Parent Category: Saffron Catalogue
Category: Saffron African Art & Society Series
The skull is death’s rejoinder. Gutted, null, it is a fitting chamber in which to stage South Africa’s theatres of truth and atrocity, writes Ashraf Jamal in his contribution to Divisions and Diversions: The Visual Arts in post-Apartheid South Africa (ISBN 9781872843124, Picton et al).
I imagine a skull so vast it holds all… the stammered pain of multitudes. DO NOT FORGET, the skull sighs, groans. REMEMBER. And so we return. Haunted. Unclean. Dog’s chained to our vomit; a society to our torment. In daily bulletins the victims’ stories flow, unstaunched. Some listen, others deafen themselves, but no one escapes, no one is unscathed.
This inside me… fights my tongue. It is… unshareable. It destroys.. words. Before he was blown up, they cut off his hands so he could not be fingered printed… So now do I say this? — this terrible… I want his hand back.
I asked them, “Show me the mark on his chin. Then I will know it’s my son.” They showed me the mark on his chin, and I said:” It’s not my son.”
As she had a baby, the police said that the corpse would breastfeed the baby.
They held me… they said, “Please don’t go in there…” I just skipped through their legs and went in… I found Bheki… he was in pieces… he was hanging on pieces. He was all over… pieces of him and brain were scattered all around… that was the end of Bheki.
So the stained shreds of past are lived, gathered up to supply the historical record. For poet and reporter Antjie Krog, who spent two years in the thrall of testimony and pain, it is a record that draws us onward. For her the skull is also a “cradle”, a “country”. A bone chamber where the living and the dead converge. Trope for the tormented mind; metonym for the “decrowned skeleton” or corpse; the skull — extinct/extant — warps time. For if the skull’s whisperings draw us onward it also forces us back. NO ATONEMENT WITHOUT GRIEF… NO TRUTH WITHOUT PAIN, the skull tolls.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
South Africa was destined to confront its past. For some, an excavation that tore through the bone would be unforgivable. And it is true that we continue to live in the clamour of rage. In JM. Coetzee’s Age of Iron the dead whose “spirit has not left them,” who lie “heavy and obdurate… waiting to be raised up again.” In Jane Alexander’s photo-montages and sculptures, most notably in her Butcher Boys — allegorical embodiements of the living dead, with their mantels of horns, flayed flesh and bone, eyes vengeful, incriminating — we are forced back to the “recognition that the past is never over. It is real and perhaps more powerful than the present.”
Excerpted from a news article linking the process of the Truth Commission to the art of Jane Alexander, this grim prognosis — Mike Nicol’s — also serves as a key to understanding Krog’s Country of My Skull. Indeed, Alexander’s photo-montages are, in part, a visual correlative for Krog’s record. In the works of both the skull is omnipresent — histories indomitable cipher. Like Mrs Curran, the terminal protagonist in Age of Iron, Alexander and Krog are haunted by a betrayed earth. “Ilala.” Krog cries, clinging to the syllables of hope. Ilala… “a grass blade the one milks while the other confesses. The emptier the blade becomes, the emptier the heart of anger.” This is the beatitude, the prayer and the miracle which could unchain us. However, in none of the photo-montages shown here do we find this redemption. What Alexander and Krog share is the nightmare. Krog’s “country” is also Alexander’s “Landscape”. Bone geography.
Witness the woman in Alexander’s “The Cow House” imaged earlier. Stripped — a bare forked animal — she moves through a gauntlet of impending slaughter. Before her sits a tribunal, their domed heads like skulls. In this as in the other photo-montages, we are caught within chambers of atrocity; the very chambers which Antjie Samuel — investigative reporter — must enter. As Antjie Krog — poet and novelist — the evidence is turned into art. Here, again, a parallel witness, but Krog’s process. Under the signs of Krog/Samuel, we are drawn at the outset to a split which undoes the integrity of each nomination. Without this split I believe Krog could never have supplied the record. Through shifting guises — ventriloquist, narrator, victim, poet — Krog invokes the past, skews the present. The method may be controversial to some, unorthodox to others, yet through the alignment of fact and fiction, translation and poetry, Krog’s method challenges truth’s transparency; evokes the limit and the balm of testimony.
