Migratory patterns of estrangement: A response to SJ Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds

Drew Kiser

 

The coming of democracy scattered the four siblings to the wind. Cornelius, the London banker. Vera, the tony homemaker in Dubai. Ondien, our narrator, a former “ethnic” musicology student just returned to South Africa from Paris. Zelda, a brittle, harangued single mother in Phoenix. “Mother’s Quartet”—from S.J. Naudé collection of stories, The Alphabet of birds—centers around Ondien’s visits to each of her estranged siblings, where she fields the tales of their failing expatriate lives. Zelda’s husband is a murderous psychopath and her child, a semi-aphasic demon. Vera’s husband’s financial indiscretions threaten their privileged life. Cornelius suffered a mental breakdown after decades navigating elite financial circles. Ondien’s own waning interest in music has left her at sea.

At the core of this story—in fact, at the core of Naudé’s whole 2011 collection, self-translated from the Afrikaans in 2015—is this patently lonely brand of suffering. In “Van,” a dying woman takes a solitary stand against bureaucratic corruption in a rural public health department. “A Master From Germany” follows a young man as he leaves his European lover to care for his dying mother in SA, while another dying mother in “War, Blossoms,” wastes away in front of her son. When the lovers in “Loose” and “The Noise Machine” do come together, it’s only to realize how alone they truly are. And when Ondien learns, in “Mother’s Quartet,” that not one of her siblings flew home for their mother’s funeral, it seems to seal the deal: their family unit has dissolved. They are all alone.

It begs the question: Why must these characters suffer?

I discovered Naudé during a year at the University of the Free State on a Fulbright grant. In many ways, his work has served as my introduction to many of the anxieties about Afrikaner identity in 21st-century South Africa. “Naudé’s characters,” writes Damon Galgut in the foreword to the English translation, “move as easily between London and Dubai as they do between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. Mostly unanchored, drifting, they rub up against other drifters from far-flung places. [In The Alphabet], South Africa is not an historical place … so much as a condition to be escaped from.” It does stand out that, in several hundred pages of fiction, Apartheid is only evoked to underscore the youth of a lover born after it. Aside from that, little is said about the social, economic, and historical conditions upon which Afrikaner identity was consolidated, aside from a few memories of how easy it was for white children to ride bikes before democracy, and unelaborated gripes at the “new racial hierarchy” (Galgut’s intro), “local black hierarchies” (“VNLS”), “new South African hierarchies” (“Mother’s Quartet”), and “successive governments, all ultimately of the same hue” (“Loose”) that make modern South Africa seemingly unlivable for whites.

But these “social ills” don’t drive the languor of The Alphabet. After all, only one of these stories takes place fully in South Africa. Something else haunts these characters. They are—as Ivan Vladislavić remarks in his praise for the collection—“restless, drifting between cultures and languages, the farm and the city, the difficult present and the vanished past,” making them “equally at home” in a smattering of national capitals—at the same time they’re “perhaps not at home” anywhere.

In Sara Ahmed’s “Home and Away: Narratives of Migration and Estrangement,” she writes that it “is through the very loss of a past … that the ‘we’ comes to be written as Home” (330). It is exactly this communal loss that these characters lack, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge. Dispossessed of the mythically white past of South Africa, and unwilling to confront their own role in historical trauma, Naudé’s characters have lost even the privilege to lose.

Let’s return to Ondien. From the first note of her four-continent quartet, she struggles to find a common language with her siblings, both literally and figuratively. In Phoenix, Zelda, confronting the horrors of her violent husband and possessed child, can barely muster the energy to engage with her sister. Her “questions are automatic, for the sake of politeness.” Ondien struggles to get her points across. This far from home, even the moedertaal is estranged: Zelda now speaks a “diluted” Afrikaans, and her child goes berserk at the sound of it—or any language he does not understand. Eventually, Ondien imagines, Zelda’s “husband or the child will come and kill her in her bed and, once someone has thrown out her clothes and vacuumed a few loose hairs from the carpets, no one will know who lived here.” Unable to get across to her sister, Ondien consigns her to a violent oblivion, and boards a plane to London.

