Stern fiction

2011-01-26 00:00

“ALL literature is propaganda: discuss” is a question beloved of academics trying to instil a critical attitude into students. However, as far as a reading public is concerned, the main question is whether the propaganda is packaged in a form palatable enough to keep them reading. And, of course, whether it is subtle enough to have its effect without making you feel that it is being beaten into you with a sledgehammer.

Mongane Wally Serote is rightly one of South Africa’s most celebrated writers, and there is no doubt that his writing wears its polemical and political heart prominently on its sleeve. At one point in Revelations, he talks about music not being just for entertainment: like music, fiction for him must serve a sterner purpose if it is to have any value.

The narrative of Revelations deals with Otsile, a former MK operative who is now working as a photo­grapher in South Africa. Coming to terms with the new society which has opened up before him is not simple; blacks may have won the political power but not the economic. Reconciliation seems as far away as ever. And on the personal level too he struggles to make contact with the son he had with his estranged wife; he and his present wife Teresa seem to have as many points of disagreement as they do of contact and his great friend and mentor, Bra Shope, is an old, dying man.

But, as the novel continues, it appears that the greatest divide facing Otsile, and all Africans, is that between the traditional ways of doing things and the modern: the African way versus the Western. With the death of Bra Shope, things come to a head as Teresa answers the call of her ancestors to become a traditional healer. Otsile does not find this easy to deal with.

Serote’s novel ultimately makes a profound and impassioned appeal for the restitution of traditional values as the only way to free the spirit of Africa. It is going to depend on the standpoint of the reader as to whether this seems to be overly idealistic or a practical solution to the problems facing this country.

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