I’ve yet to read a poor novel by a South African author. Some, like Cry The Beloved Country have joined the list of my all-time favourite books. But my run of success came to an end with Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor.
Set in the years after the end of apartheid, Dangor’s novel delves into the issue of reconciliation through the lens of one “coloured” family. The question is whether it’s possible, if not to forget, then to forgive the abuses and injustices of the past.
Silas Ali is a former African National Congress (ANC) activist who fought against the apartheid regime. He became a prominent lawyer during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, appearing on television next to the President on occasions. When the novel opens he is working as a liaison officer between the justice department and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife Lydia is a nurse who researches HIV transmission and their only child, 18-year-old Mikey is at university studying literature.
This apparently settled life unravels one Sunday morning when Silas sees a face from his past. François du Boise, an Afrikaner policeman had raped Lydia years earlier when Silas was a member of African National Congress (ANC) fighting against the apartheid regime. He was made to listen to her screams from inside a police van. The couple have kept silent about the crime for more than 20 years, neither discussing it with each other nor reporting it to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was inevitable. One day Silas would run into someone from the past, someone who had been in a position of power and had abused it. Someone who had affected his life, not in the vague, rather grand way in which everyone had been affected, as people said, because power corrupts even the best of men, but directly and brutally. Good men had done all kinds of things they could not help doing, because they had been corrupted by all the power someone or something had given them.
Du Boise’s re-appearance and news that he has applied for amnesty for a number of sexual assaults (including that upon Lydia) sets in motion a crisis within the family. Silas and Lydia are pushed to acknowledge that their marriage is over But it’s the reaction of their son Mikey, the figurative “bitter fruit”, that prove more calamitous.
Bitter Fruit had plenty of things going for it so why didn’t I enjoy this book?
Problem number one: heavy handed treatment of the message
Dangor weaves multiple tragedies and traumas into Bitter Fruit. Too many. We get rape, incest, murder and multiple forms of sexuality. Lydia’s rape I suppose was meant as a metaphor for the treatment of native South Africans by their colonial “overlords” but did we need to numerous scenes of other forms of sexuality to drive home the point? A case, I fear, of the author trying too hard.
Problem number two: lack of focus
Dangor keeps changing the point of view in this novel. We switch so often between Silas, Mikey and Lydia that it was unclear from the start who was intended to be the main focus of attention. The intent may have been to show how events of the past affect each member of the family but it diluted the overall effect and meant it was hard for me to really engage with any one of the characters.
Problem number three:
I couldn’t keep track of the secondary characters. Usually I have that problem with novels that contain a large cast list but that wasn’t the case with Bitter Fruit. My problem was that, aside from Silas, Lydia and Mikey, the characters were such insubstantial figures that I lost all sense of who they were and how they were connected to the Ali family.
Bitter Fruit was, to me, a strange novel. The insight into a period of South African history was interesting and I was keen to see Dangor’s treatment of how an emergent new nation would tackle the stains of its past . But the latter was never fully realised. We nibbled around the edges too often, veering into more of a tale of a dysfunctional family rather than a dysfunctional nation.
Overall, this novel didn’t light my fire. I’m surprised that it was shortlisted for both the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor: Footnotes
Achmat Dangor was born in Johannesburg in 1948. After studying literature at Rhodes University, he became a writer of poetry and novels. He was a lifelong activist and social justice advocate.
He was one of the founding members of the Congress of South African Writers and head of various non-governmental organisations in South Africa, including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Nelson Mandela Foundation of which he was CEO for six years. In 2015 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the South African Literary Awards (SALA).
Bitter Fruit, one of his most important books, was published in 2001
He died in Johannesburg in 2020
Bitter Fruit was book number three in my #20booksofsummer2021 project