Bitter Fruitby Achmat Dangor
“A haunting story of a family disintegrating, wonderfully authentic . . . its progress like slow dancing.” –Barbara Trapido, The Independent
“A haunting story of a family disintegrating, wonderfully authentic . . . its progress like slow dancing.” –Barbara Trapido, The Independent
The Man Booker Prize finalist by acclaimed South African writer Achmat Dangor is a searing and beautiful tale of the fallout of political strife and how secrets can destroy the balance of a family.
With the publication of Kafka’s Curse, Achmat Dangor established himself as an utterly singular voice in South African fiction. His new novel, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award, is a clear-eyed, witty, boisterous, yet deeply serious look at South Africa’s political history and its damaging legacy in the lives of those who live there.
The last time Silas Ali encountered Lieutenant Du Boise, Silas was locked in the back of a police van and the lieutenant was conducting a vicious assault on his wife, Lydia, in revenge for her husband’s participation in Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. When Silas sees him by chance, twenty years later, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to deliver its report, crimes from the past erupt into the present, splintering the Alis’ fragile peace of mind. Meanwhile Silas and Lydia’s son, Mikey, a thoroughly contemporary young hip-hop lothario, contends in unforeseen ways with his parents’ pasts.
A harrowing tale of a brittle family on the crossroads of history and a fearless skewering of the pieties of revolutionary movements, Bitter Fruit is a cautionary tale of how we do, or do not, address the past’s deepest wounds.
‘dangor writes from the inside and yet with distance, challenging some sacred platitudes of the heroic struggle and the new elite but never settling for the easy ambiguity that dismisses all values as being the same. . . . The searing narratives reveal the wounds of betrayal and no reconciliation. The people and their stories are unforgettable.” –Booklist (starred review)
“Exquisitely rendered”A major novel”A sweeping narrative”His prose is elegant, his plotting convincing, his message disturbing.” –Charles R.Larson, WorldView Magazine
“What makes the couple’s attempts to connect with each other so compelling is that they so stubbornly and consistently miss the mark. . . . Dangor’s characters are complex. They rein in more often than they lash out, and there’s a reserve at the heart of this sometimes powerful book that’s as satisfying as it is frustrating.” –Melissa Price, San Francisco Chronicle
“This work of fiction feels the pain of apartheid’s victims but also their aspirations. . . . A fine novel that cuts to the bone, showing how easy it is to prescribe tidy solutions–and how hard to live them.
” –Ellen Emry Heltzel,
“”History has a remembering process of its own, one that gives life to its imaginary monsters.” This understanding of the past informs the thoughts and actions of the characters, which the author of Kafka’s Curse explores in meticulous detail. . . . A bleak look at modern South Africa in the vein of J.M. Coetzee’s novels, but from the perspective of black South Africans.” –Publishers Weekly
“A haunting story of a family disintegrating, wonderfully authentic . . . its progress like slow dancing.” –Barbara Trapido, The Independent
‘dangor’s challenge has been to present a complex “new South Africa” . . . harkening back to the old days when there was something evil to press up against to test one’s ideology, when one’s moral work was clear-cut. His achievement in this is extraordinary.” –Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Globe and Mail (The Globe 100)
“Packs in the punches with its gritty narrative and hard-hitting storyline . . . Dangor has created a real page-turner that stays with you long after you read the last page.” –Woman’s Weekly (
‘dangor challenges the way in which apartheid inveigled South Africa into simplistic divisions of black and white. . . . A writer who gives texture and grace to the present lives and historical legacy of South Africa’s five-hundred-year-old multi-ethnic society.” –Rachel Holmes, Literary Review
“A textured piece of writing, redolent with the smells and sounds of close-packed living, and the hint that the violence and fanaticism are not likely to end provides a chilling coda.” –Daily Mail
“Like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, this is a masterpiece of contemporary, post-apartheid
Praise for Kafka’s Curse:
‘dangor writes lyrical . . . beautiful prose. Kafka’s Curse is . . . full of cries that go on ringing in the head.” –The New York Times Book Review
A Book Sense Selection
“I will teach you that there is nothing that is not divinely natural, . . . I will speak to you of everything.” Andr” Gide, Fruits of the Earth
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 everybody 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.
“Bullshit,” Silas thought. It’s always something or someone else who’s responsible, a “larger scheme of things’ that exonerates people from taking responsibility for the things they do.
Silas watched the man, the strands of thinning hair combed all the way across his head to hide his baldness, the powdery residue of dry and dying skin on the collar of his jacket, the slight paunch, the grey Pick “n Pay shoes, the matching grey socks. The man leaned forward to push something along the check-out counter, and turned his face towards where Silas stood, holding a can of tomatoes in his hands like an arrested gesture. Yes, it was Du Boise. Fran”ois du Boise. The same alertness in his blue eyes. A bit slower, though, Silas thought, as Du Boise moved his head from side to side, watching the cashier ring up his purchases.
Silas went closer, accidentally jostling a woman in the queue behind Du Boise. Silas watched him pushing his groceries along, even though the cashier was capable of doing this on the conveyor belt.
Typical pensioner’s fare.”No-name brand” cans of beans, tuna, long-life milk, sliced white bread, instant coffee, rooibos tea, denture cream.
So the bastard’s lost his teeth.
Silas pictured Lydia’s angry face, were he to return home without groceries. Today’s Sunday and the shops are open only until one o’clock. She’d suppose out loud that she’d have to do the shopping the next day, because his job was too important to allow him to take time off from work. All the same, he abandoned the trolley and followed Du Boise out of the store. Halfway down the length of the mall, past shop windows that Du Boise occasionally stopped to look into with familiar ease, Silas began to ask himself what the hell he thought he was doing, following a retired security policeman about in a shopping centre? What Du Boise had done, he had done a long time ago. Nineteen years. And Silas had learned to live with what Du Boise had done, had absorbed that moment’s horror into the flow of his life, a faded moon of a memory that only occasionally intruded into his everyday consciousness. Why did it matter now, when the situation was reversed, and Silas could use the power of his own position to make the old bastard’s life hell?
