Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Bitter Fruit.
Rape. Incest. Murder. Memory. Confession. Retribution. The first three themes - the mutilated personal experience of apartheid - are explored in Achmat Dangor's novel under the headings of the latter three stages of evolution of South African identity. Such is the legacy left to the New South Africa explored through the story of a "coloured¨ family that is, like the rest of the nation, inextricably shackled to a past defined by race while it grapples to come to terms with its current maimed, crippled self.
Bitter Fruit is set in Johannesburg during the last months of Nelson Mandela's presidency. Silas Ali, the son of an Indian Muslim father and a European mother, was a member of the ANC. He now has a highly visible government job, as a lawyer working on the concluding report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Silas' wife, Lydia, also from a "coloured¨ family, was raised as a Catholic in Natal and is a trained nurse. Lydia was never a willing part of the anti-apartheid struggle but turns out to be a victim of it: she only learns of Silas' involvement in the MK, the armed wing of the ANC, from one of his associates well after he first joined, and is then raped by a white security policeman in her home while Silas is beaten up in a van outside as a warning to him about his activist identity. Their son, Mikey, a university student, evolves as the book's central character as he learns of his parents' pasts and has to come to terms with his own identity through either an act of reconciliation or retribution.
Betrayal - both public and personal - is an intrinsic part of each character's life. Silas feels betrayed by the post-apartheid government, his colleagues and himself. As the resistance to apartheid ended in compromise, "Gave us the government, kept the money,"
Silas' destiny is to watch the dysfunction of his own life while it is projected
as something vastly different on television, "as if it was foreign, fictional." Lydia feels betrayed by Silas' decision to become involved in the anti-apartheid movement without consulting her and its resulting endangerment of their family. Lydia's rape by Du Boise, the white security policeman, is also in her mind a rape by Silas. It irrevocably alters their relationship. Silas betrays Lydia again when he confronts Du Boise twenty years later and resurrects his presence in their lives. Her fragile sense of peace is shattered, and Lydia's two decades of tacit grief flood the house, leaving the entire family permanently splintered.
Mikey surreptitiously reads his mother's diary and discovers that he is the fruit of her rape: this leads to a radical dissolution of his sense of self as he grapples with his newly-discovered identity. All aspects of betrayal are portrayed in this reckoning of South Africa's past and present - Dangor even touches on a relative's involvement in the violence perpetrated against Silas and Lydia.
Sex is a dominant and often disturbing force throughout the novel. Sex is
used as an act of rebellion and a means for repression. Incestuous and
near-incestuous incidents occur; some are consensual while others are breaches
of trust. Dangor is equivocal about them, as he is about the use of sex as an
instrument of subversion: "You conquer a nation by bastardizing its children,"
an Imam tells Mikey, while Silas describes Vinu, a friend of Mikey's and another
compromised child of South Africa, as "a bushie goddess. Beauty honed on the same bastard whetstone as I. We will make no more like her,
or like Michael, for that matter. Our ambitions are too ordinary, a house, a
car, a garden. We no longer dream of painful beauty when we make love."
Perhaps the most important part of Bitter Fruit - one that has largely been overlooked by recent reviews of the book - is Mikey's draw to fundamental Islam. He becomes engaged with a group of Islamic activists who help him with his personal acts of vengeance and ultimately offer him rebirth as he takes on a new Muslim identity. In April, at "Pen World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature," Dangor expressed frustration at the Western perception that only people beset by poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are drawn to fundamental Islam. He explained that in South Africa, Muslim fundamentalists comprise an influential contingent, and reminded us that it was powerful enough to prevent Salman Rushdie's plane from landing on South African soil after The Satanic Verses was published. In a conversation during the festival, Dangor told me that Bitter Fruit was scheduled to be published in the United States in 2001. However, after 9/11, publishers refused to launch the book because of its Muslim content.
Mikey's characterization as a gifted student with a disdain for books - a teacher describes "his brilliance as his problem¨ - is a little contrived.
And Dangor's inclusion of base humor about bodily motions seems out of place. The structure and themes of the novel are heavy-handed, perhaps, but Dangor's spare prose and facility for literary experiment make Bitter Fruit a considerable achievement. The novel is a reminder to us of the preoccupation of identity in South Africa and in the rest of the world.
During his self-introduction at a festival panel titled "Africa and The
World: The Writer's Role," Dangor said that despite his various cultural, national and racial affiliations, he is now called "a Muslim writer" in the Western world. Achmat Dangor offers us a prodigious gift in Bitter Fruit, a gift that was denied to American readers first, as related by Dangor, because of 9/11, and then because American publishers felt the contents of the book - rape, murder, incest - were unpalatable to the American reader. It was only this year that Dangor's British publisher, Grove Atlantic Ltd., decided to publish the book through Black Cat, a New York subsidiary. How fortunate for the American reader that such an important book is now available in the United States.