Thursday, June 17, 2010

10. “Burger’s Daughter” by Nadine Gordimer

Year of first publication: 1979
Genre: novel, political novel
Country: South Africa

I must admit that it’s just a coincidence that I am reviewing a South African book when the Football World Cup is on in the rainbow country, but it’s exciting anyway!
The book is set in the 1970s, when apartheid was still plaguing the country. Rosa Burger is the daughter of famous anti-apartheid activist Lionel Burger. Since she was little she has known how to divert the police or hide important information in apparently frivolous conversations. Nonetheless, she has always been considered simply Lionel Burger’s daughter and was never allowed to have an identity of her own. Now all her family is dead: both her parents died in prison and her little brother drowned long ago. Even Baasie, the black child he called her brother, has vanished. In order to appease the discomfort of her father’s moral inheritance and unable to cope with his memory, she decides to travel overseas. In the south of France she leads a completely different life: people don’t know about her and call her la jeune anglaise. She spends her time bathing in the Mediterranean sea and having dinner with her new European friends. At the first reunion with her old companions, she meets Baasie and makes the mistake of kissing him on both cheeks, like they do in France. The absurdity of this action makes her realize how inappropriate she is in Europe. Baasie reminds her that his real name is Zwelinzima, which means “suffering earth”, and not Baasie, a nickname given to him by white people. His father too died in prison because he was a political activist, but people only remember Lionel Burger, the white activist. Baasie-Zwelinzima is in fact tired of living out of white people’s leftovers. Having realized all of this, Rosa Burger goes back to her home country to accept her legacy. The book is therefore not only about the racial conflict in South Africa, but also about the whole nature of commitment.
This is my fourth book by Nadine Gordimer, after A World of Strangers, July’s People and Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. It is one of her most famous works, and deservedly so. Moreover, it was included in Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century, a list compiled at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. It is one of Gordimer’s most political novels: the anti-apartheid activists were communists who came to the idea of abolishing apartheid as a result of their political ideas. Also, Mandela’s ghost floats over the whole book (he was still a prisoner in Robben Island at the time the book came out) and the Soweto Uprising of 1976 is also in there. It is harshly realistic and painful at times: a scene featuring a donkey being flogged by a drunk old black man and an argument in a house in Soweto being the most relevant examples. Burger’s Daughter was initially banned in South Africa and then unbanned because it was finally judged too one-sided to be dangerous. The book is intellectually challenging, with many unmarked quotations from real anti-apartheid activists like Steve Biko or Bram Fischer, but also moving and introspective. What struck me as brilliant is that in the book political activism and everyday life are not separated: several times in the novel political arguments are interrupted by people arriving with food or changing the subject and saying something trivial.
When we watch how South Africa is today we should always remember how it was until not many years ago. Apart from this, Burger’s Daughter is also remarkable for its literary value: the shifts from Rosa’s internal monologue addressed to her semi-lover Conrad to the omniscient narrator and back are proof that Gordimer deserved the Nobel Prize.

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