INTO THE DARK CHAMBER: THE NOVELIST AND SOUTH AFRICA
Date: January 12, 1986, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 13, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By J. M. Coetzee; J. M. Coetzee, whose most recent novel is ”Life & Times of Michael K,” teaches at the University of Cape Town.
WHEN a colony is founded, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in ”The Scarlet Letter,” ”among [ the ] earliest practical necessities [ is ] to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Prisons – Hawthorne called them the black flowers of civilized society – burgeon all over the face of South Africa. They may not be sketched or photographed, under threat of severe penalty. I have no idea whether laws against visual representations of prisons exist in other countries. Very likely they do. But in South Africa such laws have a particular symbolic appropriateness, as though it were decreed that the camera lens must shatter at the moment it is trained on certain sites; as though the passer-by shall have no means of confirming that what he saw – those buildings rising out of the sands in all their sprawl of gray monotony – was not a mirage or a bad dream.
In popular culture, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) was transformed into a caricature. This documentary, which is fairly liberal in its political orientation, was considered too shocking to screen and was subsequently marketed as an exploitation film. Numerous racist tropes are in play in these lurid posters.
By Vincent Smith, an American artist: Elmina Castle (1972). Elmina Castle was a trading post established by the Portuguese in 1482 which became a major port in the slave trade.
I found the image above while I was researching Cape Coast Castle, another Portuguese fort, which was taken over by the British and used as a collection and embarkation point for enslaved Africans. By the time you return to class on Wednesday you should know how that setting figures in Yaa Gyasi’s historical novel/ family saga Homegoing.
I was initially hesitant to share the image below with you but given its significance and the fact that it is the creation of a notable American artist, Andrew Wyeth (son of famed artist/illustrator N.C. Wyeth and father of Jamie) I reconsidered.
The title of this painting is Barracoon (1976). A barracoon is essentially the space described by Gyasi on the lower floor of Cape Coast Castle.
What troubles me about this painting is its idealizing eroticism. Given what conditions in the barracoons were actually like, this depiction of a feminine form seems like a lie, an effort to tantalize the viewer rather than confront them. This objection has to do with history and power instead of form. How would a painting of the barracoons based on Giyasi’s imagery look?
A bronzed and Brylcreemed Victor Mature plays Ken Duffield, an American soldier turned white hunter, in this turgid colonial romance that also stars a benzedrine-thin Janet Leigh as a former showgirl on holiday with her pompous billionaire fiancé.
When the dreaded Mau-Mau horribly butcher his wife and son with the aid of one of his Kikuyu “house boys,” Jeroge (Bermuda-born actor Earl Cameron), Ken vows to avenge them. He escorts Linda Latham (Leigh) and the increasingly erratic and demanding Sir Vincent Brampton on safari, intending to use the hunting expedition to locate his nemesis and kill as many Mau-Mau as possible.
Also features Zanzibari child actor Juma as Odongo, a tagalong scamp prone to bouts of loud, forced laughter.
There are a number of British Pathé newsreels about the Mau Mau uprising available online and they’re worth screening in part because they evince clear parallels with our own moment.
It’s strange to see Dirk Bogarde– generally more well-known for the films he did with Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey or even The Night Porter— in this late imperial romance. Though there’s room here for a soft liberal critique of British colonialism in Africa– Bogarde’s Alan Howard is poisoned by his hatred of all black Kenyans in the aftermath of his brother’s murder by the Mau-Mau– the film argues for a kind of enlightened paternalism. There were a whole string of films devoted to this version of the Empire as an ultimately beneficent if sporadically violent enterprise (Zulu, Something of Value, etc.) during the era of decolonization.
Most of these images were made by George Rodger, who also documented the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. What would they look like if they were made by Black Kenyans?
That night we were divided into several groups. Then we went into the village and we started to attack.
Did you kill anybody?
During the fight, you know, I can’t tell you whether I killed anybody, but I certainly did attack. At the time there was no peace, it was just fighting. One bullet passed close to me. I shot twelve bullets. I was wounded three times. One here on my leg… One in my side… And one bullet passed this way… Another one just missed my head.
Was there no other way to get your freedom other than killing?
There was no other way. We had to fight to show we didn’t want to be colonized. There was nothing else we could have done.
What do you think about the British now?
I feel we are children of the same mother. Today we shook hands… And you are white! At the time we could not even touch each other.
What do you think about the time that the British were here in Kenya as the colonial government?
Apart from ruling us with an iron fist they helped develop this country.
Would the country have been better if they hadn’t been here?
At the time there was no school. I’ve never been to a class in my life. But now even young girls are in school.