Of Politics and Literature

Since time immemorial, politics have been part and parcel of literature. It has become prevalent in the contemporary but politics has provided a vast canvass upon which literature was painted on. Sifting through major literary works, one can find several works that integrated politics and the writer’s activism into the tapestry of the story. Among these prominent literary works are Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Among the more recent prominent political works are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Each book grappled with politics and activism through distinct and memorial storytelling.

Another prominent name in political fiction is South African Nadine Gordimer. Awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, Gordimer has long been critical of the apartheid, South Africa’s official policy of racial segregation. She witnessed how the Apartheid was dividing her homeland. An extensive examination and exploration of the details and consequences of the apartheid formed a significant part of her novels. The Nobel Committee specifically mentioned July’s People (1981) as one of the hallmarks of her prose. Among Gordimer’s oeuvre stands another prominent title. Published in 1979, Burger’s Daughter, alongside July’s Title and The Conservationist (1974), was the output of the decade that saw tremendous development in Gordimer’s prose.

Set in the 1970s, Burger’s Daughter commenced in Johannesburg, South Africa. The titular daughter is 26-year-old Rosemarie Burger, simply referred to as Rosa. Her parents, Cathy and Lionel Burger are white Afrikaners and vocal anti-apartheid activists. Members of the outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP), Rosa’s parents were active in their support of the overthrow of the apartheid government. This made them the inevitable subjects of the government’s ire. Rosa grew up witnessing her parents’ constant trips to the prisons. Their membership with the SACP alone was enough for the government to view them as traitors.

“But this death was the mystery itself. The death you were talking about; in the cottage. Circumstantial causes are not the cause: we die because we live, yes, and there was no way for me to understand what I was walking away from in the park. There was no way to deal with this happening but to gather the little plastic-foam tray and cellophane from which I’d eaten my lunch and go over and put it, as every day, as everyone else must, in the waste bin hooked to a pole.” 

~ Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter

With the maelstrom that has enveloped her and her parents’ “illicit” activities, it was needless to say that Rosa was raised in a non-traditional family setup. She grew up in a household that was welcome to anyone who supported the struggle against the anti-apartheid movement. Rosa got used to the presence of faces she barely recognized. At one point, Rosa became the sister to Baasie, a black boy of Rosa’s age who the Burgers adopted after his father, a fellow activist, died in prison. Rosa and Baasie would eventually be separated when Rosa was nine-years-old; they lost contact since. Reality caught up with the Burgers when Cathy died in prison when Rosa was just 14-years-old. Lionel would die after three years in prison for treason. Rosa was just 26-years-old. It was not uncommon for political activists to die in prison while serving their time.

Following her parents’ deaths, Rosa sold their house. However, the ghosts of the past have forced her to reckon with reality. The death of her parents raised the question of who was Rosa. How does she make sense of her parents’ activism now that they are gone? The question of her taking the reins from her parents was one of the novel’s earlier preoccupations. While she was expected to carry on her parent’s heritage, Rosa refused the bequeathal of her parent’s political legacy. She was reluctant in taking part in a movement that her parents were part of. Her parent’s death has freed her from the shackles that held her back. “Now you are free. The knowledge that my father was not there ever, any more, that he was not simply hidden away by walls and steel grilles; this disembowelling childish dolour that left me standing in the middle of them all needing to whimper, howl, while I could say nothing, tell nobody: suddenly it was something else. Now you are free.”

Growing up under the shadows of the Apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement was not easy for Rosa. Her parents desired her protection and kept her away from the movement as much as possible. However, this desire only created a chasm between them and their daughter. With their political involvement taking a huge chunk of their time, the Burgers barely had time to deal with their daughter. Rosa, in turn, felt alienated but grew subservient to her parent’s wishes, or commands. When her parents died, their political activism died along with them. At least where Rosa was concerned. She tried to shirk this legacy and even skipped using her last name lest it reminds people of her popular activist parents. But as the sole inheritor of her parent’s legacy, the question remains if she will ever be able to fully escape from the ghosts of the past that continue to overshadow her present.

