NOT TO BE MISSED
"Fille de Burger" (Burger's daughter) , a novel by Nadine GORDIMER
Translated from English into French by Guy Durand
Paris: Albin Michel, 1982, LP 6714, 572p.
Ce compte rendu en français
When Burger's Daughter [Fille de Burger] was published, in 1979, the evil of apartheid was still vitiating South-Africa, Nelson Mandela was still in jail, Nadine Gordimer's Nobel Prize was a decade away, and many French readers would have been hard pressed to mention a single South African author, let alone a women writer depicting the French Riviera in her work. This compelling novel (translated into French in 1982) tells the plight of Rosa, the daughter of a celebrated anti-apartheid figure. Burger's Daughter is a powerful testimony to the fortitude of yesteryears' militants who fought racism and oppression in South Africa, but it is also an intimate exploration of some challenging quandaries, concerns and universal preoccupations.
It all began when Rosa's father, Lionel Burger, realised in the 1920s the "terrifying contradiction" that "white people worship the God of Justice and practise discrimination on grounds of the colour of skin; profess the compassion of the Son of Man and deny the humanity of the black people they live among" (p.25). This contradiction that splits the very foundations of Lionel's life leads him to embrace Marxism and to devote his life to "the pursuit of the end of racialism and injustice" (p.26). Unfortunately, the communist ideals and associated discipline that comforted the resolve of young South African revolutionaries did not bring the expected societal changes and came unstuck in the decades to follow. Thus the quandary facing Rosa after her militant parents' death: Was it her duty and destiny to "take up the torch", to submit to party discipline and to follow in the footsteps of her parents, in spite of Stalin's "Great Terror", the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, the Iron Curtain and the prospect of being muzzled, placed under house-arrest and ultimately, arbitrarily imprisoned by the autocratic authorities of her own country?
For Rosa, answering these questions is far from obvious as she has been enculturated in a milieu dominated by a sense of family and social duty that goes beyond ratiocination, a milieu that demands total commitment. As one of her friends puts it: "Perhaps nobody preached Marx and Lenin [at your place...]. It was all taken in with your breakfast cornflakes. The people who came to your house weren't there for tea-parties with your mother, or bridge evenings with cigars. They weren't your father's golf-playing fellow doctors, or ladies your mother went shopping with, ay? They came together to make a revolution. That was ordinary to you. That intention. It was ordinary. It was the normal atmosphere in that house" (p.50).
The meanings given to the concept of "revolution" are many, but for Lionel Burger and his family it meant fighting without fear the racist ideology and the legislations that prevented political, industrial, social, or economic change within the Union. Beyond orthodoxies, it was a practical answer to the country's woes. Bringing fundamental changes in power and organisational structures of the country was certainly the ultimate aim, but revolutionising people's relationship was already in full swing "in that house" where blacks and whites connected without reservation, where "political activities and attitudes come from the inside outwards", where there was "nothing between the white man's word and his deed", where blacks and whites were "spluttering the same water in the swimming pool, going to prison after the same indictment" (p.172).
That, of course, was contrary to the government segregationist laws and it contravened the Act that formally banned the Communist Party of South Africa, its ideology and its modus operandi; so Rosa's parents landed in jail for extended periods of time, leaving her with the heavy responsibility to play her part in covert operations and, to take care of the people sent to prison. While adolescents of her age were mucking around with their friends, Rosa was already involved in grown-up responsibilities. The very beginning of the novel highlights this state of affairs in describing her: aged fourteen, standing in front of the prison, entrusted with the task of giving a quilt and a water-bottle to her recently jailed mother. Rosa's dilemma when she reaches her twenties cannot be separated from the responsibilities and sense of duty entrusted to her as she was growing-up. Powerful life experiences are determining and limiting her room to manoeuvre as she reaches adulthood and tries to express her own individuality.
After her parents' death, she suddenly realises that she is free. But far from giving rise to a state of elation, this revelation registers as "a kind of discovery that makes one dead-cold and wary. What does one do with this kind of knowledge?" (p.62) she asks herself. Cutting ties with the past is an option, but she soon realises that she will not find solace in selling her parents' house, quitting her job and getting acquainted with a young man who goes through life committing himself to nothing except observing others at a distance. Life cannot be reduced to one of the latter's pronouncements: "I don't give a fuck about what's 'useful'. The will is my own. The emotion's my own ... When I feel, there's no 'we', only 'I'" (p.52).
Taking off for another country, as so many people have done is another option, but it is far from easy when one is the daughter of a well-known figure of the anti-apartheid movement even when the latter is dead and buried. Getting a passport to leave the country is all but impossible and various opportunities to work in Tanzania and other places are denied to her by officialdom. It is only the intervention of an Afrikaaner acquaintance, with powerful connections in the government, that allows her, after many years, to leave the country temporarily on the condition that she would keep away from expatriate political activists.