The man’s smell, a faint stench of decaying metabolism, was in Silas’s nostrils, as if he were a hunter come suddenly upon his wounded prey. Du Boise stopped at a caf”, pulled a chair out from under the table, ready to sit down. Silas stood close to him, facing him, and suffered a moment of uncertainty. Shit, this man looked so much older than the Du Boise he remembered. Then he looked startled into the man’s equally startled eyes.
‘du Boise? Lieutenant Du Boise?”
“Yes?” he said, and looked Silas up and down, his bewildered manner changing to one of annoyance. He sat down, uttering a weary sigh, trying to draw the attention of other shoppers. Look, here was a youngster bothering an old man, a pensioner.
‘do you remember me?” Silas asked.
Du Boise leaned back in his chair, his air of open-armed, I’m-being-put-upon vulnerability quickly bringing a security guard closer.
‘should I?” he asked quietly, caught the eye of the security guard, then raised himself from his chair and pushed his trolley towards the exit.
Silas watched Du Boise disappear into the bright sunlight, watched the security guard watching him, and then turned away. The rage he felt was in his stomach, an acidity that made him fart sourly, out loud, oblivious to the head-shaking group of shoppers who had gathered to witness a potential scene. The guard spoke into his radio, the caf” owner pointedly dragged the chair back to its neat place beneath the table. Silas’s rage moved disconsolately into his heart.
He drove home and, without saying a word to Lydia, took a sixpack of beer from the fridge and walked up Tudhope Avenue towards the small park. He found a tiny island of green in the bristly grass. A couple of hoboes, smiling generously, moved over to make room for him to sit down, legs sprawled out. He smiled back, but ignored the obvious hint. He placed the opulent, still-sealed pack of beer between his legs, and leaned back on his elbows.
Silas remembered how Lydia had looked up from the paper, then put it aside to watch him as he collected the beer from the fridge, walked out through the door. Her eyes had followed him as he passed the window where she sat, and when he turned to close the gate, he had seen the wariness in her face, and the tiredness. What unspoken trauma had he brought home, she must have been wondering. He felt guilty for a moment, then opened a can and drank, long deep gulps. He paused, burped, heard one of the hoboes remark that ‘some people have it good in this new South Africa”. Silas turned and stared defiantly at them, then continued drinking, slow, slaking swallows, until his eyes swam and his face flushed warmly. The hoboes got up and walked away in disgust.
At ease now, he stretched out his legs, smiled at passers-by. The park, even with its ragged lawn and fallen-down fence, provided some relief from the hot criss-cross of streets. Located on a busy intersection, it reminded him of those unexpected patches of green in the townships, where you could go without fuss. None of that “let’s go to the park” kind of ceremony that people so quickly acquired when they moved to the suburbs. Just tiny oases, where you could start off by yourself, a spontaneous decision to seek some solitariness, and the very peacefulness of you sitting on your own, sipping beer, would summon a whole group of bras to join you, all bringing along their own “ammo’. Soon there would be a group of guys squatting in a circle and talking bra-talk, a mellifluous flow of gruff observation and counter-observation, no topic serious enough or dwelt upon sufficiently to maroon the hazy passage of a pleasurable, forgetful afternoon.
No one pressed you for answers or confidences, you soon forgot the problem that had driven you and your pack of beer into the street, you were just one of the ‘manne”, deserving of your privacy. Until a wife or a mother, or a formidable duet of mother and wife, came along to tell you that this was no way to resolve your problems, drinking in the street like a kid, or worse still, like a tsotsi who had taken to petty crime because he couldn’t face life. And drinking in public was a crime, petty or not.
The worst was when the cops arrived, all cold-eyed and admonishing, revving the engine of their van until you and your friends slowly dispersed, a herd of dumb, resentful beasts being driven from a favoured waterhole.
Silas cracked open his third beer, lay back on the grass, resting his head on the three remaining cans. The sun pressed down on his eyelids, a hot illumination that would soon make him feel drowsy. This must be the way blind people absorbed light into their heads: raising their faces to the sun, to Ra, god of the blind. Everyone needed real light, not just the artificial, thought-up light of the imagination.
“God! You are so insensitive!” Lydia would have said, had he repeated this thought to her. An innocuous, light-hearted thought, born in a truly carefree moment. She would punish him for it. Lydia had an unforgiving mind. What went on in her heart these days? Well, he’d find out soon. Have to tell her about Du Boise. Not good at keeping secrets . . . well, not really. It struck him that he and Lydia spoke very little these days, and when they did, it was about something practical, the car needing a service, the leaking taps, the length of the grass at the back of the house.
And about Mikey. Speaking about Mikey was the closest she came to revealing herself. Not exactly pouring her heart out, but hinting at what was in there, the anxiety eating away at her calm exterior. She was always asking Silas to “intervene”, to take an active interest in his son. Hadn’t he noticed how Mikey had changed, how he was no longer the easygoing kid they once knew?
“We all grow up, Lyd, and suddenly the going’s not that easy!” Words he would love to say, but dare not.
“Try and speak to him, Silas, try and find out whether he’s got any problems, you know, a girl, drugs, things happen to young people.”
Meaning he doesn’t speak to you, is that it?
Someone loomed above Silas, shutting out the sun. Served him right for falling asleep in a public park in the heart of Berea. Steal your shoes off your feet, people say.