“Translation is a kind of transubstantiation,” Anne Michaels writes in Fugitive Pieces. Then, shifting to a positive register, Michael’s adds: “You can choose your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live; the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude.” Krog is aware that she too must choose:
“The past has to be put into hard news gripping enough to make bulletin headlines into reports that the bulletin-writers in Johannesburg cannot ignore.” To do so, Krog must marshal “the full spectrum of hard news techniques and where necessary develop and reform them.” Detail must succumb to meaning; meaning must yield to exactitude. At every turn, however, the truth falls short. At the root of the problem is language’s flawed claim upon truth; Krog’s intuition that something is missing — in herself, in words.
“The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications.” For Michaels both acts are just, ethical. However, in the first and last instance, the acts of poet and translator are impossible to parse. Rather, poet and translator are bund, like the figure *, a palindrome. Life to language… language to life… each informs the other. All acts of invention are also acts of translation. And nothing surfaces whole. A poem, a work of translation, is fugitive. Which is why Michaels must forfeit the tidy polarity of poet and translator and introduce a third term that informs and blur both vocations: the “immigrant.”
Displayed, the immigrant drifts between, shorn of any implacable and finite sense of being and location. A mimic, the immigrant exists in translation, her voice an echo, her sense of meaning skewed by the world which chooses to define her. Yet, seemingly imprisoned, the immigrant possesses a weightlessness. She is the apotheosis of the age of suspicion. For her, truth is contingent, partial. Implicated in mystery, sepulchral, the immigrant intuits that which is hidden. For her there are no tough binaries, no absolute contests. Always, there is a crossing, a fudging of borders, distended certainties. For to speak of truth today one must be pagan — faithless in faith. All purity of thought, of blood and experience, is rigged. Why insist upon the truth, Nietzsche asked; why make a detail of what you are and must be? Equally, why provoke a facile relativism; why make the art of sophistry an excuse for doubt? If language and life are subject to choice, then surely it is grace and not terror that should govern the choosing? Then again, to what extent does one choose to choose? Are we not all enslaved? Our choices bound — even, and precisely — in their moments of flight?
The dilemmas of poetic expression… just transcription… the intuited sense of that which is absent, forever unspeakable… forms the threefold movement of Country of My Skull, the first major record of South Africa’s Truth Commission hearings. Krog’s sensibility, which shares a kinship with Michaels, compels her to confront the limit of truth. Neither ironist nor fundamental evasiveness. “Truth is a word she has never “bedded” in a poem. Truth cannot be cradled in a skull, given succor in and through words. A ghosting, truth cannot be bridged. Rather, truth is distance itself. All renderings are approximate. “Invisible,” truth exists “between the lines,” Slips the moorings of nomination and discourse. “The word ‘truth’ makes me uncomfortable… I hesitate… I am not used to using it> Even when I type it, it ends up as either turth or trth.” Night engulfs truth’s enunciation. Gutted, scrambled, truth is a word untenanted — untenable. “I prefer the word ‘lie’,” says Krog. “The moment the lie raises its head, I smell blood. Because it is there… where the truth is closest.” There… A finger is pointed, a colophon, but the site remains inexact, caught in the blur of ellipses, omission, unspoken anguish. Blur of bone… remember blood.
To be privy to the Truth Commission hearings is to be wrenched asunder. Self-possession is the first mantle of fall —without witness, by degrees. When knowledge dawns, always belatedly, the map that could lead one back to the destroyed self is lost. A sickness sets in. There is little protection against the telling. “We develop techniques to lessen the impact. We no longer go into the halls where the hearings take place, because of the accumulated grief. We watch on the monitors provided. The moment someone starts crying, we start writing/scribbling/doodling.” To no avail. Grief tears through the monitor, sends words scurrying. For “flesh and blood can in the end only endure so much… Every week we are stretched thinner and thinner over different pitches of grief… how many people can one see crying, how much sorrow wrenched loose can one accommodate… and how does one get rid of the specific intonation of the words? It stays and stays.” Filled to breaking point with pain, with exhausted eyes “scratching darkness,” Krog’s record grows thin; the telling like the body it parasites engorged with horror. Biafran.
My hair is falling out. My teeth are falling out. I have rashes… I enter my house like a stranger. And barren.
I stand in the dark kitchen for a long time. Everything has become unconnected and unfamiliar. I realise that I don’t know where the light switch is.
