Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – healing the past

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

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

16 thoughts on “Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – healing the past

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  • July 28, 2021 at 10:55 pm
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    The more perspectives the better for me; I love the sense of gradually assembling a truth from all those voices. But I know that’s not to everyone’s taste.

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    • July 29, 2021 at 9:58 am
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      Multiple perspectives I can handle – and often enjoy – but the problem here was that one character wasn’t established enough before we went off to someone else’s viewpoint and then a different person again

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      • July 29, 2021 at 2:43 pm
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        Something I’ve noticed, I don’t know if this would be true here, is that some authors use the technique of multiple perspectives more for the idea of there being multiple perspectives (like in the classic film/book Rashomon) than to allow readers to get to know multiple people and see how differently they’ve experienced something to feel it with them (as in Reservoir 13). I’ve not read Dangor (this one is on my TBR and has been for years, untouched!) but I have the idea (ha) that he is more about ideas/themes than characters/story?

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        • July 29, 2021 at 5:25 pm
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          I’m trying to think of an example of an author that would be using multiple perspectives “for the sake of it” as it were – havent come up with one yet! Yes, Dangor does seem to be more focused on ideas than characters

  • July 28, 2021 at 3:57 am
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    And I’ve never read a South African book, I don’t think… won’t start here (probably Disgrace, similar themes I think?)

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    • July 28, 2021 at 10:14 am
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      Disgrace is one of the best SA books I’ve read. Some similar elements but also different.

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  • July 22, 2021 at 8:15 pm
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    I feel like I have read this, but can’t remember a thing about it. Perhaps your reservations about it tells me why. Such a shame when you’re disappointed by a book.

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    • July 29, 2021 at 9:57 am
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      if I fail to recall anything about a book, that’s a sure signal that I didn’t much care for it.

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    • July 29, 2021 at 9:57 am
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      I had a feeling they were trying too hard to include multiple ideas when a simpler approach would have been more effective

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  • July 21, 2021 at 12:45 am
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    Thanks for your honest reflections and review!

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  • July 21, 2021 at 12:19 am
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    It’s disappointing when a much-praised book doesn’t lie up to expectations…

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    • July 29, 2021 at 9:56 am
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      It makes me question my reactions when I see a book I didn’t rate, get high praise elsewhere

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      • July 29, 2021 at 11:04 am
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        Well, yes, but we’re all different and we all approach books from different life experiences. As long as we try to be fair, I think those varying opinions are valuable.

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        • July 29, 2021 at 5:27 pm
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          That makes sense – but then your thoughts always do!

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