Hope enters home listening, not telling

Shooting Angels, by Christopher Hope, Atlantic Books.

“Enter home listening,” was the injunction of a Buddhist monk to participants in a North American poetry workshop that I attended. The temptation to do the reverse — to talk at — is enormous, but should be resisted, since it assumes that one’s return is the kiss that brings those dumb, dull stay-at-homes back to life.

A distinction must be made between artists who left South Africa and enter talking (Janet Suzman, the offputting Antony Sher); those who relocate (Robyn Orlin); and those who return listening. Suzman and Sher ‘talked’ through productions that explained to the locals just how dreadful apartheid had been and how grateful locals should be for their insights into the nature of political terror. When the natives were ungrateful, both adopted the postures of angry madams.

Hope has a writer’s brain and critical distance, though his satire also suggests the unstable perspective of the returnee — the conflict between wanting to fit in and resisting that desire. Having left South Africa in 1975, Hope tends to be billed in the UK as an exile, a term carrying connotations of necessary escape from life-threatening danger. A British media script portrays him as having left the beloved country on a one-way ticket because his “poems” had been banned. A good story except that only one poem was banned and by the SABC, twice – under the Nats then the ANC. A luta continua!

Hope, as a figure and writer, has entered listening, not telling. His Shooting Angels, superficially a political thriller, is stylistically and in other ways saturated with the results of attentiveness that arms his satire. The style involves carefully judged placing of the argot of the 1950s and onwards in clear crisp sentences, their cadences as exquisitely balanced as a Toledo dagger. The language roots the novel in colloquial experience.

Writing with clear-eyed detachment and dispassion even in the first person of his narrator, Hope’s authorial control and judgment is not skewed by love of characters nor distaste for their milieu — he gets the basics of writing right. This may seem axiomatic but it isn’t: it testifies to the fact that this is a novel based on listening, recording and organizing the data, rather than telling, confessing or wanting to be liked and admired. The satire is disengaged and disinterested, even if the device of leaving the setting unnamed is not.

The novel describes the coming-of-age of two boys, the hero and later target of satire, Joe Angel and his friend Johnny. It documents a Catholic upbringing in what seems Pretoria and the battles between Afrikaner thugs and Catholic boys – territory that Hope previously explored in a 1970s memoir published in Bolt magazine and in a teleplay, Ducktails, broadcast on SABC-TV in 1977.

During a Corpus Christi street parade heckled by ducktails, Johnny gives anti-Catholic “hoodlums” the finger. Afterwards they capture Joe and Johnny, slinging the latter “like a side of beef” over his captor’s shoulder and taking them to an alley. There Johnny witnesses Joe, in his cassock, being raped. The event becomes the basis for Joe’s roles and disguises. He blows up a Protestant hall and later forms a student sabotage group (whose descriptions recall the brave naiveté of the Armed Resistance Movement of the 1960s).

The Security Branch is on to them; Joe and Johnny are jailed and interrogated but freed – it is revealed that Joe informed, as happened in ARM. As an adult, Joe’s career is one of moving like a spy in the circles of power of the old and new regimes, becoming a millionaire known for philanthropy, love of the arts and finally the “banker of the revolution” and supporter of the new government. Johnny, a marksman, never fully having understood what happened to him or why, recoils wounded to teach in the isolation of a small town. Later, Joe, older and richer, recruits him for his shooting skills: we learn that Joe’s earlier fake-suicides have been botched. But on friends you can depend.

Hope dispassionately stays with facts rather than allowing the narrative to wander into descriptions of their significance. What emerges is a novel of characters in a world packed with blurred layers of trust, betrayal, conspiracy and hope. The effect is a maze, where characters come to accept their inability to control events. And in this world Joe’s ambiguous search for economic power and relation to those with political clout is a fair image of English-speaking whites’ paths during and after apartheid: inner demurral and toadying. Hope’s world is mad and mysterious, filled with tiny fists waving in protest and big cheeses blending in. In the sense that the characters don’t and can’t know what is happening they are comic; in the sense that the writing is austere and heartless, they are insignificant. Something of the tone recalls the “tough” writing of Kingsley Amis and writers associated with The Movement: by contrast, in Hope’s writing toughness seems earned – the product of engagement, rather than the defensive aversion that results in a hard centre with a mushy filling.

As intimated before, however, the novel is curious in dodging locale. The country is not named. This seems without technical or thematic justification and thus appears to have more do with the fact that Hope is “one who left the country”, in the words of Russian poet Anya Ahkmatova, who was proud to have remained.

True, in this country, the words “South Africa” are brandished incessantly so absence is some relief. But read in South Africa, the novel is likely to differ from the novel read elsewhere. Here it seems to involve a disguise so thin and strained that it is simply quirky. Was Hope trying for “universality”, meaning placelessness, or a metaphoric aura of menace and intrigue? Hard to say.

The device of not naming reveals its thinness and becomes merely coy in depictions of the death of Johnny Angel in an assisted suicide. Inevitably I had flashbacks to once meeting a fleshly mining mogul with fishy eyes named Brett Kebble. He existed beneath an ornate sculptured confection of hair and modestly accepted the craven hosannas of painters and curators hoping for largesse.

In the novel, Angel, the mogul with ties to the struggle, the public benefactor, dies to escape debts. The death is described in detail: shots were heard in what South African journalists invariably call “a leafy” Johannesburg suburb (meaning it is not a barren township which is then, invariably, “a community”). The description of Joe’s Mercedes with the dying figure at the wheel coming to a halt at a traffic barrier and the subsequent blue flashing glow of lights recalls the TV footage after Kebble’s death. Joe’s funeral, complete with girls handing out “commemorative garments” (T-shirts) and rousing tributes to “a man with no time for elitists”, is described in detail. Hope also describes the later switch in media opinion - “from love affair to lynching party”. Defensively, Hope writes, “the ruling party tables legislation making it an offence “to release information likely to harm the country”.  The caustic view of rhythms and language of public discourse is bracing and accurate. At the same time, however, Hope’s drawing so obviously on the known and common while not naming it raise the question: why?

Perhaps Hope thought those in the know – locals – would recognize the locale and thus it need not be named and those not in the know – foreigners – would read the work as a generalized satire. For the former, the experience of reading involves disruption and shifts of mode. The novel enforces major changes of perspective in its progress from bildungsroman, involving characters and their circumstances seen sympathetically, to the hard-edged satire of a cultural and political milieu in which the characters seem incidental.

It is a work of two perspectives, an ambiguous relationship in which the device of not naming the setting may be both a mechanism to secure two classes of reader, or one that testifies to the ambiguous insider-outsider roles of those who chose to depart the land but can’t entirely forego it, remaining hooked.



Leonski says:

For all young reviewers, Robert Greig is a lifelong master of the craft. Read this and see how it can be done …