Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Retreating Reality: Chekhov's South African Afterlives 1

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Retreating Reality: Chekhov's South African Afterlives 1

Article excerpt

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"I'm crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anyone that wasn't."

-Woody Allen

Chekhov's name is hardly the first we would associate with the country of Nelson Mandela, De Beers diamonds, or the vuvuzela. Yet "Say 'The Cherry Orchard set in South Africa,' " theater legend Janet Suzman volunteers, and "their faces will light up" (New Statesman). This might have come as a surprise to Chekhov's contemporaries, whose charges of "contentless" formalism prompted some key Russian formalist insights:2 "[They] did not understand that Chekhov wrote about life's trivialities completely not because he did not see . . . anything big," Boris Eikhenbaum once wrote. "Chekhov's method displaced the distinctions and oppositions between social and personal, historic and intimate, collective and private, big and small . . ." (227).3 And if Chekhov as timeless muse has long since become a cliché, his hallmark brand of quotidian realism may still be a provocative starting point for theorizing 1990s South African writing. Njabulo S. Ndebele famously called for a turn to the everyday in the first year of the decade: "The ordinary daily lives of people should be the direct focus of political interest," he wrote, "because they constitute the very content of the struggle" (55).

But what if focusing on the ordinary is polemical for the opposite reason, because it marks a retraction from political dictate altogether in its own kind of struggle for a space in which meaning is self-contained? And how might narrative theory, so often denounced for its technical remove, provide a way into the thorny debates over artistic production in postapartheid South Africa? Using these questions as points of departure, this three-part essay explores the appeal to and of trans-historical forms in the aftermath of social and political upheaval. I focus on Afrikaans playwright Reza de Wet's responses to Chekhov's major dramas in her Russian Trilogy (1996-2001), arguing that she upholds the idea of timeless Chekhovian domesticity even as she demonstrates the complex impossibility and perhaps undesirability of recreating it. Harnessing South Africa's vigorous interrogation of f iction's role outside the teleology of crisis, I set the stage for a kind of formal-ideological criticism that has not always been forthcoming vis-à-vis postcolonial texts: how do we extrapolate "timely" meaning from "timeless" structural models? What do we gain or give up by considering postcolonial literature through a comparative narratological lens? By tracing a central category that I call "micro-narrative" through its energizing effect in Chekhov's plays, stagnation in de Wet's sequels and, f inally, its implications for the conflicted reception of her work, I show how the shared terrain of mundane experience is aff irmed from opposite sides of a widening chasm.

I. The Micro-Narrative is the Message: Structures of Chekhovian Timelessness

Best known for her magical realist and quasi-folkloric representations of a rural Afrikaans milieu, the Russian settings, characters and everyday focus of de Wet's Chekhov sequels-Three Sisters Two (1996), Yelena (1998) and On the Lake (2001)-mark a departure from the earlier work on which she built her reputation. The trilogy is also anomalous in the larger context of 1990s Afrikaans f iction, which, as numerous scholars have pointed out, was still reckoning with and atoning for the troubled, immediately recognizable past (van Coller). Perhaps for these reasons-and because she does not embody the political and content-heavy sense of South African literature that has the most global traction-de Wet has been all but completely overlooked in American scholarship on South African writing despite her many prominent awards.4 For this f irst part of the essay I will follow her cues on Chekhov to trace the interplay of interior and exterior narrative dimensions in his work, establishing a source for its energy as de Wet sees it. …

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