He opened his eyes and sat up. Mikey was smiling at him in that condescending way he seemed to reserve for his father’s drunkenness. ‘dad, we have to be at Jackson and Mam Agnes’s by three.” This was Lydia’s doing, sending Mikey out to find him, to humiliate him in public, lead him home, steering him by the elbow. Well, that hadn’t happened for a long time. Silas imagined Lydia telling Mikey that his grandmother would be frantic. Mam Agnes was relying on Mikey to drive her to this wedding in Lenasia, because Jackson wouldn’t go with her. Mikey’s grandfather is strange, the way men can be. He doesn’t like Mam Agnes’s Lenasia friends, not because they’re Indian, but because they gossip. More likely because they don’t booze, and, in any case, Jackson was probably in his “high nines’ by now.
All of this would have been said in motherly tones, full of nagging intimacy. Mikey would have been reading, or listening to music, or sitting at the back staring into God knows what kind of nothingness. He would have looked at his mother, not pleadingly, simply to convey his annoyance, and then he would have strode out of the house to come and find Silas.
The way he looks at me, Lydia says. As if he were the adult and I the child.
Mikey extended a hand and helped Silas to his feet. It was a comradely gesture, Silas knew, a warning to expect nothing but cold scorn from Lydia when they got home. He farted loudly as he rose to his feet.
“Christ, Dad!” Mikey said, and walked away.
Silas didn’t mind this anger. It brought the kind of understanding he needed and knew Lydia would not offer, a recognition of his ordinariness, his capacity for weakness, it drove the anger out of him, replaced it with a sense of fulfilment that was light, somehow, even if it was accompanied by a mortal belching and the sly emission of pungent farts.
Simple things that helped ordinary people to cope with life. Lydia asked Mikey to drive, as if to demonstrate the need for a ‘man around the house”. Usually, she wanted to drive even when Silas was sober. Women are better at these things, we don’t have egos to parade. Mikey, who had only recently obtained his licence, drove now, fast and resolute on the freeway, slow and careful when they took the off-ramp to Soweto. An afternoon haze of smog turned the sun to brass. When they pulled up outside Jackson and Mam Agnes’s house, Silas said he would wait in the car. The vehicle wouldn’t be safe if left unguarded, and, in any case, “You’re on night duty and we can’t stay long,” he said to Lydia’s disappearing back. Soon, Jackson, his face burnished the colour of dark wood by a day of drinking in the sun, swaggered out through the gate, his oversized shorts flapping around his sturdy legs.
‘sielas, Sielas, they’ll steal you along with the fucken car,” Jackson said, delighting in the musical tone this emphasis gave Silas’s name. “Why don’t you come in and have a drink?” Silas went inside to have a beer with his father-in-law. Mam Agnes gave the two men chiding looks, while Lydia became stony-faced. Mam Agnes, dressed “like the queen bee in drag”, according to Silas, made some remark about men who did nothing but drink beer all day, then handed Mikey the keys to Jackson’s car (an old but stately Rover that “needed a slow hand”, in the words of its owner). The one thing she wished for her grandson, she said, was that he never became a beer-drinking slob.
Mikey and Mam Agnes drove off under Jackson’s watchful eye, while Lydia strode away towards their own car. Silas gulped his beer much too quickly, and joined Lydia. They drove back towards the city. His loud, exaggerated burping brought no reaction from Lydia, who concentrated on her driving, glancing at her watch all the time.
“I saw Du Boise today.”
‘du Boise, Lieutenant Du Boise.”
Lydia said nothing. Her fingers gripped the steering wheel more tightly.
“In the mall.”
“Is that why we have no groceries?”
He looked out of the window. They had emerged from the township smog. Clouds darkened the sky. He opened the window, letting in a gust of moist, refreshing air.
“I recognized him immediately. Old and fucken decrepit, but Du Boise all right. It was his eyes. And that arrogant voice.”
Lydia looked at him, then returned her attention to the traffic. He tried to engage her eyes, but she stared straight ahead of her.
“You spoke to him?” she asked after a while, her enquiry casual.
Again, he looked at her. She was steering the car down the off-ramp towards Doornfontein, bending her body with the curve of the road.
“I didn’t mean to. I followed him out of the store, then suddenly found him sitting down, as if he was waiting for me.”
Lydia straightened her leaning body as the car straightened, peering into the side mirror as she entered the slow city traffic.
“Christ, Lydia, it just happened, I just ran into him. A fucken accident.”
She pulled the car halfway up the drive, switched off the engine and got out. Silas sat for a moment, then followed her into the house. She was already in the bedroom, pulling off her clothes.
“Lydia . . .”
“I’m going to be late, Silas, I’m on theatre duty tonight.”
He sat on the bed, watching her change her clothes. The white, staff nurse’s uniform soon gave her a new and formidable freshness. She cursed her own distraction, as her pantyhose caught in the skirt’s zipper. She hitched the skirt up, freed the hose and smoothed them upwards, over her thighs and buttocks. Her legs acquired a contained kind of sensuality. Then she pulled down the skirt, pinned on the goldembossed nameplate that had once been such a source of pride to her mother, grabbed her bag and the car keys. She said a hasty “Bye”, and left Silas sitting on the bed. He heard the door close, the customary quiet click of the latch. She was always quiet, so precise in everything she did. He heard the car start, the engine rev, heard it settle down to an idle.
He went to the kitchen and opened a beer, slowly poured it into a tall glass that he tilted towards the bottle, until it was nearly full. He held the glass upright, continuing to pour, slowly, until a delicate head of foam gathered at the mouth without spilling over. But the pleasure he felt at pouring his beer so artfully quickly disappeared.
Overcome by a sudden, bloated feeling, he abandoned the glass of beer and the empty bottle on the long, austere dining-room table and sat down in the old easy chair that he had salvaged from his mother’s house in Doornfontein, when the place was declared “white” and the family was evicted. That had been his mother’s last nomadic stop in her journey from suburb to suburb, singled out for pursuit, she believed, by the grey-suited men who implemented the apartheid laws. In his eyes, taking that chair from the ruins of his mother’s home and life was the only sentimental thing he had ever done. Now it creaked under his weight, deepening the silence in the house.
