In the latest article in our series TBR: The Booker Revisited, we shine a light on a South African novel imbued with the gravitas and violence of an Oedipal tragedy

‘TBR: The Booker Revisited’ is an editorial partnership between The Booker Prize Foundation and Lit Hub. Read more articles in this series here

Publication date and time: Published

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. 

Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor

Disillusionment seeps through the novel. There’s a sense of something curdled, decaying, rotten to the core. Crime rates are rising, the economy is struggling, AIDS is sweeping the country

The other ‘bitter fruit’ here is Mikey himself. Although raised by Silas, he was conceived during Lydia’s rape; the monstrous Du Boise is his biological father. Not that anyone speaks about this openly; while Lydia spends three weeks in hospital as her shredded feet begin to heal, Mikey discovers his mother’s diaries, within which she’s recorded the truth about his paternity. From this moment, the focus shifts, moving from Silas’s point of view – and the ‘crisis’ he feels he’s facing ‘of an inscrutable son and an inconsolable wife’ – to that of the younger man. It’s Mikey who increasingly takes centre stage, transformed in the process from a golden child of the ‘new’ South Africa – an excellent student, well-liked by all, and very physically attractive too (he also embarks on an affair with an older, bisexual woman, one of his father’s colleagues) – into a dangerous agent of retribution. Consumed by a desire to wreak vengeance, Mikey ‘can no longer think of a future without confronting the past’.  

Lydia, meanwhile, resolutely refuses to comply with this practice – in essence, that of the TRC. It’s not that she doesn’t want to remember; it’s that what happened to her is still an open sore that blights her day-to-day life: ‘There are certain things people do not forget, or forgive,’ we’re told late in the novel. ‘Rape is one of them.’ And she firmly believes that her husband cannot begin to comprehend her suffering. ‘You think Archbishop Tutu has ever been fucked up his arse against his will?’ she asks Silas crudely when he tells her that she should testify to the TRC. 

As Chris Power, writing in The Times, surmised on Bitter Fruit’s publication, Dangor’s ‘powerful novel is depressingly clear-eyed, with an almost hopeless diagnosis of South Africa’s problems’. Not just regarding the potential shortcomings and blind-spots of the TRC, but more broadly. The so-called ‘rainbow nation’ of a post-apartheid society isn’t the idyl everyone hoped for. Having called the paramedics after Lydia injures herself, her sister Gracie ‘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’.  

Such disillusionment seeps through the novel. There’s a sense of something curdled, decaying, rotten to the core. Crime rates are rising, the economy is struggling, AIDS is sweeping the country. ‘At least now apartheid was gone, black and white suffered equally,’ Dangor writes, wryly.  

Achmat Dangor

Given Dangor’s own politics, the extent of his characters’ cynicism, and the bleakness of his portrait of South Africa might come as a surprise to some readers. Born into an Indian and Muslim family in Johannesburg in 1948, Dangor was always a steadfast opponent of apartheid. He became active in Black student politics and the Black Consciousness Movement while reading English Literature at Rhodes University, and went on to become a member of Black Thoughts, a literary group that held poetry readings in townships. His activities didn’t escape the notice of the authorities. Between 1973 and 1979 his work was officially banned in South Africa. And in the mid-1980s, he was detained by the security police for two days. ‘It was terrifying because I didn’t know if I would get out of there,’ he told Stuart Jeffries in an interview in The Guardian when Bitter Fruit was published. Dangor long combined his writing and his activism – between 2007 and 2013, he was Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a role that distracted him from his writing even though both activities sprang from the same source.  

Lydia’s rape, Dangor told Jeffries, ‘is a metaphor for the abuse of ordinary people in South Africa’. Despite its lofty ambitions, the TRC dealt mostly in high-profile cases. ‘It was set up in part to ensure the security police had the opportunity to get some sort of amnesty,’ he explained, and indeed, Du Boise’s application for leniency is a further source of intense pain for Lydia.  

Fascinatingly, the last thing Dangor told Jeffries was that he planned to write a prequel to the novel with the villain Du Boise at its centre. ‘I want to know what motivated him,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s story needs to be told.’ Alas, this didn’t come to pass. Dangor did publish two final books – the short story collection Strange Pilgrimages (2013); and a final novel, Dikeledi: Child of Tears, No More (2017), which charts the lives of an ordinary family living under apartheid via the stories of its womenfolk – but neither took up Du Boise’s story.  

A year after Dangor died – aged seventy-one, in 2020 – another South African writer, Damon Galgut, won the Booker Prize with The Promise, the title of which refers to an oath sworn by Rachel, the matriarch of a white family who live on a farm out in the veld, before she died, to give a house on their land to their Black servant, Salome. What follows, over time, is the deferral of this promise by Rachel’s descendants that we understand comes to stand for a broader, more all-encompassing reneging on the moral promise of a fresh start made by the country to its inhabitants. The only member of the family who feels any real shame about this is Rachel’s 13-year-old daughter Amor. ‘History has not yet trod on her,’ Galgut writes evocatively, implicitly acknowledging the weight of inheritance, both individual and collective. Or, as Mikey puts it in Bitter Fruit: ‘History is memory.’  

Lucy Scholes is a critic based in London and Senior Editor at McNally Editions 

Winning author Damon Galgut at the 2021 Booker Prize Awards Ceremony