London, where she hears her brother’s story. With his gym-toned body and offhand ease, Cornelius embodies the cold artistry of “the borderless world’s financial elite.” But his “life beyond national identity” cannot hold: he begins to suffer from compulsive memories of his Free State childhood, trying to dispel them through drugs, sex, and radical detachment. It doesn’t work. He dries out, grows “pale as ash,” loses his job, and turns to his sister only as a last resort. When he asks Ondien about her life, it is only to “keep the conversation going.” Him, too, she leaves.

Vera, the final sibling, has perhaps the most desperate story. A former Johannesburg homemaker, she and her banker husband sought to escape the threat of violence of Jozi by moving to Dubai. But with him on the docket for financial crimes, she turned to an Emirati man—“the Arab”—to prove “there was life in [her] yet.” Her youthful tryst backfires when her lover becomes “very possessive,” threatening to charge her with adultery and have her “stoned to death on a public square.” Ondien’s visit is punctuated by Vera’s uncontrollable sobbing, and her marked disinterest in Ondien’s life. This section ends with Ondien promising to visit Vera’s family on the other side of town before leaving to make sure they are all right. She does not.

These episodes of missed connection, miscommunication, and hopeless fatigue form the moral core of this collection. These four characters—who share not only the same past, but the same blood—fail to band together and construct Ahmed’s remembered Home. In another story, and perhaps significantly in Naudé’s 2017 follow-up, The Third Reel, this “forming of communities” to perform “collective acts of remembering” seems almost possible (329). In “The Noise Machine,” two young Afrikaners fatefully meet at a party outside Rome. They reminisce about their “no-man’s-land” of a youth—one “impossible” ever to return to (though they tactfully omit why). This loss seems to draw them together. The two enjoy a night of love-making. Things derail when one of them steals a valuable artwork and disappears. The story ends with his lover seeing a vision of his drowned corpse. A more dramatic staging of the failure to constitute Home through communal memory is hard to imagine.

To return to Ahmed, one may ask, why can they not remember home? To ask this is completely to miss the point. Ondien and Cornelius do remember home. These characters remember it with a marked, haunting clarity. But home is not created by common memory alone: it is “the sharing of the loss, rather than the past as sharing” that brings people together (334). That is to say, Ondien and Cornelius share the same memory (in that they both have a memory of growing up white during Apartheid), but do not “share” it in the sense that it brings them together. Without context and without honesty, what they share divides them.

While The Alphabet of Birds shows how interactions between Afrikaners and Black, Asian, Coloured, and Indian characters can yield friendship, love, and intrigue, interactions among Afrikaners, both at home and abroad, falter. As we have seen, the South African expats—those who have left home for personal, rather than economic or safety reasons—fight a losing battle with their memories, while Afrikaners who remained don’t fare much better. Those who stayed are either subsumed into the “new racial hierarchy” (In “VNLS,” the protagonist notes how only the “few white farmers who just about manage to remain in favour with the local black hierarchies are tolerated on the margins”) or self-estranged (the “Art-festival types” of young Afrikaners who “misinterpret[] the fashions of more civilised parts of the world”). In “War, Blossoms,” the white hero watches his mother (the only other white character in the story) waste away; “A Master from Germany” also has the protagonist return to South Africa to care for a dying white mother; “VNLS” shows the white heroine, with her Zulu backup vocalists, detained in Lesotho by a deranged, white, Cro-Magnon mechanic, who rapes one of the black women and then calls the police on them. At the end of “Mother’s Quarter,” Ondien returns to her flat in Johannesburg and comforts her dying landlord, a cantankerous and lonely old white woman who, significantly, stocks her shelves with books on Zion.

It is not just a failure of communication that colors post-1994 Afrikanerdom in this collection. There is something deeper, some ontological rot at the core of these stories—something is dying that cannot be saved, a mouth sutured shut.

