Top critical review
A Novel of Post-Apartheid South Africa
on 23 July 2010
At a climactic moment of Achmat Dangor's novel, "Bitter Fruit", a secondary character relates a traumatic story which works to the following conclusion: "There are certain things people do not forget, or forgive. Rape is one of them. In ancient times, conquerors destroyed the will of those whom they conquered by impregnating the women. It is an ancient form of genocide." (p. 204)
In the novel, a rape which can neither be forgotten nor forgiven plays a central role. The violation of rape is important in itself, and it also serves as the defining metaphor for Dangor's picture of apartheid in South Africa and its consequence. The novel is set in the late 20th Century as South Africa struggles to emerge from its apartheid past. It is set against the background of the amnesty policy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which the evils of the past would be memorialized and acknowledged but without bloodshed. The hope was for the country to move on while minimizing vengeance, vendettas, or grudges.
The primary characters are Silas Ali, a former activist and attorney for the TRC, his wife Lydia, and their late adolescent son Mikey who mid-way through the novel begins calling himself Michael. Silas and Lydia are both of mixed racial background but are otherwise quite different from each other. About 20 years before the story begins Lydia had been raped by a white policeman, Du Boise, in the presence of Silas who was unable to prevent the outrage. Then, 20 years later Silas runs into the aged Du Boise at a supermarket and a confrontation almost ensues. During the intervening 20 years, the couple had rarely discussed the incident which festered between them. The marriage was unhappy, sexually and otherwise. When Silas tells Lydia of his meeting with DuBois, something snaps inside both husband and wife. Lydia cuts her feet on broken glass, "dancing on glass" and is hospitalized. While visiting her, Silas has a stroke and is also hospitalized.
While his parents are hospitalized, Mikey, a brooding and introspective lad with an interest in literature finds his mother's diary and reads it. He has reason to think that he is the child of Du Boise's rape of his mother.
Besides the three primary characters, the novel offers glimpses of their family and colleagues. The latter part of the book includes a portrayal of the portion of South Africa's Islamic community which either sponsors or condones terrorism. Besides the pivotal rape incident, the book includes many scenes of other forms of sexuality, including child abuse, incest, bisexual and polyamorous relationships, closeted gay sexuality and more. Most of the sexual activity is of forms that are offensive as is most, but not all, of the sexual conduct itself.
The book was Booker Prize finalist. It offers a portrayal of the difficulties South Africa faces in moving forward and beyond its tarnished past. For the most part, I did not find "Bitter Fruit" convincing as a novel. Here are some of my reasons. Many of the individual scenes as well as the dialogue are sharp and crisp. But they contrast with the story line which drags. Other than the three primary characters, most of the other people in the book receive shadowy portrayals which distract from the story. In minute detail, the book describes the vileness and the long-term effects of rape and the book's analogy between rape and apartheid has some effect. The author is critical of the Truth and Reconciliation policy and he suggests that neither rape nor apartheid should be readily put aside without some attempt at what appears to be vengeance. The novel did not move me to share such a conclusion. Furthermore, the book's focus on the vile and debasing forms of human sexual practices, in addition to the rape on which the story turns, did not seem to me to add a great deal to the novel.
The novel's focus on the Ali family and on the various sexual issues of the family members and other characters also distracted from considering the book as a story of the difficulties of an emergent South Africa. The book was more the story of a sharply dysfunctional family. And the focus of the book wanders unconvincingly from Silas, to Michael, to Lydia. Lydia ultimately works to some degree of freedom from the rape and from her marriage in a brief sexual encounter with a young man after which she leaves Silas. The story line seems to shift from a metaphor about South Africa to a story of a woman in search of a difficult personal and sexual freedom. This is an inadequate denouement for the book. The story of apartheid and its aftermath encompasses people of many and diverse backgrounds as well as people of both genders. Overall, this novel does not succeed.