The hot day and all the beer he had drunk made him feel drowsy. He raised his head and looked towards the sun, sinking behind the tall buildings that marked the boundary of Berea. He remembered the sun shining in through the high, square window of his and Lydia’s first home in Noordgesig, a township on the edge of Soweto, recalled the small-house quietude of the day winding down, the noises in the street. There were many such half-drunken Sundays when Lydia refused to make love to him and he fell asleep, waking up when the sun in the square window gave way to cold shards of moonlight and she told him it was time for dinner. And then, one day, the moon was caught in the bars of a window that seemed familiar yet very different somehow, further away than even that distant township window that the architects had put in as an afterthought. Even bushies need light occasionally, they must have schemed. He heard Lydia’s voice, different as well, hoarse and rich, vibrating like a singer’s voice too deep to be played so loudly through a set of worn-out speakers.”Naai her, naai her good!” another voice said, while someone laughed above the sound of an idling car engine, and then Lydia’s voice was sharp, ascending into a scream, before fading into a moan so removed it seemed to come from his dreams.
Silas woke from his beery sleep, slumped in the easy chair, his mouth dry and the sky dark. He heard the car’s engine running, looked out through the window and saw the empty seat and the door ajar. He stumbled outside, light rain on his face, switched off the engine, looked around, saw Lydia sitting in the wicker chair in the dark corner of the stoep. He must have rushed right past her. He closed the car’s door and locked it.
“Lyd, you all right?”
“No, Silas, I’m not all right.”
He approached her with a sense of foreboding. She was in one of her inconsolable moods. Like the day Steve Biko was killed, and she mourned his death bitterly even though she was only seventeen years old, and had no way of knowing, Silas had said, what Biko stood for.
‘silas, it’s the thought that they could murder people . . . just like that,” she had said, snapping her fingers the way the clevers do in the townships, and then had gone so quiet that he knew he had alienated her.
Then there was the day Silas’s infidelity was revealed his one and only, he insisted. He had slept with a woman, a comrade in the ‘movement”. Lydia was angry, not only because he had betrayed the trust between them, which was all their marriage had going for it at the time, but because this was how she had found out that he was involved in the underground. She had to be told so that she would understand the “context”, so that her rage would not be ‘misdirected”. Later, she learnt that the woman comrade was married as well and that her husband had been in detention at the time of the affair.
She confronted Silas about his callousness, and became even angrier when he tried to justify his actions. People in the underground were in constant danger, he said, and this created a sense of intimacy, it was difficult to avoid such things. She told him to stop using the struggle as an excuse for “fucking around”, there were many decent people who were “involved” but did not go about screwing each other like dogs on heat. Then, too, her anger had hardened into something impenetrable, an invisible crust that made her skin impervious to touch and her mind deaf to even his most heartfelt pleading.
Now he put his arm around her and felt that same implacable coldness in her.
“Christ, Lydia, you’re cold, let’s go inside.”
She raised her legs onto the chair and hugged her knees to her chest. ‘silas, I’d forgotten . . .”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t intend to run into him.”
“You chose to remember, you chose to come home and tell me.”
“You know I couldn’t hide anything from you.” He took his arm away, went to sit on the wall of the stoep. “It’s not something you easily forget, or ever forget.”
“All these years, we never spoke about it.”
“There was no need to.”
She looked up at him, her eyes scornful. “No need to? What do you mean, no need to?”
“It was a time when, well, we had to learn to put up with those things.”
“What did you have to put up with, Silas? He raped me, not you.”
“It hurt me too.”
‘so that’s it. Your hurt. You remembered your hurt.”
‘shit, Lydia, I didn’t mean it that way. I was there, helpless, fucken chained in a police van, screaming like a madman.”
‘so you didn’t hear me scream?”
“Of course I did, how do you think I knew?”
“How do you know it wasn’t a scream of pleasure, the lekkerkry and fyndraai and all that, the things you men fantasize about?”
“Fuck you, Lydia, I know the difference, I know pain from pleasure.” She stood up, her angry reaction slowed by the coldness in her body. “You don’t know about the pain. It’s a memory to you, a wound to your ego, a theory.” She thrust her face into his. “You can’t even begin to imagine the pain.”
They stood facing each other for a moment, then he slumped down in the wicker chair.
“Ja, I suppose imagined pain isn’t the real thing. But I’ve lived with it for so long, it’s become real. Nearly twenty years. The pain of your screams, his laugh, his fucken cold eyes when he brought you back to the van.”
“What else do you remember?”
“That Sergeant Seun’s face, our black brother, the black, brutal shame in his face.”
“You don’t remember my face, my tears . . .”
He closed his eyes almost as she closed hers. When he opened them again, she was inside, busy dialling on the phone. He followed her.
“Who’re you calling?”
“The hospital, tell them I can’t come in tonight. It’s late to call, but a courtesy anyway.”
He took the phone from her and asked for the matron in charge, told her that Lydia was ill, that he’d call the next day to tell them how she was.”I don’t know, some kind of fever,” he said, then slowly replaced the phone.
Lydia stood at the kitchen sink, drinking a glass of water. He went in, leaned against the fridge.
“Lydia, we have to deal with this.”
“With what we went through, both of us.” He saw the smirk on her face. “Yes, for fuck’s sake, I went through it as much as you.”
“You’re screaming at me, you know how I don’t like being screamed at.”