When she arrives in France and reunites with her father's first wife Katya who left South Africa decades earlier, never to return, she has no definite plans except to see the world, as any other young traveller would do. With Katya, she discovers a world oblivious to political concerns, basking in the unassuming pleasure of meeting neighbours and taking life as it comes. But with the young teacher with whom she falls in love, she also discovers the misappropriation of the disadvantaged 'have-nots' by a self-centred elite whose intellectual pursuits are dictated solely by greed and worldly preoccupations.
As time goes by, she realises that under the guise of unlimited freedom and opportunities, the kind of life France has to offer her is nothing but a "paradis inventé" (p.287), an imaginary paradise that erases time and life's asperities and abandons people in a no-man's-land, bereft of their past and with no future. Surrendering to inaction, becoming like Katya and her friends that is "a poor thing, a hamster turning her female treadmill ... minding her own business" (p.332) is thus no way to free oneself from one's existential preoccupations. Rosa came to France with the hope of distancing herself once and for all from her father's legacy, but it dawns on her that "No one can defect." "I don't know the ideology" she adds, "It's about suffering. How to end suffering" (p.332).
"And it ends in suffering" when she returns to South-Africa. None of the problems she left behind are any closer to a resolution. She is still Lionel Burger's daughter, anti-apartheid militants are still being arrested and imprisoned, an increasingly number of defiant black youths are challenging the authorities who retaliate by shooting people at random, further enflaming the situation. A down-trodden black majority is increasingly dismissive of white prerogatives, irrespective of their political engagement, and many are now rallying behind the idea that "We're one kind: Black. ... we don't need anyone else ... We don't know about class interests" (p.127). But, unlike before, Rosa knows why she is back in the country she calls home, she knows what she has to do give meaning to her life and what it means to be in charge of one's destiny and to assume one's origins.
Burger's Daughter offers a fascinating take on the apartheid era, but the novel's interest goes far beyond its foregrounding historical merit. It also raises issues of universal concerns, issues of mind over matter, action over inertia, life over death. Rosa's personal struggle to come to terms with her father's legacy is one of them. Following in the footsteps of a god-like father is a universal challenge for any dutiful child: to perceiving the ultimate meaning of the actions of one's parents, the pertinence of their ideology and their real power to change fate and destiny. In our house, Rosa says, it was believed that changing the world, eliminating private conflicts set up by the competitive nature of capitalist society would give meanings to people's lives. But these political and humanitarian preoccupations neither acknowledged nor explained the mystery of life and death beyond the revolution (p.79). To what extent was Lionel Burger deceiving himself and, like Katya, walking the treadmill of delusory dreams? Was his political action an end in itself? And was it true that "To be free is to become almost a stranger to oneself"? (p.81).
Confronted with such difficult questions Rosa cannot find any definite answers in her parents' wisdom, conviction and political engagement; thus the temptation to leave them by the wayside, like some French friends who have chosen to do so: "We have to forget about them", one says. "It's not our affair. I'm not my father, ay?" (p.243). Why indeed bother about an inheritance rooted in the discordances of the past, one ill-suited to answer the challenges of a world determined to foil any attempt to collectivist approaches to justice, equality, brotherhood and human dignity? Yet, what Rosa also discovers in the course of her peregrination is the fact that although people can never be sure of what the future holds in store, they can give a sense to their existence and link meaningfully the past and the future. Like the seasons, people are short-lived and have no future in themselves, but it is their responsibility to answer, as best they can, the challenges of their epoch. Lionel Burger's choice of Marxism and revolution to fight the evils of his time was not predetermined, but a considered answer to black oppression and injustice that were destroying the country in his day. So too Rosa's decision to return to South Africa, to resume her work as a physiotherapist at Baragwanath Hospital and, "like anyone else, to do what she can" (p.332).
In this context, comments by Nadine Gordimer expressing her own attitude to life, shortly after the publication of Burger's daughter, encapsulate perfectly her heroine's credo and prefigure a new South Africa: "I think that to be alive is an expression of belief in something, of an unkillable element in human advancement [...] I will still, in my life and in my work, seek for some principle of transcendental order which implies progression in human terms [...] I know that any form of racism is wrong".
1. Susan Gardner. "A story for this place and time: An interview with Nadine Gordimer about Burger's daughter" , in Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (Eds.), "Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990, p.162.
2. Stephen Gray. "An interview with Nadine Gordimer" , in Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (Eds.), "Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990, p.184.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but quotes and page numbers are from the English original published by Jonathan Cape in London in 1979.
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The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities