In post-apartheid South Africa, a family is bedeviled by an apartheid-era rape. Dangor’s latest (after Kafka’s Curse, 1999) was a finalist for this year’s Man Booker.
President Mandela is stepping down, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is issuing its report. This is a big deal, especially for Silas Ali, a lawyer and civil servant charged with fixing last-minute problems. Silas is a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and is also Colored (i.e., “of mixed-race”). Nineteen years earlier, his wife, Lydia, had been raped by a white cop, Du Boise, as Silas, chained, had been powerless to intervene. Lydia bore a son, Mikey, with Du Boise the father. Her marriage to Silas has endured, but the love has gone, and she cannot speak about her ordeal. As the story opens in suburban Johannesburg, Silas tells Lydia of his recent chance meeting with the rapist, and the old wound is made even more painful when she learns that Du Boise is seeking amnesty. Silas tries to comfort her, but she rejects him, turning instead to her beautiful, sensual son, and a wet kiss almost becomes something more. Mikey, who has started bedding older women, is in turmoil too. He has read his mother’s old diary and knows about the rape and his paternity, and he is about to discover further that his grandfather, a Muslim in India, executed the British officer who had raped the old man’s sister. What more motivation does a hot-blooded teenager need? Mikey steals a gun, offs the father of a girlfriend for sexually abusing her, then mows down Du Boise. His Muslim uncle will spirit him off to India. Dangor’s ragged storyline embodies also a sober, measured account of former revolutionaries adjusting to their new roles as pragmatic administrators, but it’s no match for the churning melodrama.
Even more problematic than the melodrama is the sheer dullness of Silas and Lydia, a flaw that sinks what might have been a savvy insider’s view of the new South Africa.