Beyond the Walls of the Lunatic Asylum: Christopher Hope's Early Fiction

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Abstract:

Beyond the walls of the lunatic asylum: Christopher Hope's early fiction

This article examines an under-explored aspect of Christopher Hope's early fiction: its capacity to suggest the potential for imaginative and psychological freedom through its comic, carnivalesque qualities. Hope produced various novels and stories set in South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, including A Separate Development (1981), Black Swan (1987) and the short story collection Learning to Fly (1990). It is argued that Hope's vision in these works tends to be perceived as essentially satirical, ultimately limited by bleakness and pessimism; while the carnivalesque, potentially liberatory aspects of his writing tend to be overlooked. By utilising comic and carnivalesque features Hope's work indeed offers creative, liberated ways of apprehending reality. Mikhail Bakhtin's discussion of the ability of the carnivalesque to open up new ways of seeing, through the "nonofficial" versions of reality that it proffers, is particularly relevant in this regard. It is argued that this latter aspect of Hope's work is especially significant, bearing in mind the sense of constraint and confinement that seemed to dominate much of South African fiction during the apartheid era and that still remains a key concern in many post-apartheid novels.

1. Introduction

This article explores an under-investigated dimension of Christopher Hope's early fiction: his fantastical, carnivalesque transformations of aspects of South African society during the apartheid era. Through this, it is argued, Hope's fiction not only offers opportunities for subversive ridicule of representatives of the established order but also holds out the possibility of psychological and imaginative liberation.

Hope grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the era of Prime Ministers Hendrik Verwoerd and B.J. Vorster. Novels such as A Separate Development (1981), Black Swan (1987) and the short stories in Learning to Fly (1990), a revised edition of Private Parts and Other Tales (1982), are set during this period. (1) There are several reasons why these particular novels and stories are worth re-visiting. Firstly, Hope's most striking work seems to be that which engages with South African society during the dark days of Nationalist Party rule. Novels set outside South Africa, such as The Hottentot Room (1987), which takes place in Europe, and later fiction, such as Me, the Moon and Elvis Presley (1997), set in post-apartheid South Africa, lack the outrageous humour and imaginative vitality of Hope's earlier writing. Secondly, while his artistic vision in works dealing with South Africa under apartheid tends to be viewed as primarily satirical in nature, characterised by a blackly cynical vision and culminating in images of death and defeat, Hope himself ascribes a far larger purpose to his fiction. This study argues that this other dimension of Hope's early novels and stories--which has more often than not, been overlooked--remains of relevance to South African fiction today.

Certain forms of freedom represent an important aspect of Hope's early writing, and in this respect his work differs strikingly from a great deal of South African fiction in English produced during the apartheid era. In 1992, J.M. Coetzee described South African literature as "a literature in bondage ... a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power, unable to move from elementary relations of contestation, domination and subjugation to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them" (Coetzee, 1992:98). Various other writers and critics have used similar images to describe pre-1994 South African fiction. "A sense of space seems to have oppressed us in our souls as well as in our bodies", Nadine Gordimer lamented in 1973; "we have shut ourselves in" (Gordiner, 1973:39). Moreover, there was the tendency to view the South African situation as all-engrossing and all-encompassing. …