Some Notes on Burger's Daughter

I've admired many of Nadine Gordimer's short stories ("Loot" especially) and once even taught her novel My Son's Story to a class of rather perplexed Advanced Placement Literature students. But nothing, nothing, nothing of hers has affected me as deeply as Burger's Daughter, which I just finished reading, after savoring it for two months.

Savoring, yes. It's been a long time since I last deliberately slowed my reading of a book so that it would remain new in my life for as long as possible. Usually, even with books I deeply enjoy, I work hard to get to the end and absorb it all so that I can move on. Once every two or three years, though -- seldom more frequently -- I encounter a book that, were a particularly mischievous demon to come by and condemn me to read said book for the rest of eternity, I would say, "Well, I guess that's not so bad." Burger's Daughter is such a book. While reading, I could not imagine that any other novel would satisfy me as fully, because few ever have. The last one was actually not so long ago: Bolaño's Savage Detectives -- and I read it too quickly, with the opposite sort of love-experience I had with Burger's Daughter -- I couldn't believe something so bizarre and baggy and entrancing existed, and out of fear that it would run away or evaporate, I felt the only recourse I had was to devour it, like some giant unwitting cartoon monster who doesn't realize that eating the things you love in one big gulp does not do them any favors, despite the passion involved.

Burger's Daughter is a very different sort of book from The Savage Detectives -- more focused, more interior. Both, though, share one of the features of fiction that most captivates me: a vividness and richness that I can point to, but barely describe. The books I most passionately respond to tend to be of either what I think of as the richly vivid variety or of the austerely precise variety (which for me finds its apotheosis in that other white South African Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee). Some writers manage to be one or the other in different works -- Paul Bowles, another of my personal gods, is austerely precise in his early short stories and richly vivid in one of the other novels I once forced myself to read slowly because of its genius, The Spider's House.

One day I may try to analyze these two modes more fully and accurately, and perhaps attempt to show how they work for me, but I don't want to do that right now -- I'm still too possessed by passion for the whole of Burger's Daughter to want to atomize it to the extent that such an analysis would require. The effect, though, is to create a feeling that the words on any one random page of this novel evoke more life and thought than many entire books by lesser writers. And most writers are lesser writers than Gordimer, it seems to me.

Entire volumes have been written about Burger's Daughter, so even if I were inclined toward rigorous critical analysis of the novel, it would likely be redundant, but I'm more interested in what it feels like to read the book, because for all the intellectual power of the novel, it is how the structure blossomed in my mind as I read that separated Burger's Daughter from, for instance, My Son's Story, for which I have a mostly intellectual appreciation. If someone I knew to be a good reader disliked My Son's Story, it wouldn't bother me. If that same person disliked Burger's Daughter, I would likely think there was, at some fundamental level, a way in which we could not really communicate with each other. (And then, of course, I would realize this was a silly idea, but I know it would be the first one for me, and the suspicion would be difficult to dispell, given how deeply and complexly the novel affected me -- it spoke to some core part of my self as a reader and a person.)

Such a response is appropriate to a novel that is, among other things, concerned with communication and the recognition of self. The plot is a simple one: Rosa (named for Rosa Luxemburg) is the daughter of white anti-apartheid activists in South Africa; her father is particularly famous for his work. Both of Rosa's parents die early -- her father in prison ("in the second month of the third year of his life sentence"), of nephritis from a throat infection. She spends the next decade or so trying to find a place for herself in the world, trying to first distance herself from her parents' legacy so that she can have some freedom, finally gaining permission to travel to France and then England, but a bitter encounter with a black man who, as a child, had lived with her family shatters the illusion that she could ever be comfortable in the alien territory of Europe, and so she returns to South Africa and accepts her legacy, which, in the apartheid state, inevitably leads to prison.