She went into the front room, he wanted to follow her, but remembered that she didn’t like being pursued when they were having an argument, even though fleeing from room to room was a sign of deep distress that she would need help to overcome. But he only made things worse by following her and trying to force on her his comforting arms and consoling voice. He leaned up against the fridge, felt its throb against his back, slid down until he was on his haunches. He remembered how the police had made them “tauza”, squatting with their legs wide open and frog-jumping, so that anything they had concealed in their anuses would drop out or hurt them enough to make them scream out loud. He closed his eyes and smiled.
Lydia was back in the kitchen. He got to his feet. “I remembered how they made us do that.”
“Tauza, when we were in detention, they would shout,”Tauza!” and you would have to hop about like a frog so that they could check if you’d hidden anything up your arsehole.”
“And did you?”
‘shit, what could you hide in your anus?”
“Well, we have to, all the time, hide penises up our fannies, the recollection of them being there. Even the ones we never invited in.”
“Christ what, Lydia?”
“We have to do something about this.”
“What, talk to the Truth Commission?”
“You think Archbishop Tutu has ever been fucked up his arse against his will?”
“What difference does that make?”
“The difference is he’ll never understand what it’s like to be raped, to be mocked while he’s being raped, to feel inside of him the hot knife that piece of useless flesh you call a cock turning into a torture instrument.”
“Not all men are insensitive, Lydia.”
She stood close up to him. ‘do you want to know what sensitivity is?” She raised her skirt, pulled down her pantyhose, let them fall to her feet. “Here, feel.” She took his hand and placed it on her vagina.
“Go on, put your hand in, your whole fist, feel the delicate membrane, those child’s lips that a woman’s poes has, that is sensitivity!”
She took his finger and forced it into her vagina, winced as his fingernail touched something soft. He pulled his hand away, walked out onto the stoep, leaned back and thrust his face into the rain until it ran saltily into his mouth. When he lowered his head, she was standing beside him, barefoot, sipping his abandoned beer.
‘shit, Lyd, that beer must be really flat.”
“I want to taste like a man, all sour.”
“If you want to drink beer, I’ll pour you a fresh one.”
“I want it to be flat, like a man’s breath.” She sipped, pulled her mouth in distaste. “Would you kill him for me?”
“Lydia . . .”
“If you were a real man, you would have killed him on the spot, right there in the mall, splatter his brains against a window, watch his blood running all over the floor.”
“Joking? He took your woman, he fucked your wife, made you listen to him doing it. I became his property, even my screams were his instrument. Now, you’re a man, you believe in honour and all that kind of kak . . .”
“Lydia, stop it.”
“You know what he called me as he was fucking me?”
“For fuck’s sake, Lydia!”
“He called me a nice wild half-kaffir cunt, a lekker wilde Boesman poes.”
Silas grabbed Lydia by the arms and shook her. The glass of beer fell from her hands. She kissed him on the mouth, held him close to her, and sucked his tongue into her mouth the way she did when she was really passionate. She tasted of hops, of bitter fruit. She gasped, then leaned up against him, her head against his chest, weeping, making gentle dancing movements with her feet. He cradled her head, astonished by how much taller he was. He glanced down the slenderness of her back, saw the slow pool of blood spreading on the floor, saw his heavy shoes immersed in its dark glow, saw her feet dancing, delicate little steps, on the jagged edges of the broken beer glass.
After what seemed like the longest hour of his life, Silas got Lydia to hospital.
On the stoep, she had clung to him, weeping silently, ignoring his pleas to stop dancing, she was cutting herself up badly, she would bleed to death. In the end, he had to heave her up into his arms, as if she was still the slender, weightless young girl he had carried to his bed, long before they were married, a romantic gesture that made her giggle and spoiled their sex, that first time, in his room in the backyard of his mother’s house (he remembered now, of all things, how the hastily drawn curtains had kept the sun out, the way an animal is kept at bay). He staggered to the settee, where he laid Lydia down, exhausted by the dead weight of her limp body. He listened to her weeping, softly now, saw the blood slowly seeping from her feet into the white linen slipover covers that he had chosen and that she had warned were impractical.
Silas had to rouse himself, dispelling the memory of that miraculous young love. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, tasted the sweetness of the young Lydia’s skin, then realized with horror that there was blood on his hands and on his clothes. He called an ambulance, told the woman on the emergency line that it was urgent, his wife had cut herself, an accident, that it was serious, she was bleeding “profusely”.
The woman sounded dubious. How had the accident happened, she wanted to know, did his wife have any other injuries, was there anyone else in the house, children, domestic workers, any neighbours nearby?
“Please, lady, we need an ambulance!” he shouted, forgetting how his politics had drummed out of him the use of words such as “lady”. It struck him that the woman mistrusted him, that she thought this was just another case of domestic violence and was trying to gauge the danger to the victim, and that perhaps he did sound guilty, an abusive husband filled with the usual remorse. He begged her to send an ambulance, she could interrogate him afterwards.
He put the phone down, listened to Lydia’s weeping change its tempo, becoming slower, hoarser, saw the glaze in her eyes and was afraid she was going into shock. He went in search of something he could use to staunch the bleeding, bed sheets that he could rip up and wrap around her feet, towels, one of his crisp blue shirts perhaps. He realized vaguely that this was a desperate, mumbo-jumbo solution, subconsciously inspired by something he had seen on TV or in a movie, that she urgently needed real medical attention. Surprised at how very seldom he went into the linen room, a remnant of the house’s once opulent intentions, he took two clean towels from a rack and swaddled Lydia’s feet in their comforting thickness.
He watched the towels darken, a slow crimson seepage, and was filled with silent panic that he felt he dare not betray, not to Lydia the victim, not again. He could not once more scream and weep louder than her, just as he had done nearly twenty years ago, when his outburst of rage and futile horror had earned him a dismissive blow to the head from one of the cops. But once again he heard those deep, low groans, Lydia in agony, Lydia wanting to die, and he would not let her die here, in their home, before his eyes. He sat down on the settee, raised her feet onto his lap, and used his cellphone to call Alec. Brother-in-law, friend, cool, laconic Alec who never seemed to hurry but was so quick at everything.