“I cannot put things together. The cries of the night are in my ears, the jolly faces in the bar and the air that smells of spring — how do I integrate it?” The dilemma is formal and psychological. JM Coetzee, in the close of his Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech, grasps the dilemma: “In South Africa there is now too much truth for art to hold… truth that overwhelms and swamps every act of the imagination.” Krog avers. For her the dilemma applies in equal measure to the transcription of fact: “I am not an investigative journalist. I find the whole idea of scoops and the breaking of stories slightly ridiculous, if not pathetic. Headlines make me cringe. So how do I report this, what should my role be?” Split like her namesake — Krog/Samuel — she founders in the face of reconciliation. That which undoes the integrity of reportage, renders surreal the cries of the night… smells of spring, is not so much “the deaths and the names of the dead, but the web of infinite sorrow woven around them where the horizon keeps falling away.” It is the unending nature of the tale, the infinite web, that force Krog’s crack-up. The doppelganger — Krog/Samuel — is insufficient. Within the flimsy constraints of each she remains at a loss. Barren… legion.
While Dirk Coetzee tells of howGriffiths Mxenge was stabbed, how the knife was twisted in behind his ribs and couldn’t be pulled out, how his throat was cut and his intestines jerked out, his security men sit behind him, half-concealed by a curtain. One of them is Klein Dirk. His blonde girlfriend is with him today. She is wearing a little black foliage of a dress with thin straps. As Coetzee is relating the details, to gasps of horror from the audience, she is busy lacquering her nails. Her left hand is splayed on Klein Dirk’s thigh — he holds the bottle while she applies neat layers of dark Cutex to her nails.
Dirk Coetze is accused of exaggeration, fabrication. “Yet it is precisely these details that make it difficult to dismiss his evidence because they exude intimate and authentic knowledge. “Again, for Krog, truth is found in the midst of lies. Or rather, not found but sensed. Detail can be corroborated, questioned, but the smell, the scent, lingers. A matter of tone: truth for Krog is also olfactory, physiological. Truth is exuded, becoming all the more toxic when the memory from which it stems is rotted, secreted, buried. One has to have a good memory to be a good liar. Since memory is always partial, always the victim, the truth must leak like “definitions through a sieve.”
Judge Bernard Ngoepe: Are you able to remember that on a certain day in 1987 on a farm near Pienaarsrivier, you electrocuted three people?
Hecter: I can… the electrocution… I can remember after it was told to me. Because it was completely out of My thoughts… I consciously banned these things from my thoughts… I haven’t thought about it for ten years…
Ngoepe: But you remember trivialities.
Hecter: Yes, I remember terribly… I can remember the path… it was a white chalky road… and there were guinea fowl. I can remember things that, but the really… the worse deeds… these I do not remember…
What does one make of these half-remembered truths, omissions, lies? Each is insupportable, each sovereign. The vaunted claim of the Truth Commission is the reconciliation with the past. So the stories must be told, the dead exhumed. How else will a society as monstrous as South Africa advance? Events that occurred ten… twenty years ago… must be revisited, not only by the victims who survived, the ravaged or mock-repentant perpetrators, but by all who remain chained to a process which knows no end: “Week after week; voice after voice; account after account. It is like travelling on a rainy night behind a huge truck — images of devastation breaking in sheets on the windscreen. You can’t overtake, because you can’t see; and you can’t slow down or stop because then you will never get anywhere. “Stalked, in flight, Krog carries the unanswerable like a crucible:
How is it possible that the person I loved so much lit no spark of humanity in you?
“When the Truth Commission started… I realised: if you cut yourself off from the process, you will wake up in a foreign country — a country that you know and that you will never understand.” What is indisputable is that some of the facts are on the table, enough to provide a context, construct memory. But understanding? Some means of vaulting the foreignness of living here?… Dr Sean Kaliski, a psychiatrist involved in the Truth Commission, notes: “I think people are too impatient. I personally would be very concerned if, overnight, whites could integrate information that turns their whole world-view upside down. It will take decades, generations, and people will assimilate the truths of this country piece by piece.” So… returning to the partially veiled curtain — truth’s theatre of transparency and concealment — we find the security guard holding a bottle of “dark” Cutex while his lover, in a flimsy black wreath f a dress, methodically paints her nails. Is she listening? And to what?
