Coming out of the shadows

2008-04-04 00:00

Shadow Game, the first book to deal with male homosexual love across the colour line in apartheid South Africa, was published in 1972 under a pseudonym, Laurence Eben. Times change and it has now been republished under the author’s real name with the additional accolade of appearing as a Penguin Modern Classic. The author? Pietermaritzburg resident Michael Power.

Power was born in the city where his father Jack Power was a prominent lawyer. Educated at Merchiston Preparatory School and St Aidan’s, Grahamstown, Power did a BA at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the then University of Natal, majoring in Roman Law. He then went to Oriel College, Oxford, where he obtained an honours degree in jurisprudence. Power seemed set for a legal career in the family firm but when he returned from England he had other ideas. “I didn’t want to do law and, at that time, I didn’t want to live in Pietermaritzburg.” Instead, he moved to Johannesburg and joined Anglo-American, working for six years in the public relations department. Evidence of his time there can be found in James (later Jan) Morris’s book South African Winter where Power is quoted as a “friendly official”.

“I had the job of ferrying Morris around,” recalls Power. “My meeting with him and his affirmation in the book gave me such confidence, working in what was a tough corporate world.”

Power had published a few short stories but while working for Anglo-American in Salisbury he decided to cut down on his social life and get down to his first novel. Holiday was published by Cassell in 1962. “In those days there were no local publishers doing fiction, you just sent manuscripts overseas,” says Power.

The plot of Holiday finds 16-year-old Jeremy and his family on the Natal north coast for their annual holiday. An errant uncle brings a gay lover and adult traumas provide a backdrop to Jeremy’s attempt at trying to achieve some kind of resolution to his own adolescent romance.

The Times Literary Supplement was complimentary — “an interesting first novel by a promising author” — and so were South African reviewers: “Power is a writer of tremendous zest and vitality.” But Holiday also attracted controversy: “Spicy novel shocks Natal’s upper set” declared the Sunday Times headlines of July 29, 1962. Reporter Margaret Smith related how a “startling first novel by a 29-year-old South African ... has caused a stir in the wealthy Natal social circle it describes. Many people have been shocked by the young author’s approach to human conflicts. Despite their disapproval they have rushed to buy the book. In 10 days most Durban bookshops have sold out their stocks and have placed large repeat orders.”

Power told Smith: “I just wanted to represent South African society ... It would have been impossible to treat the theme with anything other than complete honesty.” He admitted his family had been “a bit upset” by the frankness of his writing.

Such responses were the subject of a conversation Power had on his first meeting with Nadine Gordimer. She had read a review of Holiday and was pleased to meet its author. “I mentioned to her the contretemps with my family about Holiday and she laughed. She said ‘it’s happened to me, but in the end they all come round and they are flattered to be in the book.’ And that’s what happened in my case too.”

Today Power acknowledges the novel is to some extent autobiographical — “but not the murder! Things get transmuted; that’s what writers do.” Power pays homage to Gordimer in Shadow Game where she appears briefly, referred to as a “leading lady novelist”.

Power’s second novel, A Gathering of Golden Angels, was published by Cassell in 1963. “That’s my Pietermaritzburg novel,” he says, although the city appears as Harmersburg. Again there is an autobiographical strand to the book as the main character, Hayden Starle, returns from university in England and confounds expectations that he will take over the family firm. Other plot strands explore issues raised by the then Immorality Act. The novel received good notices both here and overseas. “(Power) has a rare gift for discussing serious themes without preaching,” said the Books and Bookman reviewer, “and, in the expression of basic human values up against the powerful onslaught of wealth and tradition, he writes with a spare, forceful style which has the ring of integrity and truth.”

By now Power and some colleagues had left Anglo-American to start their own public relations and publishing firm. His writing took a back seat as the firm carved a name for itself as one of the top public relations firms in the country. “It was a strange time,” he says. “There was the anomaly of being the most hated country in the world but the economy was booming.”

Among the books published by Power’s firm was Credo Mutwa’s bestseller Indaba, My Children, the British rights to which were picked up by publisher Anthony Blond. “He came over to investigate the educational publishing scene and to see his sister in Cape Town.”

“We clicked and became friends, and he came a few times to my place in Melville which had just become Chelsea-fied.” It was during one of those visits that Blond (who died earlier this year) said to Power: “It’s been eight years since your last book, it’s time you wrote another and I’ve got an idea for you. We’ve had quite enough novels from South Africa dealing with sex across the colour line from a heterosexual point of view. What about a homosexual one?”

“That put the idea into my head. I started thinking about it — interweaving my knowledge of the South African scene with this idea. And that’s how Shadow Game began.”

When it was completed Power opted to have it published pseudonymously. “In the South Africa of the seventies you couldn’t be Michael Power director of an esteemed company and the author of a book that was obviously going to run into trouble.” So Power became Laurence Eben, the first name that of a deceased relative, the surname derived from the biblical character Eben-ezer in the Book of Samuel.

Shadow Game was published by Michael Joseph in 1972. “No one in South Africa knew about it,” says Power. “My copies of the hardcover edition arrived untouched.” Not so the paperbacks. “Two years later Panther sent me one copy via letter post.” But the bulk were sent by parcel post. “One day I got an official letter citing the Obscene Publications Act, section so-and-so, and asking me to explain the reason why these books had been sent to me.”

Power sought legal advice. “I was told ‘Just ignore it. They won’t bother you again but they will keep the books’.”

“I was in such a state,” Power recalls. “I buried the paperback in the garden and went through all my books and shredded the banned ones. The experienced reduced me.”

Although unacceptable in South Africa, Shadow Game was well received elsewhere. The Sydney Morning Herald declared it a “fine and sensitively written book which pulls no punches”. And, indicating its stature, it was reviewed in The Scotsman alongside the latest works from David Storey and Irwin Shaw: “[Power] creates a totally believable, non-embarrassing love affair between Ray, a young white man, and Victor, a slightly older African ... Eben has depicted the characters of a small homosexual clique, trying to live civilised humane lives, with real delicacy and humour.”

Perhaps one of the most touching responses to Shadow Game came from a Pietermaritzburg resident, the late Jane Lundie, who had once encouraged the schoolboy Power to enter a Sunday Tribune writing competition. Power sent her a copy of Shadow Game and later received this postcard: “It moved me terribly, I’m left in tears and sadness,” wrote Lundie. “I understand your feeling that it should be read by South Africans — so it should, but how many would read it the right way?”

Now, thanks to Penguin, South Africans can at last read Power’s book. “I hope it makes people wake up and look back at those years,” he says. “And see how beastly it all was. All those things we’ve swept under the carpet.”

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