“Lydia’s had an accident, we need to get her to a hospital, the fucken ambulance is taking for ever!”
In his mind, the circumstances of Lydia’s injuries were already being mitigated. Her wounds were not self-inflicted, not provoked by his obsession with remembering the past, it had been a freak accident, it had happened because she wanted to drink beer and hated the taste, and he had criticized her for drinking flat beer. Ja, a small, trivial thing like that, and the glass went flying, fell, flung, who knows? You know how she is, bra, how they all are, the Oliphant women, with their anger, slow in coming but fucken volcanic when it’s there, broer. Shit, you know what an Oliphant temper is like!
He addressed Alec mentally, not so much to rehearse an excuse, but to debate with himself how the whole thing had happened. The arrival of Alec and Gracie saved him from creating a lie in his mind. It had taken only fifteen minutes for them to get from a township west of Johannesburg to Silas and Lydia’s home on the other side of the city.
‘drove like fuck!” Alec said, explaining the near miracle of making it there so quickly.
Jackson and Mam Agnes were on their way as well. Mikey was driving them, Gracie said, somewhat surprised that Mikey could drive and that Jackson allowed anyone else behind the wheel of “his baby”, that monstrous old car.
Christ, they always do this, mobilize the whole family at the first distress call from any one of them, Silas thought. They were hurrying indoors, and Gracie was still calm, politely solicitous, after all, what could have gone wrong that an Oliphant couldn’t handle?
In the living-room light she saw that Silas was covered in blood, saw the congealed trail across the carpet, saw Lydia with her feet propped up on pillows, the steady ooze of blood staining the settee. Her eyes swept the room, searching for something hidden, some explanation no matter how sinister other than, ‘silas did this to Lydia.”
Gracie’s shock immobilized all three of them, until she herself shouted at them to move.
Alec and Silas carried Lydia to the car, Alec’s own grand old Mercedes-Benz that he would not sell, stretched her out on the back seat, a pillow propped up against the door to support her back, while Silas held her swaddled feet on his lap.
“Not to the clinic where she works,” Silas had the presence of mind to say. Too many questions, too much delay.
“Go to the Park Lane,” Gracie said. She knew her way around the city, in spite of not being native to it, knew where the private clinics were, where the 24-hour casualty would provide instant attention, at a price.
“How long ago did you call the ambulance?” Gracie asked.
“Twenty, twenty-five minutes ago,” he answered.
‘damn bastards go left here ” she said.
In between giving Alec precise directions, she cursed the city and its forbidding unfriendliness, cursed the ambulances that never arrived, the police who weren’t around when needed, the country that was going to hell, a government that didn’t care, not sparing a thought for Silas’s anguish, for the fact that he had helped to bring that government to power and now worked for it. She heard Lydia’s weeping give way to a low, animal moan, saw her sister’s eyes shut against a pain she could almost feel herself, unaware that this physical pain was Lydia’s way of displacing a much deeper, unfathomable agony.
Alec got them to the entrance of the clinic’s trauma ward within seven minutes.
‘seven fucking minutes flat,” he would say afterwards.
Lydia was to remain in hospital for three weeks. For the first few days, her plastered feet were raised in traction to prevent blood clots from forming, and having her limbs suspended in the air like that made her look gravely ill. The doctor said she was fortunate, she had not severed any arteries, but she had cut into one of the tendons, and this would require some attention. Mercifully, her blood loss was not that bad, given the severity of the cuts. Good that she had been brought in so quickly.
“But, God, she did need some stitching, over a hundred, you want to count them?” the doctor asked jocularly, addressing himself to Mikey, whom he thought capable of responding with quick empathy. In the circle of gloomy adults, the young man seemed most likely to bring some levity, make the poor suffering woman smile a bit.
Mikey feared that the doctor’s attempt to cheer Lydia up would have the opposite effect, drawing them all into that ritual of mawkish intimacy that he had seen them sink into, especially Mam Agnes and Aunt Gracie. They were always looking for opportunities to “let loose the waterworks’, he’d heard Jackson say once. Give them a tragedy and they’ll give you the tears.
“That’s my father’s job,” Mikey said, in answer to the doctor’s question. “In any case, I’m not sure when last my mom washed her feet.”
Lydia offered a muttered protest, in spite of her pain, Silas the merest smile. Both knew immediately that Mikey’s offhand humour was an attempt to resist being drawn into any display of emotion, he had never been a “hugger and kisser”, even as a child. He had done what was expected of him when he arrived along with Jackson and Mam Agnes, he had embraced his mother and squeezed his father’s shoulder. Now he stood up against the wall, so very obviously apart from the rest.
Mam Agnes, momentarily bewildered by this remote, aloof Mikey, tried to draw him back into their tearful fold. She wiped away a tear, and said, “Get away you!” in light-hearted defence of her daughter. Gracie blew her nose, while Alec snickered in a mockingly effeminate way that Gracie vowed silently to make him pay for later.
“You’re right, young man,” the doctor said, “leave the details to the adults, you just enjoy your mom while she’s a captive. She’s a tough woman, she’ll be all right.” And turning to Silas, he added, “You know what, Mr Ali? Your wife has got such lovely feet, you should get a plastic surgeon in here to look at them, once the swelling’s gone down and the stitches are out. Would be a shame to leave her all scarred.”
Lydia blushed, shutting her eyes to hide her embarrassment and to ward off a sharp pain, which came now in spasms, despite the constant doses of painkillers she was being given.
“Fokken busybody,” Gracie said under her breath, when the doctor had gone.
