Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Act of Terror (Book Review)

The moment around which André Brink’s novel, An Act of Terror, revolves comes early in the narrative, when the anti-apartheid group known only as the “Organisation”, attempts to blow up the State President in Cape Town’s castle. 

A sign from Cape Town's District Six Museum
What follows is one part cliff-hanger in the best crime novel tradition, one part touching romance, and one part meditation on the relationship between individuals, their causes, and their methods. 

The story is told from multiple perspectives of people on all sides of the apartheid debate and on both the receiving and handing-out sides of the monstrous system which was so carefully and clinically constructed by what was probably the twentieth century’s rogue state par excellence (and the political and material stand-points don’t overlay as neatly in all cases as one might assume). 

In spite of the novel’s brave use of perspective, the brooding tale—which reminds me both of Brink’s works like The Other Side of Silence and some of J M Coetzee’s novels—centres on the character of Thomas Landham who, to his dismay as much as our own, comes to be something like the last man standing.

Landham, in common with some of his compatriots in the “Organisation”, is an Afrikaner who is desperate to repudiate the sins of his fathers and his contemporaries, so much so that he is willing to commit the act of the book’s title.  And perhaps even more drastically, to seek to collaborate with his immovable father in the writing of a family history fraught with dark deeds and skeletons.  The novel is primarily a story of Landham’s journey across the scorched land his people have called home for over 300 years, but which he can’t yet call his country.  He is accompanied, at different points in his journey, by two women: one attracted by his devotion to the cause, the other by the doubts about violence that lurk below that same commitment.

That Landham’s devotion was forged as a part of the “external mission”, in Moscow, Dar, Lusaka, and London, reminds readers that resistance to apartheid was global, and perpetually on the move, in search of funding, a safe haven, and sympathetic audiences.  That movement, like Landham and his colleagues, is pursued by state agents who seem the very incarnation of depravity at one moment, and hopeless cogs in a machine that has usurped the power of its controllers the next.  Brink has created a geography not only of the human mind, but of a movement.

The book is beautiful, the story terribly powerful, and the characters who Landham encounters in the course of his flight across the “beloved country” are memorable, even if they never quite understand who they’ve just met until it’s too late...to blow the whistle, to extend a hand, to confront their own place in South Africa’s society.  I found myself almost literally flinching as the journey drew to its almost inevitable close, and deeply moved by the characters and their struggles.

This story of this particular act of terror is an important one for a number of reasons.  It reminds us of the long, hard struggles during the twentieth century against forces of racism and colonialism which refused to die all around the world, and in South Africa nailed their flag to the mast in defiance of liberalism and solidarity.  It evokes the struggles, inner and external, which people undergo when they are tested, and asked to choose between each other and a more abstract cause.

And it is an important story in the nightmarish version of the twenty-first century that we are creating in which we are in the process of pledging ourselves to an endless war on terror.  Terror, we are reminded daily, whether in response to events in Mali, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, or somewhere closer to home, is something which should not be analysed or understood.  It is evil and thus metaphysical and thus we must, we are told, approach it and the people who perpetuate it uncritically.  It is ungrounded, unhistorical, and therefore both inexplicable and unforgivable. 

Because of course, the application of reason to the chain of events which leads to an act of terror might tell us something dispiriting and dangerous about ourselves.  It might check our self-destruction, or cause us to squint at the world from a different perspective, something which is always uncomfortable, giving the lie as it does to the easy answers and knee-jerk reactions.

Brink’s is, after all, a story in which it’s the “good guys” who do the “bad things”.

“Can you imagine it?” Thomas asks Nina, as they prepare themselves for their assault on the system which still dogs the conscience of the world and plagues the rainbow nation, “All the fugitives, all the exiles, streaming back from all over the world.  And all the mails opening their doors to let out their prisoners.  And from the island over there—” (31).

They could not.  We can.  But our own imagination stopped there.

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André Brink, An Act of Terror.  London: Vintage, 1991.

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