Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Historical Violence and Modernist Forms in Zoe Wicomb's David's Story

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Historical Violence and Modernist Forms in Zoe Wicomb's David's Story

Article excerpt

This essay places Zoe Wicomb's David's Story (2000) into dialogue with Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940), in order to explore the problem of how fiction engages historical silence. My largest claim is that Wicomb's novel enacts a mode of historical knowledge that cannot be properly narrativized; it attends to echoes, inchoate correspondences, and the historically unsaid, in an effort to recover the occluded stories of the oppressed and the traumatized. In the context of the novel, these stories have primarily to do with the "coloured" woman's unacknowledged place in the antiapartheid struggle. (1) That story remains unspoken because it troubles the masculine narrative of heroic resistance to apartheid--indeed, it exposes the patriarchal violence that links the African National Congress (ANC) to the racist structures it opposes. To effect the recovery of these silenced voices, the novel develops modernist forms that trouble what Benjamin calls the "storm of progress," recollecting and preserving (without newly reifying) the stories of those who are not history's "victors" (Benjamin 1969, 258, 254). (2)

My discussion of these matters has three main parts. First, I place the novel in the context of current criticism with special attention to discussions of its formal and historiographical ambitions. I contend that the novel is modernist in a way that critics have largely missed: it engages in the Baudelairean project of combining "the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent" with "the eternal and the immutable" (Baudelaire 1995, 13). Second, I analyze the book's internal, explicit engagements with modernists James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. Using the understanding of modernism (and its political implications) developed therein as my base, I develop the figure of the constellation in Benjamin's "Theses" to explicate the form of the novel and its contribution to this modernist imaginary.

Finally, my essay turns to the questions of representation surrounding the figure of Dulcie Oliphant and her relationship to David Dirkse, to whom the narrative officially "belongs." These questions of representation are at the heart of the narrative. The unnamed narrator searches for a method of representing history that does justice to Dulcie's experience of violence at the hands of comrades while also refusing to reinscribe her fully into discourse--an act that the book conceives as a reprisal of the violence wreaked upon her body. Dulcie becomes (in the narrator's hands) less an object of representation than a subject whose irreducible, unrepresentable singularity disrupts traditional techniques of totalizing (linear, progressivist) narrative. I read Dulcie's resistance to narrative through Benjamin's essay to develop the idea of a constellational history that reveals her fragmentation by history while mapping that experience in relation to other women in different historical moments. This constellational interpretation shows how the novel is less "David's" than "David and Dulcie's" story--a story in which Dulcie "erupts" but remains unpositivized, and one that constellates her with a host of other disremembered women whose voices have been shut out by narratives of heroic, masculine resistance.

David's Story, Zoe Wicomb's first novel following her short story collection You Can't Get Lost in CapeTown (1987), is expressly concerned with the questions of nationhood and the writer's role in resistance. Educated in South Africa and Scotland, Wicomb in her short stories and novels focuses on South African identity (specifically mixed race), gender, and the effects of the apartheid/antiapartheid struggles. In various interviews and essays, Wicomb has previously examined and questioned what literature or history can actually do, but it is David's Story, to me, that most compellingly explores this idea of art in action, especially in a politically dire time. By putting David, a member of the antiapartheid ANC, together with the unnamed, college-educated amanuensis, the novel interrogates political responsibility, the capacity of storytelling to do, and storytelling's value to national identity/politics. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.