Dynamics of being: land as a catalyst of political and cultural law, a comparison of Time Of The Butcherbird and The Stone Country
Asmal et al (1997) stress that “Apartheid (which means ‘apartness’) was fundamentally built on an idea of the irreconcilability of peoples.” (Asmal et al, 51) What one sees in Time of the Butcherbird is an attempt to show how being physically free still creates a feeling of psychological imprisonment in the African. The Stone Country depicts how confinement of one’s physical space creates a microcosm of South African society. In both texts the landscape is a fundamental defining factor of the human condition.
The native’s relationship with the land has and continues to be a metaphor of black/white interaction and is a yardstick with which to judge emancipation. The roots of the land issue are best summed up in the iconic words of Solomon Plaatje when he stated that, “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself not actually a slave but a pariah in the land of his birth.” (Plaatje, 1). Alex La Guma’s texts deal with the pariah mentality that the white man sought to drill into the psyche of the native in order to make him submissive to policies of segregation and to ultimately break his spirit. However, the theme of dispossession that La Guma explores in Time of the Butcherbird goes much further than the passing of the Native Land Act of 1913. Colonialism did much to alienate the African from his land. Lewis and Steyn maintain that “together with European colonial expansion went thinking and practice of racial superiority, which were reflected in mission education specifically during the latter part of the 19th Century.” (Lewis A; Steyn J, 104). What this means is that the issue of land in South Africa has its origins during the era of modernism and is thus a problem that has foreign or external factors of influence. Alex la Guma thus addresses a complex issue beset by political interests that were discriminatory and isolationist. The analysis will start with Time of the Butcherbird as it reflects a society that appears to be free although issues of land and the personal demons of characters plague it. This will be followed by The Stone Country which in many ways is a metaphor of South African life and how functioning in an oppressive landscape is a challenge for both the oppressor and the oppressed.
TIME OF THE BUTCHERBIRD
This novel begins with a stark depiction of the landscape. We are shown a situation in which villagers have been dumped in the middle of nowhere by a government which does not care. The land ‘was not even good enough to be buried in.’ (La Guma, 1). The landscape mimics the dejection of the people. It is not without promise or hope and likewise one believes that the people will find little solace in this unforgiving world. However, it ends with a bit of hope in that the people at least can sing and as such find comfort in melody. The opening sequence also does not specifically mention names but blankets the suffering such that it attains a universal quality to it. We are thus made to understand that the deplorable living conditions touches everyone alike, man, woman and child.
When the character of Edgar Stokes is presented we see a more specific victim of the barren landscape. This travelling salesman is seen as struggling to find genuine humour in the arid conditions and in the demands of his job. He is a man who swears at the heat, who mocks the prayer for rain as it will delay his departure from the town. Edgar Stokes sees the heat as a nuisance, something that hinders his desire to sell his wares and return to his world away from the locals who irritate him. His encounter with Klaas who he needs to help fix the much travelled truck is a case in point: “Here in the countryside he was like a foreigner and he had learnt that he would make no headway with these people unless he submitted to their narrow arrogance.” (La Guma, 4). In a hostile landscape that has parched the area, Edgar Stokes is barren of humour and goodwill. He behaves like a chameleon. He pretends to enjoy the talk with the mechanic though he loathes every extra minute he spends in the town. The situation is no different with the manager’s wife, Mies Kroner. He cannot stand her laugh, her shrill voice. This is a man who finds himself in an unpleasant environment and behaves in turn in an unpleasant manner. However, what sets him apart from the landscape is that he is good at hiding his feelings. The heat is present, terrible in its intensity. However, Edgar Stokes is subtle in his oppression of the people. He will have no association with them other than trading with them for a living. “To be stuck in the bundu again with all these bloody Dutchmen. They’re not like us, modern up to date. Be damned if I’ll go to their bloody service. What you need is a quick way to make a few thousand and start all over again...” (La Guma, 9) One can draw parallels between the landscape and Mr Stokes. Both seek to drain the inhabitants of all life, to consume without giving anything in return. So, the barren landscape of La Guma’s work shows that people can resemble nature in some ways. One can be like Edgar Stokes, a tormentor of people.
It should be emphasised that the barren landscape does not affect all the people in the same way. There are some characters who appear immune to the discomfort as if they live in another world altogether. The Commissioner is one such man. When two of Hlangeni’s representatives appear before him to present their case against their imminent forced removal from the area, the Commissioner’s attire and demeanour say a lot.
Except for the alpaca jacket which he wore in the office, he was a model of starched and expensive neatness from his lean skull to the gleaming toes of his formal shoes. The heat, now or at any time, did not seem to affect him, and he looked tireless and enduring as a camel in a desert. (La Guma, 11)
It is fitting that the narrative voice makes reference to a camel in this simile. This shows that the Commissioner not only feels at home in this unforgiving location, he is somewhat immune to it and will thrive in it for a long time to come – this of course is bad news to the black inhabitants who live a miserable life because of him. When a delegation of elders comes to the Bantu Commissioner’s office Yousaf states that, “the Commissioner will not hear what they say describing their careful if cryptic warning that Africans cannot be annulled since their connections to the land of their ancestors can never be broken as ‘nonsense’ ” (Yousaf, 127) The Commissioner represents the apartheid government and as such it is a comment on the enduring presence of this unwanted rule. His influence goes beyond the calm presence in the office while all those around him are sweating and uncomfortable. We learn from the old shepherd, Madonele, while talking to Shilling Muriel that the Commissioner has even denied the rural community access to water. As such the sheep population has been drastically reduced in the arid landscape. The Commissioner knows that if one controls water in this harsh landscape one controls the people and is thus able to manipulate them. “There was once talk of a windmill and a pump, but then the Commissioner sent the order that we are to be moved from this place. Who would give credit to such a village? Also the people have not planted much because of the order.” (La Guma, 21). The Commissioner is a cunning officer who knows just how to use the unforgiving environment to his advantage. The denial to offer access to water is more potent than using brute force. The order to move is an attempt to break the spirit of the community and we learn that Shilling’s brother is buried in this place – something which is bound to cause confrontation later on in the text. Later in the text we get to understand that Shilling’s loss continues to eat at him. “Hatred sat behind the bleak eyes...hatred crouched like a patient leopard, waiting, but alive with the coursing blood of bitter memory.” (La Guma, 66) What is interesting is the way in which the two representatives of the chief use a metaphor from their landscape to drive their point home as to how difficult it will be to remove them. “But it is a very difficult thing to uproot an old oak of many years. The roots of such a tree are very deep. Certainly one can take an axe and cut down such a tree, that is easy but the roots remain and are very hard to dig up. So you see, the tree really remains. The tree goes on.” (La Guma,12) The use of the tree as a metaphor to the people’s permanence in this arid land goes to show the extent to which these people are attached to their land. It is a powerful statement to make because it shows how stubborn the locals are to the white authority. It is a statement that reveals that getting the people to move on will be easier said than done although on the surface they appear helpless and resigned to their fate. The Commissioner’s lack of understanding at what this could mean just shows how out of touch he is with the pulse of the people.