The Texture of Shadows by Mandla Langa is set in 1989 South Africa, amid murmurs of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the unbanning of national liberation movements by the apartheid state. Not knowing how events will unfold in the country, a group of guerillas of the People’s Army in Angola are infiltrated as couriers carrying a trunk with highly classified contents that could potentially put the lives of those in the liberation movement in jeopardy if it were to land up in the wrong hands.
It is through the events that unfold during the journey to deliver the trunk that we are introduced to the individual guerillas and the horrors of life in Angola, which include a People’s Army that is involved in the torture of its own people. We are also introduced to individuals within the country who are trusted to keep the guerillas safe, as well as the tensions that exist between those who went into exile and those who remained in the country – the exiles and the “inziles”, the guerilla and the political prisoner — are explored carefully, and neither side emerges morally superior in claiming a greater role in the defeat of apartheid. It becomes clear that the guerillas are being followed by members of the apartheid counterinsurgency unit who wish to get hold of the contents of the trunk. We are also introduced to the personalities who make up the apartheid death camp – here the face of evil is exposed as complicated and not easily reducible to moral binaries. None of the characters in this drama allow easy descriptions because there is a fine line between good and evil for those in the underbelly of the war against apartheid.
In this book, Langa articulates the complexities and contradictions of the anti-apartheid struggle through a beautifully crafted narrative that is loyal to the development of the interior lives of the characters, and, often, only a novel permits this. I appreciate that Langa, a former guerilla himself, chose the novel as a form to disrupt the archive on the anti-apartheid struggle.
As important as the biographical work of the anti-apartheid struggle is, and we do have a respectable body of writing on it, the limits of that work, often, the attention given to chronology and accuracy of “historical events as they happened” often denies us the space to focus on how the people who experienced the events felt about them, and it denies space to tell different versions of the struggle. In The Work of the Nation: Heroic Masculinity in South African Autobiographical Writing of the Anti‐Apartheid Struggle”, Elaine Unterhalter rightly notes that the exercise of writing one’s life into political struggle means that “no new version of history can be given, because it is the received version that has driven the commitment and heroism of the authors”. This allows only the telling of “a particular history of the liberation struggle”, which “entails giving oneself to the struggle and reforming oneself in that process” in which the reward is a future history of victory.
In The Site of Memory, novelist Toni Morrison reminds us that the biography carries weight for black people fighting against slavery and colonial occupation. For black people, the biography does two things: it says, “This is my historical life – my singular, special example that this is personal, but that also represents the race”; and that “I write this text to persuade other people – you, the reader, who is probably not black – that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery”. So the importance of the biography as a form of writing back to white supremacy cannot be taken for granted.
What I value of the novel, as Morrison notes elsewhere , is that the novel is generous in that it “is tailored to the character’s thoughts or actions in a way that flags him or her and provides irony, sometimes humour”. The novel allows us to push against the restrictions of time and language. The obsession with time and accuracy often denies us the opportunity to feel.
A character in The Texture of Shadows reflects on the limitations of language when it comes to articulating experiences of violation:
When she reflects on it, it’s all too late. It’s as if it all never happened and she is left with memories, snatches of remembered dialogue, colour, and feeling – especially feeling. Even in the most urgent probing, an interrogation that approximates a session before a panel of torturers, all she can come up with is a series of incidents all connected to her flesh. She remembers things in terms of her body’s recollection of texture, pressure, smell and colour – and of course, taste. These senses operated independently of her conscious understanding of things. There were times of pain, sometimes pleasure; she was back in those days – in that past which she had no volition – like the woman she had read about who could only start understanding that she had been violated in a shack somewhere near the sea when she heard the call of seagulls.
Such moments in the book reminded me of Nthabiseng Motsemme’s work on the silence of black women in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, what she defines as “an encounter with unspeakability”. Motsemme argues that the “TRC assumed that the world was only knowable through words, and thus the basis for beginning a process of healing South Africa’s violent past would be organised through acts of testimony”. She then asks, “What happens when those who have been denied the occasion to tell their stories, and whose bodies and cultures have been systematically violated and dehumanised, discover that there are things that remain unspeakable?”
Perhaps in those stolen moments – between Laura Mdunge and Thulasizwe Ngobese, to Strella’s battle with the ghost of Mabitla, Strella’s genius and terror, Chaplain Nerissa’s clarity in a world of chaos, which deny us the ability to look at the past in simple terms, and robs us of the closure we need with the past in order to believe that the future upon us is bright – in the “devastating patience” that is demanded on us, we find a language for the things that cannot be said. As is it said in the book, “while the future is certain, it’s the past that remains unpredictable”.
Furthermore, while revolutionary struggle means that the characters in the book walk side by side with death, there is careful and utterly delicious attention given to desire and intimacy amid daily betrayal and violence. Tupac Shakur pointed out long ago that “thugs get lonely, too”. In this novel, desire is complicated and at times fatal, but it is not suspended in times of revolution.
We are also shown the possibilities of a transgressive and equitable love in the long-standing relationship between Nerissa and Georgina in one of the few books of this period that pays attention to struggle as a gendered process that affects men and women in particular ways.
In her visceral review, Makhosazana Xaba wrote that Jacob Dlamini’s book Askari “adds to a growing subcategory of books about the struggle that present readers with layered complexity”. These books that make the stomach turn – such as Stephen Ellis’ External Mission: The ANC in Exile, or Paul Trewhla’s Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO, or Ellis and Tsepo Sechaba’s Comrades Against Apartheid – all force us to deal with the unsightly legacy of revolution. None of the events in this novel surprise in the difficult reality that they depict, because all of these books deal with the contradictions of revolution: betrayal, terror and, importantly, with what Dlamini defines as the “fatal intimacies” that defined the struggle.
Langa’s invitation for us to (re)consider the shadows belongs in this important archive.
As Xaba concludes in her review, this literature “screams, limbs in the air, demanding attention … It reminds us that the unexpected and often inexplicable demand our prodding.”
As I read Langa’s dizzying novel, I was reminded of the advice I received from a former Umkhonto weSizwe woman who told me that for one to examine the contradictions of the struggle, “one needs a strong stomach”.
Mandla Langa is in conversation with Imraan Coovadia, the author of Tales of the Metric System at UKZN’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from 7pm on March 21. The discussion, “The Writer as Witness”, will be facilitated by journalist Paddy Harper.
Main Photograph: Mandla Langa – courtesy of The Time of the Writer Festival