Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Metaphors for Suffering: Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Metaphors for Suffering: Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull

Article excerpt

Earth, Guts--I don't know what metaphors to use to describe the process by which I'm making my own metaphors for suffering.

--Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter

According to Antonio Gramsci, political crises give rise to "incurable structural conditions" (178) creating the necessity for viewing the past as a series of clearly defined historical periods. Such a perception of what, in another context, cultural historian Maurice Blanchot calls "the disaster" (1), foregrounds history as a series of cataclysms that provide a convenient means of dividing the past into narrative segments. In this context, post-apartheid South Africa remains a beguilingly rich period to investigate in light of the array of political crises that took place in the last decade of the twentieth century and that may conceivably be expected to find resonance in that country's literary output. Indeed, a wide variety of politicized texts in genres such as autobiography and memoir have recently been published that characterize preceding decades as traumatic, catastrophic, and, in the popular imagination, a subject of unresolved angst.

The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings (1995-1998), comprising a forum for victims to bear witness against the apartheid state and its agents, resulted in much textual dissemination in the wake of a body that favoured healing by consigning a traumatic and guilt-laden past to narrative. Writers such as Njabulo Ndebele, Alex Boraine, and Graham Pechey, to name a few, have produced analyses of the TRC hearings that thoughtfully critique the public rehearsal of memory through confessional writing presented as resistance literature. Although hailed only as a partial success, the TRC's attempt to uncover narratives of violence was instrumental in bringing many lost stories back into symbolic currency and social circulation.

By the time Antjie Krog's autobiography, Country of My Skull, was published in 1998, the establishment of a post-apartheid genre of "memory writing" was firmly entrenched. Krog's harried account of the TRC hearings may more accurately be termed a memoir, a genre, according to Sarah Nuttall, that typically favours healing through "narrative memory which works through the past by telling intelligible stories about it" ("Telling" 83). This desire for healing is accompanied by the pressure of the ending to stage a believable and emphatic recovery, whether this "recovery" be a redemption from suffering or the transcendence over evil.

Writing about post-traumatic discourse, Shoshana Felman suggests that literature is an "alignment between witnesses" (14). In what many have called a post-traumatic century and in the context of the more particular political, social, and cultural traumas of post-apartheid South Africa, it becomes increasingly important to evaluate how writing has figured as testimony and how reading, in turn, becomes an act of bearing witness. Viewed within the paradigm of traumatic witnessing, Krog's distraught narrative "voice" provides one possible exploration of the language in which such an alignment of witnesses may be phrased. Narratives of trauma are inevitably figured as unrepresentable insofar as the writing attempts to transmit a truth bound up with the crisis of truth-telling, what Cathy Caruth calls "a crisis to whose truth there is no simple access" (6). The narrative of trauma carries with it the impossibility of representation or else itself becomes a history the writer cannot entirely possess since neither w riter nor reader can comprehend the horror of the event, or the full meaning of its narrative form. In many ways, this is the complex problem that Krog's text poses, one in which the imperative to tell the story is inhibited by the impossibility of storytelling.

At the same time, Krog's memoir is also, or largely, about the experience of victims of the apartheid regime, whose stories she relates in her role as journalist and cultural witness. …

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