A black fugitive, a white artist and Robben Island

2008-10-02 08:04

Some readers will recall Barbara Fölscher doing what passed for investigative TV journalism during the apartheid years. She travelled to hot spots - rural areas or townships - and returned with footage for editing into documentaries purporting to be searching exposés of this and that, but in reality bland surveys of very little. One didn't know whether to commend her for trying to do an honest job in difficult conditions, or to condemn her for helping the apartheid government perpetuate the illusion that the SA media were free and everyone was happy.

Anyway, she took her task seriously, and was by no means incompetent. Her TV work brought her a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, after which she married, spent five years in Oxford and started writing fiction. This first novel follows an award-winning book of short stories, Reisgenoot, and it's obvious that she's put the Oxford years to good account: the English, not her first language, is excellent, the style clean and economical, the plotting and pace impeccable. This is an assured piece of writing, smooth and readable.

But is it really a novel in the literary sense? Well, no. First, the plot is an oldie: gentle sensitive young woman rescues male fugitive, tends his wounds, helps him flee authority and an evil mastermind, falls in love with him after one night of bliss. Second, this love story is boringly set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa: Vulani, the black fugitive, has escaped from Robben Island, while his rescuer, Elena, is an Afrikaans artist and art teacher, only just on the verge of a non-racial mindset. The lives of both are entangled with that of Dr Leonard Bresler, urbane, cultured, charming, brilliant and a chemical warfare virtuoso - clearly modelled on Dr Wouter Basson. The trouble is that the story is really too slight and the approach too trivial to warrant the inclusion in a pivotal role of such a charismatic but frightening heavyweight as Bresler (or Basson). He buys one of Elena's paintings and helps her establish herself in Oxford ... and in her absence apartheid dies, Vulani becomes the curator of the Robben Island musuem, and, when their cleverness has the ever-resourceful Bresler running out of resources, love looks set to triumph. By the end it all seems too Peg's Paper-ish to take seriously. Rather a pity when Fölscher has gone to so much trouble.

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