Academic journal article International Fiction Review

The Liberal Tradition in South African Literature: Still a Curse? Nadine Gordimer's A Guest of Honour Revisited

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

The Liberal Tradition in South African Literature: Still a Curse? Nadine Gordimer's A Guest of Honour Revisited

Article excerpt

Nadine Gordimer's capacious novel A Guest of Honour, (1) published in 1970 when apartheid was in one of its most secure states, is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated novels to come out of Africa. A Guest of Honour not only possesses exceptional literary qualities, but it is politically relevant as well. The effect of A Guest of Honour can be more accurately gauged if we look not only at the magnitude of scope, but also at the intensity and immediacy with which Gordimer attempts to capture the imaginative political temper of the time in which the novel is set. A Guest of Honour links concerns of politics, governance, morality of commitment, and romance, summoning up in the process an entirely new and original way of seeing the world. The idea around which this novel unfolds its controlling vision is the view that the white liberal could play a part in the struggle for a liberated South Africa. This idea was first proposed by Olive Schreiner in her novel The Story of an African Farm, (2) but by the time it is explored by Gordimer in A Guest of Honour new forms of anxiety had coalesced around it. Yet, Gordimer defies popular beliefs and invests a white liberal with a central role in the effort to tackle the problems facing the government of an unnamed new African state in its first year of independence, a country that has been described as a thin disguise for Zambia. In so doing, she proposes a solution that is radically opposed to the dominant ideas in her society. (3) Predictably, at the time, hatred flourished and focused on the limitations of her novel's white liberal protagonist, Colonel Evelyn James Bray. The critical establishment continued to view Bray's performance, or non-performance, as it were, as epitomizing the curse of liberalism.

Following the unexpected developments of 1990-1994 in South Africa, however, the resurgence of hope for the liberal political options that once were scorned by many in the region highlights, in hindsight, the remarkable political insight of A Guest of Honour. And it may prove to have implications for the reception of "liberal" literature from earlier in South Africa's history as a whole. The transition begun by former South African president F. W. de Klerk's speech of 2 February 1990--alleged by de Klerk to be the result of a change of heart on his part brought on by, among other things, his reading of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.--would have fulfilled the dreams of optimistic South African liberals, had there been any optimistic liberals left in South Africa by the 1980s, a time when liberalism had fallen on very hard times in the polity. However, we now see brighter days lying ahead for liberalism. At a time when radical revolutionaries at home and abroad had held high expectations for a violent overthrow of the apartheid regime, the decisive push for a positive turn of events was instead provided by a change in human conscience. (4)

The achievement of Gordimer's A Guest of Honour is to have anticipated these later developments, and it is her character Bray who explores both the possibilities and the limitations that attend the vocation of liberalism. The ideals for which Bray stands and dies in A Guest of Honour can therefore be said to come with serious consequences. Once a colonial administrator, Bray is deported by the colonial regime for his sympathy for the Black cause. Then, ten years later, following the ouster of the colonialists, he is recalled by the post-independence leadership. Appointed to serve as a special advisor on education for the new government in the northern region of the country, he accepts the position because of his idealistic cast of mind, his strong faith that he will receive the support he needs to carry out his mandate successfully. However, Bray comes up against greater opposition than he could ever imagine, and ends up an ineffectual officer who later betrays his protege, the president, before losing his own life in a moment of a crisis that spirals violently out of control. …

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