(pieces in a celebratory key)

‘The new can no longer be aborted. It is being born. Its advent is unstoppable. The morbidity may persist, but a way out of it is foreseen; please, may it come after a lifetime, before we all die of longing for it.’[i]

Anyone who has studied English at a tertiary level is likely to have encountered Stephen Gray’s seminal work as an editor. For me, it was The Penguin Book of Southern African Stories (1986). Gray takes the mickey out of his own reputation in his novel Born of Man (1989). He refers to this particular title as having being edited by Michael Chaplin, who received the Human Sciences Research Council Medal for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2018.[ii] ‘What’s this? … Believe me, I can tell you some they haven’t heard’,[iii] the epistolary narrator says archly. Incidentally, about The Golden Notebook, he avers: ‘Believe me, I can do the same in a lot less words’. And describes it as: ‘A sensitive novel by Nadine Gordimer about Rhodesian women going mad’.[iv]

Such a sense of playfulness seems out of keeping with Gray’s reputation (and image) as an academic and critic. It is a side of his mercurial nature as a writer that only emerges if you read this novel in particular, as well as the two others loosely linked to it, namely John Ross (1987) and Time of our Darkness (1988). Indeed, the reference to Gordimer is apt, because Gray engages with her attempt to define the role of a writer in a 1991 article entitled ‘An Author’s Agenda: Re-visioning Past and Present for a Future South Africa’.[v]

Born of Man is both an epistolary novel and a farce. Set in 1988, it recounts events from 1986, the year that South Africa introduced a state of emergency. The narrator defines this dark time in the country’s legacy of oppression quite succinctly:

‘Do you realise –’ I said, ‘the police have got this country by the balls and they’re                 fucking it to death?’

‘Yes, well,’ said Jannie. ‘That’s what states of emergency are for.’[vi]

Gray’s argument in ‘An Author’s Agenda’ centres around Stanley Frielick’s ‘generally accepted point that much publishing in South Africa today is ‘part of the process of historical rediscovery and re-visioning that informs contemporary South African studies’, so that through exploring the dynamic connections between past and present, we can gain a clearer picture of the forces that are shaping our future’. It seems odd to reflect in a time of a global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 about how a novel published in 1989 could project or reflect the future. Gray – one can imagine the twinkle in his eye – highlights a quote by Pieter-Dirk Uys: ‘The future is known in South Africa; only the past is unpredictable.’[vii] The narrator echoes this sentiment in Born of Man: ‘We live in the future, not the murky European past’.[viii]

The book takes the form of an impassioned, and rambling, letter that the narrator types out ad nauseam on his new-fangled word processor to his friends Paul and Klaus, who emigrate to Switzerland. Informing them of events that transpired since they left, the letter is also a defense of the narrator’s lifestyle with his husband Jannie, and by inference the potential of South Africa for revolutionary versus societal change. While Richie refers playfully to their ‘mixed marriage (Afrikaans and English)’[ix], it is only much later that we find out Jannie is what, during Apartheid, was referenced as Coloured. This adds yet another layer of significance to their relationship as a gay couple, especially in a time when it was ‘against the law to proclaim you’re gay’[x].

Those of us who stay, by the very act of staying, declare our involvement. If we’re suddenly all redundant to the political situation, if we’re structurally guilty (quote-unquote), as Klaus says, and with no appeal – that I cannot accept; then so is snow redundant in Switzerland.[xi]     […]

I’d like you to see Barefoot Nurseries now, I really would. If coming to South Africa wouldn’t be contaminating yourselves too much. You’d have to pass through some vicious, evil government controlled territory between the airport and here, I admit. You might never get a job at home if they knew you’d soiled yourselves there.

But here at Barefoot Republic we declared our independence long ago. We’re not hoity-toity about it, or given to all the high principles Klaus can fill only a measly postcard with.

We’re just waiting for the rest of the country to catch up![xii]

This is a perfect summation of Gray’s intent with Born of Man, which takes as its central premise a (gay) male bringing a foetus to term ‘inserted through his rectum and implanted in the lower intestine’[xiii]. After the child’s birth, referred to as ‘the great accouchement’[xiv], Kevin returns to the rural idyll of the ‘Barefoot Republic’, the mock name for Bainsford Nurseries. The narrator is quite phlegmatic about the whole matter: ‘Now that moffies can have babies, I tell you none of the old rules on which human history has been predicated apply … The world is a different place.’[xv]

It is clear that Born of Man is what Gray refers to as ‘that old South African sub-species of fiction, the ‘Immorality’ novel … little more than a pitifully bourgeois shocker that needed drastic renovation if it was to reflect the post-Immorality Act intrusions of the law into private loves.’[xvi] The point of the novel’s not-so-subtle inversion of nuclear family dynamics is that ‘the relativity of class, race and gender is strongly, crucially related to South African issues.’[xvii] It is a remarkably prescient vision that even flirts with the modern focus on gender identity as a separate social construct: ‘Pity it has to be either/or. Pity it can’t be a bit of both.’[xviii]

The farcical and often highly camp and satirical narrative voice that Gray adopts allows him to add some elements of darkness that perhaps would otherwise have been unpalatable on their own. The novel is book-ended by an event that haunts the narrator throughout, namely having to retrieve a stillborn baby from a pit latrine at the nursery and then burying it under a eucalyptus tree, a site he returns to after the drama of Kevin’s miracle birth is over. As he recounts to Klaus:

… As you’ve guessed, I found myself at the eucalyptus tree and sat with my feet near where you know. I didn’t do anything conscious, like address the baby corpse in its overgrown, unmarked grave. I beamed to it that I knew I had a lot of sorting out to do (but of course would do nothing about it till I started putting all this down for you). I suppose you can’t sort things, when you’re in the thick of them.[xix]

 

Gerhard Hope, October 2020

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Gray, Stephen, An Author’s Agenda: Re-visioning Past and Present for a Future South Africa, Kunapipi, Volume 13 Issue 1 Article 6, 1991. Available at: https://ro.uow.edu.au/kunapipi/vol13/iss1/6.

[ii] https://www.michaelchapman.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2&Itemid=9

[iii] Gray, Stephen. Born of Man. 1989. GMP, London. p 194

[iv] Ibid. Born of Man, p 194

[v] Ibid. An Author’s Agenda

[vi] Ibid. Born of Man, p190

[vii] Ibid. An Author’s Agenda

[viii] Ibid. Born of Man, p 173

[ix] Ibid. Born of Man, p 58

[x] Ibid. Born of Man, p 36

[xi] Ibid. Born of Man, p 172

[xii] Ibid. Born of Man, p 173

[xiii] Ibid. Born of Man, p 89

[xiv] Ibid. Born of Man, p 153

[xv] Ibid. Born of Man, p 174

[xvi] Ibid. An Author’s Agenda

[xvii] Ibid. An Author’s Agenda

[xviii] Ibid. Born of Man, p 162

[xix] Ibdi. Born of Man, p 170