Threads of incongruous tangle

Posted on November 30, 2010


Truth is a strange fruit;
A personal journey through the apartheid war

By David Beresford (Jacana )
Review: Terry Bell

(First published September 26, 2010)

The publishers defined this book as “a personal journey through the apartheid war”. With rather more accuracy, the author describes it in his introduction as a montage or collage. However, to be a work worthy of the name, a collage or montage requires a degree of coherence which is sorely lacking in Truth is a Strange Fruit.

But Beresford does attempt a justification of this strange collection by stating that it is “what might be described as curiosities, ruminations, observations, anecdotes, snatches of remembered dialogue, letters and stories?” Perhaps, in this context, it is appropriate that this book lacks both a list of contents and an index.

It also contains, in italicised text, occasional conversational digressions, the final one an apparent confession of a youthful homosexual dalliance with a Spanish teacher. This was a technique used successfully, for example, by American author Henry Roth in his Rude Stream novel. Here it seems out of place.
Beresford is a fine wordsmith. But it is evident that this collection, which includes lengthy quotes from the seven-volume report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), amounts to at least three books in search of an author. There is even the hint of an autobiography starting with a library-smitten small boy and his decision to start writing.
Perhaps this confusion is not surprising since Beresford was first said to be writing a book about President Jacob Zuma. Then, as he admits here, he was moved to write a book about the TRC, only to |discover that the TRC archive, decreed by its commissioners to be in the public domain, is now virtually inaccessible, locked away in the national archive.
This aspect alone – especially in the light of the present assault on media freedom – would be worthy of further, even book-length, exploration. Especially since the less-than-honourable role played by some politicians, civil servants and the national archivist in secreting away TRC documents is already well known. But, apart from lodging a legitimate complaint, that is effectively where the pursuit of a new or popular TRC book ends.
Beresford does, however, present quite well chosen excerpts from the TRC report that are deserving of a wider – and constant – airing to remind us of the horrors that went before. There is also a section on the trial of the Upington 14 that was covered in detail in |Andrea Durbach’s A Common Purpose in 1999.
Yet, despite the publisher’s insistence on this being a book about the apartheid war, it soon digresses with a tale of Beresford the journalist in London following up a story about an alleged mistress of the Duke of Edinburgh. This is followed by a couple of interesting anecdotes about Beresford’s experiences when covering the first Gulf War.
Good, interesting stuff; and in a career spanning more than |20 years, there is surely the potential for a book covering this history, with suitable commentary. Rwanda, Kuwait, Iraq and apartheid South Africa and beyond are journalistic threads created by Beresford that could have been |woven into an intriguing literary tapestry. Instead, they are part |of an incongruous tangle of narratives.
A large part of this collection also concerns the author’s mental and physical journey into Parkinson’s disease. His descriptions of dealing with the affliction and the 13-hour operation to fix electrodes in his brain is telling – and well told. Here again is a book crying out for completion.
Beresford admits that he was having trouble completing the “TRC book” he had apparently been commissioned to do and for which he had received funding from the Taco Kuiper fund for |investigative journalism.
His breakthrough to “something of an emotional narrative” came when he was told of the letters |between Ann Harris and her husband, John, who was hanged as a “terrorist” in 1965.
He relates this find to the cache of letters to and from the Irish Maze Prison hunger strikers on which he based his justly hailed 1986 book, Ten Men Dead.
But here the circumstances were very different, at a different time and a different place. These Harris letters in fact provide an entree to a book-length feature: a potentially great, very South African and tragic love story. But rather than write such a book, Beresford merely added the letters to his collection of ruminations and anecdotes. The result is something of a travesty.
Despite claims to the contrary, Beresford also adds nothing substantial to the story of John Harris.
Even his proclaimed aim to “contribute to John Harris’s place in the pantheon of South African patriots” comes adrift in the claim that Harris had been honoured in 1994 in what is the “Heroes’ Acre” outside Pretoria that houses the |remains of the Afrikaner and apartheid elite.
In fact, Frederick John Harris was the first name entered, in a ceremony on April 1, 2005, onto the Wall of Remembrance in Freedom Park, on the hill overlooking Pretoria Central Prison on whose gallows his life was ended at exactly 6am 40 years earlier.
Beresford is a fine wordsmith. But it is evident that this collection … amounts to at least three books in search of an author.

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