Shades of darkness: a book that tells it like it was
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another book that tells it like it was in the apartheid period in South Africa.
A comparison that immediately springs to mind is A dry white season by Andre Brink. In in Brink’s book there is a kind of Kafkaesque horror that builds up relentlessly as a white Afrikaans-speaking school teacher gradually discovers what lies behind the mask of the society he lives in.
Jonty Driver tells much the same kind of story, but from the perspective of an English-speaking South African. In Shades of Darkness Jamie Cathcart, a school teacher who has been living in exile in England since the 1960s, returns to South Africa in the 1980s to see his brother who is dying of cancer. His return reawakens memories of the past, lost friends and lost love. In a way the cancer that was destroying his brother’s life is an allegory of the cancer of the apartheid ideology that was eating South African society.
This book lacks the relentless build-up of horror in A dry white season, and in that sense it is more true to life. Much of the story deals with the ordinary things of life and death, health and sickness. For many white people who lived through the apartheid period, the underside of the society hardly intruded at all, and it was quite easy to ignore it and pretend that it was not there. For the protagonist of the story, however, it intrudes when some of his friends are detained by the Security Police, including one that he thought was completely a-political, and he becomes aware that he himself is under surveillance.
In some ways it is the story of my life and times, and at many points of the story I had a sort of “been there, done that” feeling. I don’t have a brother, much less one who was dying of cancer, but the kind of society that Driver describes is real; it really was like that.
It is also one of the few novels I have read where I have known the author, though I did not know him well. Jonty Driver was an acquaintance, not a friend. He was president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) when I was a student, so I met him at a few student gatherings in South Africa and in England, and at a friend’s wedding. But after reading this book, I feel I know him better, because in the book I think I can see the world through his eyes, and it looks quite similar in many ways to the world I saw. It’s also a human story of love and loss, joy and grief, revenge and mercy.
If you’ve never been in South Africa, don’t be put off reading it. Many people have enjoyed reading Doctor Zhivago even though they have never been to Russia, so you don’t need to have been to South Africa to enjoy reading this one.