Despite the inhibition on her due to her family background, she managed to travel to France. It was by sheer luck that she gained permission for a passport and a year’s travel. Halcyon days ensued and Rosa even found herself in love. She started entertaining the thought of staying in Europe incognito, never returning to her homeland. As she was settling down in Europe, she started reusing her last name and realized the power that it held. It gave her free passes to political conferences she barely cared about. It didn’t take long before vestiges of the past started trickling into her new life. An unexpected meeting in one political conference she attended in London gave Rosa a bitter reality check. The accusation that she was only using her last name to gain notoriety cut deep. In her rejection of the past and shirking what was perceived to be her responsibility, she forgot what it means to be Burger’s daughter.

“My direction existed. I had not spoken – had not ‘uttered’ – at the meeting but I felt – can’t explain – released from responsibility for myself, my actions, the way I imagine a gambler must feel when he exchanges the last contetnts of his wallet, down to the lining of his pockets, for a pile of chips and pushes them over the baize. What will be lost is only money; what would be lost was only a passport. It was all external, had nothing to do with, did not match any category of what has really happened to me in my life.”

~ Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter

A subject that has become synonymous with Apartheid is racism. It was, after all, one of the fundamental principles upon which it was instituted back in 1948. It was inculcated in Rosa’s mind that all South Africans, regardless of race or color, should have equal rights. The abolition of the racial segregation policies is of paramount importance. However, racism also takes on other forms, as Rosa would, later on, learn as an adult. While white implementors of the Apartheid rallied for racial segregation, there existed a group of black university students who wanted to remove white members of the communist movement. They wanted to take over the movement and spearhead it themselves. They wanted to stop relying on white people to fight their cause and voice out their concerns.

Rosa learned of the movement when she returned to South Africa to work as a physiotherapist. She learned that the students viewed the white men’s role in the movement as a part of their white privilege. This attitude was reminiscent of the attitude Baasie displayed during their reunion in London. This was an eye-opener for her. This also gave her a new motivation, arousing in her a desire to rekindle her father’s legacy. There was a new fire in her that wanted to carry on with what her father has already started. She realized that the movement will be stronger if it doesn’t recognize color or race. Success will materialize only if everyone works together.

Adding further historical context to the novel was the inclusion of the 1976 Revolt of the Children, also referred to as the June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising. The actual events occurred when Gordimer was nearly done with Burger’s Daughter and details of the uprising were added towards the latter parts of the novel. The uprising was an offshoot of the growing Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO). The events that resulted in the uprising began with a peaceful march to protest against the government’s policies. However, on their way to Orlando Stadium, where the rally was to culminate, the students were blocked by heavily armed policemen who fired teargas and eventually live ammunition on the demonstrators. The uprising soon spread to other parts of the nation. In the novel, the portrayal of these events, however, was cursory. It was used to underline how the systemic racism prevalent in South Africa has taken a toll on the youth.

Burger’s Daughter was, without a doubt, a promising book that dealt with an important phase of contemporary South African history through the story of a young woman who was reluctant to take her place. Two distinct voices emerged – Rosa’s first-person point-of-view and a third-person point-of-view. Rosa’s stream-of-consciousness revealed intimate details of her childhood, growing up in a household that was teeming with political activism. It also gave the reader a deeper insight into Rosa. However, Rosa’s monologues made the story impenetrable at times. It can get confusing as complex names and political discussions often trickle into Rosa’s monologues, at times without context. Gordimer’s aversion to quotation marks made it doubly challenging to distinguish the dialogues.

“Yet he has said to me, I would marry you if I could, meaning: I want very much to marry you. I offended him a bit by not being moved. It’s other things he’s said that are the text I’m living by. I really do not know if I want any form of public statement, status, code; such as marriage. There’s nothing more private and personal than the life of a mistress, is there? Outwardly, no one even knows we are responsible to each other.”

~ Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter

The novel also suffered from a thin and incoherent plot that took time to develop and unfold. The first part was slow-moving. The political discussions, at times, undermine the plot. It also didn’t help that Rosa was detached from the other characters whose motivations were not clear as well. There was a disconnect between the readers and the characters that made it challenging to empathize with Rosa’s plight. On the other hand, one of the novel’s better facets was the quality of Gordimer’s prose. Her descriptive prose captured the atmospheres of the event that transpired in the story. She had a knack for depicting people and describing places.