What makes Krog’s account of the Truth Commission hearings compelling is her dual absorption of the tasks of poet and translator. A detail is never dispassionately perceived. A testimony is transcribed in the belief that therein life continues. Morality gives way to ethics in the moment of judgement. All is contained in a grieving heart whose fate is silence. Evocative… factual… fugitive… Krog’s record is, finally, life affirming. The self finds voice in the collective, the collective in the self. This mirroring is not whole, however, but fractured. Krog makes no easy appeal to unity. Rather, her record is the sum of fragments shored up against out ruin. Hope and reconciliation, like truth, are not dormant but active, breaking through the world in pieces.
I am busy with the truth, my truth… quilted together from hundreds of stories… In every story there is hearsay, there is the grouping of things that didn’t necessarily happen together, there are assumptions, there are exaggerations… All of this makes up the whole country’s truth. So also the lies.
In the moment of utterance, truth’s transparency is skewed by the lure of dissimulation. This is the prevailing theme of Krog’s record, its controlling paradox: “Every narrative carries the imprint of the narrator. And if you believe your own version, your own lie — because as narrators we all give ourselves permission to believe our own versions — how can it be said that you are being misleading? To what extent can you bring yourself not to know what you know? Eventually it is not the lie that matters, but the mechanism in yourself that allows you to accept distortions. “Then again, is it the mechanism in yourself that allows you to accept distortions.” Then again, is it the mechanism in the individual that is solely at fault? Or does the problem also lie within the system — juridical and theological — which founds the truth Commission? To what extent is transparency ever possible? Distortion escapable? Must an authorised majority validate the truth? Is this the only way in which the past can become thinkable, the world habitable? Here Krog hovers, caught between the utility and futility of accessing truth. Allegiance to the Truth Commission begs validation, but the poet, the fugitive, that which is stridently mortal in Krog, remains at odds with authorised justice, consensual truth. She speaks of “the guts not to give in to easy justice. To live within the confinements of reality, but to search day after day for the progressing of one’s most cherished values. Merciless Accountable.”
Amnesty and compensation disfigure truth, institute a limiting justice. If, however, truth is seen as the “widest possible compilation of peoples” perceptions, stories, myths and experiences, it will have chosen to restore memory and foster a new humanity, and perhaps that is justice in the deepest sense. “Here Krog unequivocally expresses the basis of her commitment to the truth Commission hearings. Reconciliation is just to the precise degree to which it routs cynicism; transcends the gloss of institutional religion; ushers forth refracted plural truths; coaxes “a new humanity.” Wary of rhetoric, the political and theological “foam in the ears,” ”Krog’s avowed challenge returns us again and again to the grief that is silent, a reckoning that embraces the maimed and living word. The new humanity to which she calls knows no easy birth. It is the same humanity that lies stricken in Anne Michaels’ Fugitive piece, to slowly, ever slowly surface. A humanity manifested disturbingly, profoundly, in the “immense price and pain each person must pay just to stammer out their own story… Each word exhaled from the heart, each syllable vibrates with a lifetime of sorrow.”
Here, in the stammered pain of the victims, which “like a leaking tap” engorges the skull, Krog finds a nation’s resurrection. “In the beginning it was seeing. Seeing for ages, filling the head with ash. No air. No tendril.
Now seeing, speaking is added and the eye plunges into the mouth. Present at the birth of the country’s language itself.” In her grasp of the capacity of maimed translated words to speak fugitive truths, Krog echoes Jose Zalaquett, the philosopher and activist who served on the Chilean Truth Commission. Confronted with the choice between justice and truth, Zalaquett chooses truth. A truth which does not bring back the dead, but which releases them from silence. It is this release, the burden of al who survive the dead, which forges the concluding anthem to Krog’s Country of My Skull:
because of you
this country no longer lies
between us but within
it breathes becalmed
after being wounded
in its wondrous throat
in the cradle of my skull
it sings, it ignites
my tongue, my inner ear, the cavity of heart
shudders towards the outline
new in soft intimate clicks and gutturals
of my soul the retina learns to expand
daily because by a thousand stories
I was scorched
a new skin
I am changedfor ever. I want to say:
You whom I have wronged, please
Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull, Random House, 1998.
Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, McMlelland & Stewart, 1996.
JM Coetzee, Age of Iron (Check publisher and date).
JM Coetzee, Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech, Doubling The Point, essays and interviews edited by David Atwell. Harvard University Press, 1992.
Mike Nicol, Lest we forget the blind tragedy, Cape Times, 1995.
Jane Alexander, Photo-Book, Creda press 1995.