Mam Agnes straightened Lydia’s pillow, while Gracie fussed with the flowers at the bedside, trying to fit the huge bouquet that Alec had bought against her advice into the small vase he’d found in the shop on the ground floor.
Each night, her family gathered around her, Silas and Mikey, Jackson and Mam Agnes, Gracie and Alec, all trying to maintain the cheerful tone that the doctor had set the night she was brought in. Mikey kissed his mother on the cheek and then took up his usual, sentinel position against the wall. One night, Gracie urged him to sit on the bed by his mother. “What else are children good for but to comfort their parents?” He sat down next to Lydia, and impulsively she drew him close to her. He seemed to yield, relaxing his stiff body, resting his head on her chest with a tenderness that belied his tall, gruff appearance. With Lydia’s feet still raised, they resembled an oddly chaste couple, awkwardly trying to be close.
Silas stood about uncomfortably, excluded by this uncharacteristic display of affection between mother and son. Soon his discomfort infected the others. Gracie, for want of something to say, repeated what the doctor had said, how lucky Lydia was. Alec still shook his head at the miracle of it all.
“All this damage was done by one of those glasses we gave you last Christmas?” he asked.
‘shit, it’s that Swazi stuff, the walls are so thick they break them to use as weapons,” Alec said.
Gracie feared that her husband would launch into a long and inappropriate technical explanation of the Swazi glass-making industry and cut him short with one of her glances. He grinned and kept quiet, stifling his impulse to say to Silas, “Christ, a real cutting Oliphant look. I bet Lydia still snys you with them, hey?” But he had said this so often before, that everyone knew what he meant by the way he was grinning. The Oliphant women, Mam Agnes, Lydia, Gracie, and even Martha, who had married a Canadian and lived in fucken cold Toronto, had eyes so sharp they could slice the skin off your face. No one seemed to mention Mireille, the youngest daughter, any more. A silence had enclosed her name and her being, ever since she went to live with Martha, and even guileless Alec knew better than to ask why Mireille had vanished, in word and body, from the close world of the Oliphant family here at home.
As if prompted by Alec’s unspoken curiosity about the accident “What really happened? Why don’t you tell us?” his attitude implied Silas said that it had been a freak accident. Lydia, freeing herself from Mikey’s limp embrace for a moment, nodded her head in agreement. They both looked evasive, as if they had rehearsed their responses. They were avoiding something, trying to deny even to themselves that something dreadful had happened, something capable of precipitating such an accident. Mikey burrowed his head deep into his mother’s breasts, trying to hide the scornful look on his face.
“Age nee,” Mam Agnes said, determined to change the subject. If Lydia and Silas wanted to discuss the accident, let them do so of their own free will. She gently chided Mikey, “What is this, going on like a baby? You are eighteen now, nearly nineteen, in fact, and you still want to suck Mama’s titties, hey Mikey?”
Mikey had always been friendly and respectful towards his grandparents, willingly doing chores and carrying out errands, but never close enough to exchange the kind of banter that Mam Agnes was inviting now. But he sensed that she wanted to change the subject, and that she wanted to rescue Silas from the silence he had fallen into.
“As long as they’re not yours, Ouma, I don’t like long-life milk,” he answered.
The brittle humour of their nightly visits was restored. His cheeky response evoked good-natured laughter from them all. Only Gracie gave Silas and Lydia quick, searching looks, wiping the involuntary smile from Silas’s face and returning him to his sombre mood. Then Jackson said it was time to go, and kissed his daughter on her cheeks. This was the signal for the others to say goodbye, and leave Silas and Lydia alone for a while. Mikey slipped off the bed in the slanted, gangling manner of his youth, embarrassed in turn now that his parents wanted a few moments on their own.
Perhaps he thought they were too old to exchange private endearments, or feared there was something sinister in their closeness now, an avoidance of intimacy rather than its fostering. He sensed it in his mother, the way she held her body in the bed, warding off his father even as they embraced. At home, in the silent house, he felt it in his father as well, the fervour with which he tackled the household duties that Lydia’s absence had thrust on him, cooking and cleaning until he was exhausted. And then sitting in his study until long after midnight, as if trying to avoid having to go to bed. It seemed that Silas did not like being alone in Lydia’s bedroom or her bed.
Mikey stood outside the private ward with the rest of the family, listened to them saying yet again how lucky Lydia was that she and Silas had medical aid and could afford a private ward in a private clinic. She was being spared the horrors of a government hospital like the Helen Joseph. Jackson and Mam Agnes recounted their own travails in an even worse institution, the old Coronation Hospital, where you went in half-well and came out half-dead. At least now that apartheid was gone, black and white suffered equally.
Mikey smiled as if he had experienced and therefore understood the justice in all of this, how the awfulness of being a patient in a government hospital united black and white. You smile too much, his grandfather Jackson had once said. When his father emerged from the glassed-in ward, Mikey knew that whatever it was that separated his parents a shadow, a word, a name was still there, and that it would be there the next night when they all returned to visit, and that sooner or later they would no longer be able to hide it from the others.
Copyright ” 2001 by Achmat Dangor. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
by Achmat Dangor
1. A chance encounter with Lieutenant Du Boise, the policeman who raped his wife, forces Silas Ali and his family to confront the pain of their past in Johannesburg. One character later reflects, ‘more women were raped in this city than anywhere else in the world. The hyperbole of our new struggles’ (p. 77). Now that the horrors of apartheid have been smothered, what are the “new struggles’? Are these survivors simply living in a different world, or has their new freedom also made them different, incompatible people? Do you believe that these conflicts are specific to the middle-class Ali family, or do they represent the struggles of a new generation of South Africans? How do their conflicts reflect those more popularly chronicled in the domestic fiction of European and American writers?
