s South Africa, loving in its evocation of Cape Town, movingly humane in its examination of the corrosive effect on a sensitive human being of secrets kept too long, of hopes and ideals destroyed and of lost love. It tells believably of an idealist who, lacking the cynicism to “move with the times” like his former comrades, is losing his way, his grasp on reality and, eventually — or so it seems — his sanity. Thoroughly gripping — although it would have been nice not to be brought up short every so often by sloppy proof-reading.

Stephanie Alexander

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