Form follows function

This book reaction was written by Friday blogger Annie Reid:

Just finished Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor, short-listed for the Booker this year.

Ostensibly, it’s the story of one mixed-race family — a father, a mother and a son; Silas, Lydia and Mikey — haunted by her rape at the hands of an Afrikaans policeman twenty years earlier. But it feels more like the representation of a country, wrestling with its past and evolving into something new, integrating wounds that will never heal, acknowledging that some do not. It’s one of the oddest reading experiences I had in years. I started out disliking the book, chafing at what seemed like its incompleteness, a certain sloppiness to the writing. But by the end I admired it. Now I’m strangely haunted by it. The very things that bothered me now seem perfectly part of the design, the intent of the story.

The scarred underground’s apartheid resisters are now bureaucrats in a new government, no longer living with the danger or keen sense of purpose they had as revolutionaries. A bureaucracy is made up of people, after all, and they may be no better than the institutions they represent as they try to grasp the deep trauma of apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a background to this novel, but it never becomes an active part of the story. Not all truths can be told, this novel seems to say. Not everything can be reconciled. As it goes in a country, so too in a family, and in friendships compromised in curious, unexpected ways. Much of the book evokes this twilight zone of secrecy and partial revelation. A curious subtext of sexual trauma and inappropriate desire runs through the story, filtering into the character’s lives like light through the distant tops of trees. It’s like weather in this book. You can’t get away from it.

This is a story of disintegration, and the narrative is formed in a chaotic, disturbing way: bits and pieces emerge, glimpses of each character’s private past, unshared with anyone else. Disconcerting at first, the book refuses to satisfy the impulses that have been so burned into me, by movies particularly, for tangible details, for resolution, for clear analogies between objects and meaning. One major section ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, the sort of pronouncement which promises meaty complications and revelations to come, but it is never brought up again. The perspective changes often, skipping from mind to mind so often that sometimes you’re not sure what character knows what. Maybe, it seems to imply, they all sense more than they want to know.

The end leaves many questions unanswered, but it is neither vague or indistinct or unsatisfying. The book lacks many details, such as physical descriptions of the characters or the actual words they say in their encounters with one another. Anecdotes are introduced, raise disturbing specters from the past, and are never mentioned again. The strange glowing stone Mikey has stolen from his father. A Chinese woman Lydia fantasied about as a young girl. A teenage girl who lifted her skirt and showed young Silas a disturbing scar one afternoon. “She was trying to tell me something,” he says, decades later, realizing. But none of us will know what. We only feel the urgency in what was missed, and remain haunted by what we didn’t do, didn’t say, don’t want to know. Which seems, in the end, perfectly the point.

Details: Bitter Fruit, by Achmat Dangor, Grove/Atlantic, 228 pp., $13.


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