We had a Skype call yesterday with US based South African author and academic Peter Anderson. His latest novel, The Unspeakable, is a no holds barred, true to itself, striking and hard-hitting, honest work of fiction set in apartheid era South Africa. We asked Peter some questions about himself and the book…
Here is the interview…
Tell us a bit about your book . . . what is it about?
Archetypally, “The Unspeakable” is a Cain and Abel, or rather, a Judas and Jesus story.
More specifically, in terms of sociopolitics, “The Unspeakable” aims to lay wide open to lucid insight the very “horror” that Joseph Conrad famously obscures in “Heart of Darkness”. Its subject is the irredeemably dark heart of whiteness. It is therefore, like Conrad’s novella, Gothic — Gothic at a high level, that is to say; no simply lurid fantasy, but centred in the real-life political dimension of the Gothic as a reaction to the values of the Enlightenment; consequently, the novel becomes deeply involved in an exploration of the intransigence of racism/sexism.
Set in apartheid South Africa in the mid-1980s, the years when the most blatantly racist government in history sought brutally to crush all resistance to its rule, “The Unspeakable” is unusual in that it does not stereotype the white Afrikaner male as the incomprehensibly monstrous Other. Since the narrator, Rian, is an Anglophone Afrikaner, the reader is by virtue of identification placed in a situation that inevitably renders everything more complex. Thus, “The Unspeakable” does not operate from a position of moralistic dissociation from the racist crime against humanity, but from the inside, where complicity and survival tend inextricably to merge.
“The Unspeakable” runs against the grain of the expected apartheid narrative, since it deals with complicity, and ends in atrocity. It tends to upset those readers who take for granted that “moralistic dissociation” from racism is the only permissible narrative, given South Africa’s history. The book is and will be controversial, an affront, or so it seems, to the sensibilities of those who prefer to see themselves as purely on the side of righteousness.
However, I agree with C.G. Jung here; notably, that “people who become too identified with a particular cause or moral position inevitably fall into blindness regarding their own shadows” (“Jung on Evil” 17). “The Unspeakable” is a confrontation with the dark side, the shadow, not only of South Africa but of Western culture at large. Racism is the West’s shadow. The painful truth remains that it stretches all round the globe.
Is it part of a series? Are you planning more?
“The Unspeakable” is part of a projected trilogy. The second novel (working title, “Lords of Misrule”) is set in a military camp in South Africa in the late 1960s. A platoon of sappers is building a bridge over a spruit, a creek, in the middle of nowhere, and the action unfolds around that. I have begun an early draft of this novel. Opening sentences: “Koekemoer the Cunt thinks he is King. Watch him. With his cap pulled down so low over his nose that he has to tilt his head back like a camel to see, he walks, cake walks, over to the concrete mixer, and sits down. . . .” And so on. The third novel is to be set in post-apartheid South Africa. My plans for it have not yet coalesced, but I think it will be about illicit diamond-dealing, corruption, and politics: likely to centre on a guy who smuggles the diamonds. Tension. (Think something like le Carre, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”)
What inspired you to write the book?
“Inspiration” is a palimpsest. The book began, years ago, as a way of “writing back” to Margaret Atwood’s great novel, “Surfacing”. It also began with a dream, where I seemed to be walking through Arctic snow, toward the pole. I thought, too, of balancing the style of Hemingway on one hand, against that of Faulkner on the other. Living through the South African liberation struggle left an indelible mark on the action of the book. An encounter with an old girlfriend also contributed. Reading Georges Bataille’s “Literature and Evil,” and Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” were pivotal. (I could add more, but I think the point is made.)
Who do you think will enjoy reading the book?
I would prefer it if people were powerfully shaken by the book, rather than that they should simply “enjoy” it. Its target readership is intelligent and discerning — the type of people who recognise and appreciate real, hard-hitting, literary work.
When did you start writing books, and why?
I have been writing since I was a child. Wrote my first novel, “The Time Machine,” when I was eleven. I still remember the opening: “It’s hard to be the son of an inventor; even harder when his inventions are rejected by the public. Frank Masters was the son of an inventor. . .”
BUT the immensely oppressive conditions of apartheid silenced me for many years. As a white, I did not feel I had the right to write. It has taken me time (!) to recover from my self-imposed silence.
Which authors, dead or alive, inspire your writing?
Numerous writers inspire me. A short list: Marguerite Duras. Albert Camus. Ernest Hemingway. William Faulkner. Saul Bellow. Jack Kerouac. Annie Proulx. Cormac McCarthy.