Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Mongane Serote's to Every Birth Its Blood: History and the Limits of Improvisation

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Mongane Serote's to Every Birth Its Blood: History and the Limits of Improvisation

Article excerpt


South African jazz carries a burden of optimism. It is consistently identified with an ebullient elan vital that resists the monomania of apartheid ideology. Mongane Serote's novel To Every Birth its Blood (1981) sounds a cautionary note in its exploration of the limits of modernist improvisation in the face of violent oppression. In exploring its representation of these limitations, this article addresses the critical debate regarding the disjuncture of its two parts that has inflected the novel's reception and reputation. More generally, it suggests ways in which representations of music might be read as either underscoring or as dissonant to the orders of narrative logic and modes of representation of the texts in which they occur.


Suid-Afrikaanse jazz gaan gebuk onder die las van optimisme. Dit word konsekwent identifiseer met 'n oorborrelende elan vital wat die monomania van die apartheidsideologie teenstaan. Mongane Serote se roman To Every Birth its Blood (1981) rig 'n waarskuwing in sy ondersoek van die limiete van modernistiese improvisasie ten spyte van gewelddadige onderdrukking. Deur die voorstelling van hierdie beperkings te ondersoek, spreek hierdie artikel die kritiese debat aan rondom die splitsing van die twee dele wat die roman se ontvangs en reputasie inflekteer het. Meer in die algemeen suggereer dit wyses waarop musiek interpreteer kan word as of onderstreping van, of dissonant aan die voorskrifte van narratiewe logika en wyses van voorstelling van die tekste waarin dit voorkom.

1 Individuals and Political Imperatives

In a recent journal editorial John Thieme identifies the signal characteristic of apartheid fiction as the simultaneous recognition of the "impossibility" of individual experience and the acknowledgment that "an engagement with politics [was] an inescapable imperative for all South African writers" (Thieme 2003: 1). The most significant literary and cultural debates in the three decades preceding 1994 are organised along these two axes: stated somewhat reductively, a formalist concern with aesthetics and the existential role of literature is juxtaposed with a historicist imperative of class and race solidarity. (1) Given the evidence of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Thieme notes a postapartheid shift away from "macro-political concerns during the apartheid years" to the "micro-political personal dilemmas" of our quotidian postcolonial context. "'Politics' remain as urgent as ever in contemporary South Africa [he argues] and yet the pendulum has swung away from the former, seemingly unavoidable, need to express dissent, either overtly or covertly, towards a literature in which representing individual experience has once again assumed considerable prominence" (Thieme 2003: 1).

Critical descriptions of this order, though, tend to undervalue apartheid literature's explicit interrogation of the tension between individual expression and the historical and political contingencies of resistance. The very transition recognised by Thieme can, for instance, be identified in the projected utopian futures in various apartheid texts. This essay looks back at Mongane Serote's novel, To Every Birth its Blood, in which individual alienation is so trenchantly juxtaposed with collective resistance. It reviews the interpretative and evaluative debate that raged for over a decade and then considers in some detail the novel's use of jazz, which various critics have identified as central to both its political and its aesthetic complexity. The argument has two objectives. First, to question the simple juxtaposition of experimental literary modernism and social realism that is often assumed in interpretations of Serote's novel specifically, and accounts of South African literary history more generally. The representation of music in literary texts, we will see, potentially (even commonly) presents a nonrealist heuristic order in which questions regarding meaning, ontology and politics are posed. …

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