The pastoral ain’t what it used to be

African Pastoral: Harry Garuba in conversation with Dominique Botha, Claire Robertson and André Brink, 18 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


"When I began writing False River, I was innocent of the idea of genre," Dominique Botha tells Harry Garuba in his discussion with her, Claire Robertson and André Brink on the African Pastoral, a genre in which all three of them have recently written, consciously or unconsciously.

Brink is more eloquent about this mode and the way in which it is being reinvented in his and his fellow novelists' work, when he scoffs that "the pastoral ain't what it used to be". While it used to be "romanticised", he argues, representing a "prelapsarian innocence," he reminds that "death always lurks in the pastoral". But even though this pre-Eden existence becomes "a point from which [they] depart – perhaps even permanently," he admits that they "still carry vestiges of it" as "the idea of 'then and now' is with all of us".

Robertson points to the "then and now" in her (debut) novel, The Spiral House,set on "two farms, two centuries apart," one in the 1960s (high Apartheid) and the other in the Age of Enlightenment – two periods characterised by its obsessions with taxonomies and classifications. During the Q&A session I wanted to know whether she had consciously channeled these eras in which, she argues, "fables of nationhood were linked to farming", to our present South African moment. Her answer was cautious and ambivalent, but she referred to Julius Malema's top priorities, wondering whether "these signs of nationalism are necessarily evil." Is Brink's remark, later in the session, that "every novel is a new beginning and a different kind of failure" perhaps a firmer, if cloaked, response?

While Robertson's novel is properly considered "historical", the past of Botha's pastoral is more recent and intensely personal. In light of this discussion on genre, she thanks her publisher "for selling it as a novel and not as a memoir, even though memoirs sell better". But she explains that "to retrieve a memory is to commit a first piece of fiction" after all, and that "it is better to write the truth and call it fiction than to write fiction and call it truth." Nadine Gordimer's phrase, "a mysterious incest between life and art", in her review of Patrick White’s autobiographical Flaws in the Glass comes to mind. Botha’s preparation for False River (Botha too is a debutant) includes a mini thesis on the ethics of life writing, a project that readied her to produce a novel in which she forged her own rural experiences into fiction, not even changing the names of her family members; "at their cost" she says, alerting us to her mother's presence in the audience. But she reminds that, as a writer "you are the god of the text and all the voices are generated by me, so I thank you for feeling sorry for me, but you shouldn't."

Picking up on Botha's gestures towards the tenuous binary of fact and fiction, and on the filtration of "real" voices into a novel, Brink reflected on the way "imagination takes over when you come to the end of what you know, and you get closer to the truth," contradicting Botha, in some way at least. He comments on the frustrating discovery during his research for Philida, his most recent novel, that "nowhere in historical documents can you find Philida's own voice. Even in what she says to the landdros and legalese, it becomes a double and even triple process of re-imagining of what comes to her naturally." In Philida Brink reimagines the quest for freedom of a slave of a Franschhoek farm in the 1830s. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012,

In his subtle attempt at steering the discussion back from the past to the pastoral, Garuba wanted to know to what extent convention (in this case, that of the pastoral) takes over with imagination at the "end of the known" to which Brink sardonically replied that "all of us who are sitting here are literary conventions." More diplomatically, Botha pointed to the novel as "a convention of the known" and that, in her case, "form followed function". Robertson identified with Brink’s challenges, recalling delightfully how she had to come up with agricultural solutions during the writing process, where knowledge of historical farming escaped her, hinting at the metaphoric of writing and farming as done before by authors such as Marlene van Niekerk, Hennie Aucamp and several interpreters of Shakepeare’s The Tempest.

Robertson points to the coupling of the rise of nationalist consciousness in the early 20th century and the emergence of the Plaasroman. With what exactly the less romanticised reinvention of the African pastoral mode is paired, history alone might reveal.

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