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Staying Alive

By Margaret Black Playing in the Light

By Zoë Wicomb

The New Press, 218 pages, $24.95

Emerging from apartheid and the evils it spawned, South Africa is bound to be filled with stories of people determined to escape their racial classification and the discriminations associated with it. Playing in the Light, Zoë Wicomb’s most recent novel, tells one of them. The book doesn’t focus on horrors, but they are there, underlying all the stratagems its characters have used to survive. In a scene, for example, where the central character, Marion, and a librarian who is helping her investigate the subject of “play-whites”—coloured people who passed for white—the two burst into hysterical laughter while reading the idiotic Population Amendment Act of 1962, which wanders into incomprehensibility as it further defines who is white and who is not. “There are decades worth of folly trapped in these pages,” the author comments.

Marion Campbell is a single woman in her 40s, living in a highly protected apartment complex in Cape Town, with a view of Table Mountain in one direction and Robben Island in the other. She supports her serenely safe accommodations in an otherwise dangerous world with a travel agency that she built from scratch, despite her aversion to travel. MCTravel has several other staff, including young Brenda, the first coloured woman Marion has ever employed. All seems to be working out, however, since even Boetie van Graan, the office Afrikaner “who was not as enlightened as the rest of them,” knows that times are changing, and he is “certainly not going to be left behind.”

Marion is also struggling with her responsibilities toward her aging, widowed father, a former traffic officer. She’s an only child, of parents who sniped at each other throughout her childhood and who seem to have quarreled with their families as well. Her father was warmly loving to Marion, however, and even, for a while, took her to visit his parents back on the farm and his sister in the city. But Marion’s fondest memories are of Tokkie, an elderly black woman who helped care for her as a child, bestowing on her a deeply loving affection that Marion’s beautiful, but distantly chill mother refused to display. When a newspaper photo of a young woman severely tortured by the Security Police reminds Marion of Tokkie, she sets out on a quest to find the old woman, and in the process unearths secrets in her own family’s past.

The book has many strengths and some brilliant writing. Written in the third person, the point of view changes from Marion to Brenda to Marion’s father, John, allowing us to experience various lives and to reach back into the past with a degree of feeling that pure narrative rarely allows. We feel John’s terror as a boy driving the heavy horse cart filled with tobacco up precipitous Swartberg Pass. We thrill to the power of his Harley-Davidson when, as a young man, he weaves through city travel. We hear the symphony of traffic noise through which even now he can distinguish individual vehicles, like his daughter’s Mercedes as it approaches his house. We’re him in the present, too, with the personal plumbing that just leaks, doesn’t flow. He’s confused, he stumbles (sometimes falls) without his cane; his modest home is surrounded by thieves and vandals, and his once-beautiful garden is a tangle of weeds and rats.

Brenda is university-educated, a speaker of proper English, an attractive 28-year-old, but she still must share a cramped bed in a tiny room with her mother because her sister is now married, with baby, and that new family now occupies the room the sisters used to share. When Brenda first arrives in the MCTravel office, Boetie van Graan decides to be cordial, graciously introducing himself as Mr. Van Graan and calling her Brenda. Brenda sweetly responds by calling him Mr. Van Graan at every conceivable opportunity. A solitary political cloudburst mars the sunny office weather, though, and Marion quickly stops it.

Wicomb deftly tosses out details that make South Africa, past and present, come alive: “As Marion turns to park the car, two ragged men rush toward her, vying for her attention. Talking simultaneously, they guide her into the space with melodramatic gestures. Piet Skiet, who has minded this parking lot for more than a year is not there; no doubt he’s been bumped off by these two unsavoury creatures. Look, she says quietly, I’m not looking for a space, this parking bay belongs to me. No need for you to show me in, or to do anything at all.” But of course she does pay the two for protection. When she finds her aunt, Marion remarks, “Her English is not as shaky has John’s, although guttural r’s do escape between chortles, and her syntax totters in moments of passion. She is, however, firm about not speaking Afrikaans. Your father turning himself into a Boer . . . the shooting of the Soweto children in ’76, and then my William shot dead by Boers . . . Speaking the language, that’s where I put my foot down.”

Wicomb is a celebrated South African feminist writer, now teaching in Scotland. As a coloured woman herself, who learned the English that got her out of poverty by listening to the radio, she knows what she’s writing about. Alas, our interest in Marion herself flags, and Wicomb annoys by refusing to translate her Afrikaans expressions or provide any helpful hints. But these are small drawbacks in an otherwise richly rewarding story.


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