Burger’s Daughter was born out of Gordimer’s desire to study and understand the role of white Leftists in Apartheid-era South Africa. Her desire created an interesting character sketch of Rosa, her ambivalence to take over her parent’s dreams, and her growing realization of the seminal role she needs to play in uniting all the spectrums of a racially divided nation. For the novel’s ambition, Gordimer deserves applause. She also staunchly decried the apartheid. Despite its blunders, Burger’s Daughter was an insightful take on the growing black consciousness while grappling with the questions on white privilege. The Apartheid was, after all, a seminal part of contemporary South African history. Gordimer, however, takes the readers on a literary rollercoaster ride where unexpected shifts and turns are rife and dizzying. To get to the conclusion was a challenge.

Ratings

52%

Characters (30%) – 16%
Plot (30%) – 
12%
Writing (25%) – 
13%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

I have long been curious about Nadine Gordimer although I have never encountered her until I started perusing must-read lists. The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, her name kept appearing in the aforementioned lists. This further piqued my interest in her and her prose. When I came across one of her works, Burger’s Daughter, I did not hesitate in acquiring the book, which eventually became part of my 2021 reading journey. At the heart of the novel is the Apartheid, making Burger’s Daughter one of the first novels I have read that deals with this dark phase of South Africa’s contemporary history. It was explored through Rosa Burger, the titular daughter. I admired Gordimer’s conviction, working on the book at a time when the Apartheid’s presence was still prevalent. While I admire the ambition, I struggled to make sense of what was happening half of the time. The novel was simply inaccessible, and I guess it has to do with Gordimer’s integration of stream-of-consciousness with a third-person point-of-view. It was brimming with promise but it never lived up to this promise. Nevertheless, I still want to read more of Gordimer’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Nadine Gordimer
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1980
Number of Pages: 361
Genre: Historical Fiction, African Literature

Synopsis

In this brilliantly realized work, Nadine Gordimer unfolds the story of a young woman’s evolving identity in the turbulent political environment that has culminated in present-day South Africa. Her father’s death in prison leaves Rosa Burger alone to explore the intricacies of what it actually means to be Burger’s daughter. Moving through an overwhelming flood of sensuously described memories that will not release her, she arrives at last at a fresh understanding of and commitment to her life. Nadine Gordimer’s subtle, fastidiously crafted prose sweeps this engrossing narrative to a triumphant conclusion.

About the Author

Nadine Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923, in Springs, a small mining town near Johannesburg in South Africa. She was the second daughter of immigrant Jewish parents; her father was from Žagarė, Lithuania while her mother was from London, United Kingdom. The diversity of her background was pivotal in piquing her interest in racial and economic inequality in South Africa. Gordimer was educated at a Catholic convent school and studied for a year at the University of the Witwatersrand. She did not complete her degree and moved to Johannesburg in 1948 where she continued her studies.

Gordimer began writing at an early age. Her earliest works, short stories for children, were published in 1937: The Quest for Seen Gold appeared in the Children’s Sunday Express while Come Again Tomorrow appeared in Forum. When she was 16, she had her first adult fiction published. Gordimer’s first book work was Face to Face (1949), a collection of short stories. A Watcher of the Dead (1951), a short story, was published by the New Yorker and brought her work to a wider reading public. Her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. She followed it up with A World of Strangers (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963), and The Late Bourgeois World (1966).

In 1974, Gordimer’s novel The Conversationist was the joint winner for the Booker Prize. Her later novels included Burger’s Daughter (1979), July’s People (1981), A Sport of Nature (1987), My Son’s Story (1990), The House Gun (1998), and The Pickup (2001). Her last published novel in her lifetime was No Time Like the Present (2012). She has also published nonfiction works such as Get a Life (2005). Over her prolific career, Gordimer had written short stories, literary criticisms, and essays that appeared in prominent publications. For her works, she has received several accolades such as the W. H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award for Friday’s Footprint (1961), James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Guest of Honour (1972), Central News Agency Literary Award for Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981), and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Africa for The Pickup (2002).

Gordimer was also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979), a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Patron of the Congress of South African Writers, and a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 1991, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She has also received honorary degrees from prominent universities such as Yale and Harvard. Gordimer passed away on July 13, 2014, in Johannesburg, South Africa.