I stress this point not to overstate the melancholy and desperation in these stories—though taken as a whole, this would be hard to overstate—but to clarify one of the claims in Ivan Vladislavić’s review. Both “at home” and “not at home” in cities across the globe, Naudé’s characters do, it seems, vacillate between “the difficult present and the vanished past”—but not a past that evaporated like a volatile spirit, but one that, for one reason or another, none of his white characters can bear to face. Without the courage to acknowledge how their privileged childhoods depended on the oppression of the majority of the population, where do they turn? Should they die dreaming of Zion? Surrender to wild isolation across the border? Try to run from the memories of home? No answer is given. Even Ondien—so sensitized to the racism and prejudice her Zulu coworkers face—cannot simply “skim[] over the surface of this country” forever. The last we hear of her is an altercation with a “pygmy” of a home invader whose “smell” radiates across the room. He grabs her and tells her to stop talking. The story ends. She becomes a victim of the silence of this new country, finally accosted by the history she could not bear to speak.

It is in ignoring this past that Naudé’s characters forfeit their right to a home. Not only do they rob themselves of the new South Africa by comparing it to their privileged days of yore but, in refusing to acknowledge their communal role in its violent history, they foreclose any promise of creating a Home abroad. Ahmed suggests that “the subject who chooses homelessness and a nomadic lifestyle” is “an example of movement as a form of privilege” (334). Suddenly, it seems very important that Vera lives a life with a “personal butler” at her disposition, and that Cornelius’ Romanian housekeeper is not given a single line—let alone asked about her personal negotiation with this “borderless world.” Rather than live in a home without extreme privilege, these Afrikaners pursue continued privilege abroad. Instead of acknowledging their past, they attempt silence through distance. Their ashen skin, isolation, and constant nightmares suggest this escape is not a clean one.

Which brings us to the final story in the English version of the collection: “Loose.” After watching a university student in Pretoria perform a stunning dance exploring the psychological trauma of the border wars, one older Afrikaans man wonders, “What could these students understand of the era in which the piece is set?” This miserly act of emotional gatekeeping may strike the reader. Why—despite all evidence to the contrary—do these characters pathologically believe that their past cannot be understood by others? That their pain does not translate?

This anxiety is I think telling. Silence becomes a habit. It is a way of de-historicizing history. Not only is the Home they fail to create circumscribed by race, but it becomes a textual effect of time—not something whose afterlives influence current history, but a hermetic, temporal anomaly set aside in an alternate timeline.

Enter the danger of the fetish. Once the older man begins to date Sam, the young dancer (called, simply, “A” in the Afrikaans original), he thinks, “He cannot let Sam go … he can only be in this place if it is with Sam. Sam who has nothing to do with his past here. … Sam makes it a different place, a nowhere place … He is both here and not here.” (220)

Born-free Sam has, perhaps, everything to do with his past here. Sam himself describes how he taps into the historical trauma of his birth—absent white father and Indian mother checked into mental asylums to disguise her miscegenous pregnancy—in order to connect with his characters. Sharing such visceral connections to the history of violence in South Africa, it may come as a surprise that these lovers do not commiserate, do not imagine how their shared pasts may point towards a future. Instead, at an improvised art gallery in Pretoria CBD – significantly, in an almost-demolished building – the protagonist muses: “Sam is not with him” any more than “he is with any of the squatters beneath them […] Loose. They are all loose – loosened from each other.” He pegs this failure to connect as an issue with the millennial generation. One may remember Melissa Steyn’s suggestion that many “white people growing up during apartheid were handicapped in learning critical skills needed for relationship”—where the systemic failure to empathize with non-whites yields, today, a failure to empathize with anyone.

When I say these stories feel orphaned, I do not mean to suggest that a rigorous embrasure of Afrikaner identity is the solution. We can recognize that a deep ambivalence towards the role of Afrikaners in a free South Africa is, perhaps, appropriate. The value of these stories is in setting up valid individual feelings of isolation and rootlessness in contrast with unspoken historical trauma. In all its attempts to sublimate the historical into the subjective, this tension contradictorily draws our attention to the past that’s silenced. That’s where the value of The Alphabet lies. For characters who would only accept an all-white Home, it’s important for us to see them wind up Homeless. For those who can’t muster the courage to voice their role in historical trauma, it’s important to see them suffer in silence. And for those who run from their past—who left home for fear of loss of privilege—this collection shows, above all else, that they cannot hide.

 

 

a stilet.digital revisit-review, by Drew Kiser, as part of a series on Afrikaans texts of diasporic predicament & belonging. Do read this piece in conjuction with others in the series, by Zhandi van Zyl and Gert Hanekom.