The story is told through alternating points of view: third-person, "objective" narration that often seems to mimic the diction and viewpoint of a particularly precise (and beautifully written!) police report, and Rosa's first-person narration, her thoughts, directed toward a different person in each of the novel's three sections: first, to a lost lover; second, to her father's first wife, in France; finally, to her father. "My version and theirs," she says early on.
And if this were being written down, both would seem equally concocted when read over. And if I were really telling, instead of talking to you in my mind the way I find I do... One is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone. Suddenly, without knowing the reason, at different stages in one's life, one is addressing this person or that all the time, even dreams are performed before an audience. I see that. It's well known that people who commit suicide, the most solitary of all acts, are addressing someone. It's just that with me it never happened before. It hasn't happened even when I thought I was in love -- and we couldn't ever have been in love.
My version and theirs -- but both perceived via one person, a bifurcated self. The novel begins with an epigraph from Lévi-Strauss: "I am the place in which something has occurred." The first chapter gives us Rosa at 14 outside a prison, "bringing an eiderdown quilt and a hotwater bottle for her mother." The moment is preserved through what seem to be different consciousnesses -- those of onlookers and a government official. The chapter ends with a paragraph that could come from the admiring biography or documentary film of Lionel Burger that, later in the novel, various characters propose and discuss. And then a single sentence on an otherwise blank page: "When they saw me outside the prison, what did they see?" Thus: Rosa Burger trying to perceive a memory of herself through her imagination of other people's experience. Any wonder that she refers to Rosa Luxemburg as "the real Rosa" -- she has, herself, become less a person as other people are persons than a text for which she seeks interpretation.

I've only read one essay about Burger's Daughter, but it's a good one: "'What I say will not be understood': Intertextuality as a subversive force in Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter" by Susan Barrett, which convincingly reveals a technique of the novel that is mostly hidden to ordinary readers -- a technique of incorporating other texts either through allusion or through unmarked quotation so as to accomplish a few different things: firstly, to get some things past the South African censor that would not normally ever be allowed to be published; secondly, and more broadly, to raise questions about the nature of culture, exile, and Europe's relationship to Africa.

One of the masterful elements of the novel is just how Gordimer brings Lévi-Strauss's epigraph to life: the "something" which has occurred in Rosa Burger is, in a very general sense, the history of white people in South Africa. Rosa has, into herself, received European language, culture, and history; she has also received Afrikaner language, culture, and history; and she has received Marxist language, culture, and history. Her task becomes to sort this into a life, and, more than that, into a person she doesn't mind encountering in the mirror. It is not a wholly intellectual task -- bodies are a central concern of the novel: sickness, pleasure, desire, sex -- all are frequent topics, and as Rosa sorts through the many facets of her identity, her self as part of a female body is central to her experience and her reflection on that experience. She spends much time trying to find similarities and differences: where does she overlap with other people, and why? How deep can such overlapping go? What does it suggest about her? Where, in amidst all she has inherited, is her "real Rosa"?

Fate is as strong a force in Burger's Daughter as in any Greek tragedy -- but it is a fate enforced by society and government, not gods. Rosa's skin color determines her fate first, because even were she to be sentenced, as her father was, to life in prison -- or even death -- she would still be a white person in prison or a white martyr, valued higher in many ways than a black counterpart. She is also Burger's Daughter, seemingly forever to be defined by who her famous parents were. The police surveillance of her is caused not by any of her actions, but by her surname. Even were she to renounce her parents and use her white skin as a tool for social climbing, which she admits she could do, there would still be suspicion, because though she has Afrikaner heritage, it is a heritage tainted by leftist politics. She goes to Europe seeking freedom, and for a while she thinks she has found it -- she is anonymous, she feels unwatched -- but she cannot forget where she comes from, that she is a South African regardless of whether she is in South Africa. Soon enough, too, given her father's fame in certain circles, she is forced to be Burger's daughter even thousands of miles from home.

Burger's Daughter is a political novel in the sense of being about politics and people whose lives are deeply committed to political discussions and activism, but it does not come across as a didactic novel, which is remarkable, because it contains extremely didactic material (especially in Lionel Burger's testimony to the court and in a student pamphlet reproduced toward the end of the book). Indeed, this drew the notice of the South African censors, and the book was banned a month after it was published in 1979. Susan Barrett quotes from the Censorship Board's report:
The book is an outspoken furthering of communism […] [it] creates and fosters a sense of grievance which is most undesirable in a political situation where there are racial situations [sic] […it] doesn’t possess one particularly positive quality – of creation, insight, style, language or composition – which can save it as work of art or as contribution to the public welfare. […] The effect of the book on the public attitude of mind is dangerous in all aspects.
But, as Barrett goes on to explain, the ban didn't last: an unprecedented move, the Director of Publications appealed almost immediately against the ban his own committee had imposed and appointed a panel of literary experts to evaluate the literary merit of the novel. They accused the committee of “bias, prejudice and literary incompetence” (Dugard, 41) but then went on to say that “the book is difficult to read and will therefore not become a popular book” (Dugard, 57), before finally concluding that because of “its limited readership [… and] as a result of its one-sidedness the effect of the book will be counter-productive rather than subversive” (Dugard 39). The ban was consequently lifted in October 1979.
The second report was probably right about the book's ability to find a popular audience in South Africa -- it's a densely textured novel, not exactly something that will find a mass audience, certainly not in any way to be threatening to the state -- but the "one-sidedness" they note hints at the place of politics within the book: as portrayal, not advocacy. It is a novel about the lives of people who are risking everything for their political beliefs, but it is so focused on how those political beliefs intersect with and shape their lives (and vice versa) that it never feels like it is trying to make us, the audience, convert to some ideology -- instead, it simply seems to assume that we agree that apartheid is self-evidently wrong, and goes from there. Toward the end of the book, Rosa thinks:
I don't know the ideology:

It's about suffering.

How to end suffering.

And it ends in suffering. Yes, it's strange to live in a country where there are still heroes. Like anyone else, I do what I can. I am teaching them to walk again, at Baragwanath Hospital. They put one foot before the other.
The world of everyday life and the world of ideology constantly interrupt each other in the novel -- again and again, political conversations are stopped by someone arriving with food, or changing the subject to something banal. The only uninterrupted political statements (that I remember after one read, and without checking) are Lionel at his trial and the students' pamphlet after the Soweto uprising. Each simultaneously reminds us that this is fiction about very real suffering, while also revealing that these two texts are no easier to assimilate and explain than is the text embodied in the name "Rosa Burger". Political theory and calls to action are one thing, but the actions of individual people within the systems they cannot escape are what really determine life: learning to walk again, putting one foot in front of the other.

There is a crucial passage that is too long for me to quote here (it's pages 286-287 of the old Penguin paperback, if you're curious) -- Rosa is in France at an art museum with the married man she's having an affair with, Bernard Chabalier, who says, "In Africa, one goes to see the people. In Europe, it's pictures." Rosa disagrees, saying that a picture, "a record of what's already passed through the painter's mind", is always abstract to her, whereas people are immediate, they're the things you live among. Chabalier adds that the pictures leave out much of life: "In the fifty years between the two paintings, there was the growth of fascism, two wars -- the Occupation-- And for Bonnard it is as if nothing's happened. Nothing. Look at them... He could have painted them the same summer, the same day." He compares that to the lives lived by the people Rosa is staying with in France -- outside of history, free to pretend there is no world beyond their frames. It is not a world that Rosa can join without eradicating every last trace of whatever hints of self she has found.

The dialogue in the novel is similar to that in other works of Gordimer's -- presented not via quotation marks, but through dashes before and after what is spoken. Often, the speakers are not clearly identified, particularly in group conversations. The effect is, for me, like listening to a conversation underwater. Words are distant, the sounds seem to float. The effect is estranging in some ways, but the ultimate effect is to make the dialogue seem not like immediate speech, but like speech recollected in memory.

One of the most breathtaking moments in the novel for me -- and there were multiple -- obviously calls to mind Raskolnikov's dream of the horse in Crime and Punishment. It ends the first section of Burger's Daughter, just before Rosa goes to France. She sees a drunken old "rag of a black man" beating a donkey attached to a cart in which his family sits. She writes for paragraphs about the agony and brutality of it, then: "I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority." She realizes that she could alter the man and his family's lives, turn them over to official control and recording, stop the brutality of the moment: "I could have stood between them and suffering -- the suffering of the donkey." But no:
I drove on. I don't know at what point to intercede makes sense, for me. Every week the woman who comes to clean my flat and wash my clothes brings a child whose make-believe is polishing floors and doing washing. I drove on because the horrible drunk was black, poor and brutalized. If somebody's going to be brought to account, I am accountable for him, to him, as he is for the donkey. Yet the suffering -- while I saw it it was the sum of suffering to me. I didn't do anything. I let him beat the donkey. The man was a black. So a kind of vanity counted for more than feeling; I couldn't bear to see myself -- her -- Rosa Burger -- as one of those whites who can care more for animals than people. Since I've been free, I'm free to become one.
The moment becomes her justification for leaving: "Nothing and nobody stopped me from using that passport. After the donkey I couldn't stop myself. I don't know how to live in Lionel's country."

After seeing and rejecting Europe, after creating and rejecting a conception of herself, she returns: "It's about suffering. How to end suffering. And it ends in suffering." That's the ideology. The action, though, is people learning to walk again. One foot in front of another.

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