When, in October 1999, J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize with Disgrace, the white South African writer became the first person to be awarded the honour for a second time. His excoriating novel tells the story of a white, middle-aged, male university professor’s personal and professional downfall set against the backdrop of the uneasy, unresolved fractures of a post-apartheid South Africa.
Writing in The Guardian only a month later, the British critic Maya Jaggi highlighted the fact that despite a recent ‘burgeoning’ of new South African fiction, little of what was reaching readers in the UK was written by Black writers; the overwhelming perspective was still that of white authors and characters. Even in a novel as excellent as Coetzee’s ‘parable of the New South Africa’, Jaggi writes, ‘black characters are pivotal but enigmatic, their souls opaque.’ She then goes on to name Achmat Dangor’s Kafka’s Curse – which had recently been published to critical acclaim in both the US and across Europe – as a work by a non-white South African writer that bafflingly hadn’t yet found a UK publisher.
Fast-forward five years, though, and Bitter Fruit, Dangor’s next novel, brought him international attention. Not only did it find an eager UK publisher in the form of Atlantic Books, but it was nominated for the 2004 Booker Prize; the only work on that year’s shortlist written by a person of colour. Most importantly, though, was the fact that, as Barbara Trapido – incidentally, another white South African writer – pointed out in her review in The Independent, Dangor’s novel ‘fill[ed] a gap’ in the literary landscape: that of the Black and ‘coloured’ (i.e. mixed race) South African dissident experience.
Set in Johannesburg in 1998, during the final stretch of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, and as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is preparing to issue its report – ‘a twilight period, an interregnum between the old century and the new,’ as Dangor describes it in the novel, ‘between the first period of political hope and the new period of “managing the miracle”’ – Bitter Fruit tells the tangled, traumatic story of one ‘coloured’ family burdened by the long, dark shadows cast by the evils of apartheid. Twenty years ago, Silas Ali – son of a white Afrikaans mother and a Muslim father – was a young activist with uMkhonto we Sizwe, meaning ‘Spear of the Nation’ and commonly known as MK, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Today he’s a 49-year-old government-employed lawyer, working in the Ministry of Justice, liaising with the TRC. He’s married to Lydia, a nurse, with whom he has a 20-year-old son, Mikey.
Despite outward appearances of solidarity, the family is riven with cracks; originating two decades earlier when Lydia was brutally raped by a white, Afrikaner policeman, Lieutenant François Du Boise. As punishment for her husband’s involvement with the MK, du Boise shackled Silas in the back of a police van, forcing him to listen to his wife’s screams as she was violated.
Back in the present, in the book’s opening chapter, Silas is shocked to encounter Du Boise in the supermarket; this figure of dread, ‘a ghost from the past’, is now an outwardly unremarkable, frail pensioner doing his meagre weekly shop. Their encounter is nothing if not an anti-climax: Silas asks if the old man remembers him, Du Boise says no and walks away, leaving the younger man bubbling with rage, which he immediately takes home to Lydia. Unable to deal with both Du Boise’s re-emergence in their lives and what she sees as her husband co-opting her pain as his tragedy, Lydia undertakes a particularly brutal act of self-harm, lacerating the soles of her feet with broken glass; the physical pain of her injuries a ‘way of displacing a much deeper, unfathomable agony’.
Played out in three distinct acts – ‘Memory’, ‘Confession’, and ‘Retribution’ – and addressing the issue of history and inheritance at the point at which the personal and political inevitably collide, the novel is imbued with the gravitas and violence of an Oedipal tragedy. Unlike other more recent novels that have more prominently signalled the debt they owe to ancient texts in enacting a similar resonance – I’m thinking of works like Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017), a contemporary take on Sophocles’ Antigone that swaps the ancient Theban civil war for Britain’s early 21-century’s battle against Islamic fundamentalism; or Michael Hughes’s Country (2018), which transposed Homer’s ‘Iliad’ to the Irish Troubles – Dangor’s evocation of Sophocles’ play appear in flashes and flickers; namely in the rape, incest, and murder that become the plot points of this dark and snarled tale. That these taboo acts of violence feel like the inescapable, inevitable ‘bitter fruit’ of South Africa’s ‘contorted history’ only adds to the horror.