2. Consider the nature of sex in this novel.
Why is it important to the story that each character’s sexual exploits are recalled and described? What does sex mean to Lydia? Consider her imagined lovemaking with Sister Catherine and Cathy the Chinese woman and her desire for “the death of her sexual being” (p. 248). What does sex mean to Silas? What are his views about women? Finally, how is sex reflective of the culture? How is it used both to conquer and to liberate? How is it linked to apartheid?3. Discuss the relationship between Silas and Lydia. What has brought them to their loveless impasse? Is there tenderness between them? How are Lydia’s feelings about Silas related to being raped, and how did this incident color her perception of men? Consider her comments on page 123: “It’s like [Du Boise] raped me on your behalf, so that one day I would live with him through you. When you are inside me, and around me, it feels like Du Boise. He made you his instrument.” Why is Silas incapable of consoling her? Compare and contrast the way they deal with suffering and the past. What do you think of Lydia’s assertion, on page 251: “Only women, wombed beings, can carry the dumb tragedy of history around with them”?4. Several incidents of incest occur, or nearly occur, throughout the novel. Reading his mother’s diary, Michael is afraid to find mention of an incident involving him and his aunt Mireille, both of whom were caught together “playing Gandhi” (p. 32). Was their game innocent–a pure expression of love–or a substitution for forbidden sex? How has this incident affected Michael’s relationships with women, especially Vinu, who confesses an affair with her father? Can you sympathize with Vinu seeing beauty in her sexual relationship with her father? How do you explain Lydia’s carnal impulses toward her son in chapter 15? To what extent do you believe that Michael reciprocates these Oedipal longings? Finally, what do you think of the apartheid-era attitude that suggests that “coloureds are used to living very close to each other” (p. 240) as a veiled explanation for rape and incest among “coloureds’? Does incest have a more profound, symbolic meaning here?
5. Discuss the Alis’ “code of silence” on the day Lydia returns from the hospital. “They would think of it as that day in their minds . . . when they sat trapped in their separate spaces, unable to reach out to each other, unable to express outrage or assert innocence, unable to accuse, justify or recriminate” (p. 151). Why are they unable to communicate? What are the consequences of this “peace through amnesia” (p. 153)? How does Silas’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee reflect his cold objectivity in dealing with his family?
6. When you hear of the atrocities during the time of apartheid and discover that Silas was part of an underground resistance, how do you take his comment on page 97, “Ja, in many ways it was great back then, a simpler, more wholesome life”? Did you reach an adequate understanding of apartheid from reading this novel? Where is the residue of apartheid most apparent in the story, both physically and in attitudes?
7. After Du Boise raped her, Lydia “knew instinctively” (p. 119) that she would be pregnant with his child. Yet while visiting Uncle Amin and his cousins, Michael feels a profound kinship to Silas’s family. “Lydia’s diary and the image of Du Boise that permeates it, seem so distant, a piece of fiction, far too melodramatic to be believable” (p. 194). Is it possible that Lydia is wrong and Michael is truly the son of Silas? Where does Silas stand on this issue of paternity? How does his relationship with his own father affect his relationship with Michael? What does Moulana Ismail mean when he says, “You conquer a nation by bastardizing its children” (p. 204)?8. After acquiring a gun to avenge Vinu by killing her father, Michael asks himself, “Why am I doing this? Not to avenge Vinu. Killing her father will not eradicate his sin or her complicity, willing or unwilling” (p. 242). What, then, are the reasons that propel Michael toward these murders? How does his decision reflect the ideas of justice and accountability presented in the novel?
9. Lydia searches her son’s room and finds a collection of rare signed books, all of them inscribed with author signatures or owners’ names. She believes, “He steals rare books, for the sake of it, for the pleasure of possessing something beautiful and forbidden, for the simple daring of the act?” (pp. 249–250). Is this why Michael steals? What else does this secret reveal about Michael’s character?
10. Discuss the significance of chapter 26, Silas’s fiftieth birthday party. How is this setting reflective of the “new South Africa”? Is Silas’s present of his father’s diary an appropriate or inappropriate gift? How did you judge his reaction to the gift? Was it genuine or for show? Discuss his reaction to seeing Lydia and Jo’o having sex on the billiards table.
11. Discuss Kate’s character and what she reveals about Silas, Michael, and Lydia through her encounters and history with them individually. What does she represent about the white society, or society in general, in South Africa?
12. Judging from the few clues and glimpses we receive of Du Boise, what kind of man do you find him to be? In his quest for a public confession and amnesty, do you believe he is genuinely interested in repenting, or does he simply wish to be exonerated by law? Is he a villain or a tragic figure?
13. Nelson Mandela, though on the periphery of this story, is a recurring character, mentioned both in admiration and frustration. Judging by the characters’ reactions to this crucial figure in South African politics, how is he regarded? Discuss Michael’s encounter with Mandela in chapter 27.
14. Would you describe Bitter Fruit as a political novel? How well does Dangor balance the social and political aspects of the novel? How do they relate to each other? What are your impressions of the “new South Africa” versus the old South Africa?
15. How does Dangor characterize the city of Johannesburg? What does it mean to Silas? To Michael?16. Explain the significance of the title, Bitter Fruit. What does the fig tree outside the Ali house, with its overripe fruit, represent?
17. Recently, in the wake of apartheid, we have seen a profusion of novels by South African writers. Do you believe it is true that societies in conflict produce more artists and stronger art? Discuss the value of a national literature to help come to terms with a difficult past. Does Bitter Fruit leave you with a sense of hope or sorrow for the future of South Africans?
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee; Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda; The Stranger by Albert Camus; The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut; The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera; Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong”o; Snakepit by Moses Isegawa; The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan; The Healing Land by Rupert Isaacson; Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela; I Write What I Like: Selected Writings by Steve Biko; Before I Forget by Andr” Brink (to be published in October 2005); Crabwalk by G”nter Grass; The Known World by Edward P. Jones