Faced with this brick-like anthology, and too daunted to traverse the huge cultural distance between ancient oral narratives and the modern short story in strict chronological order, one can conduct an intriguing experiment. In terms of sheer enjoyment, which authors do you gravitate to first? From the list of some 150 entries on the contents page, which get read easily and immediately, and which are put off for another time?
Herman Charles Bosman's small town prose might be the first choice for many people; others might turn to the big city rhythms of Drum writers like Can Themba and Casey Motsisi. Most would probably not crack the spine on a colonial yarn like "Uncle Abe's Big Shoot" or Sarah Gertrude Millin. The wry dialogue of Alex la Guma's railway tramps or Dugmore Boetie's one-legged con man is immediately appealing; Pauline Smith or Alan Paton's slower, Biblical cadences require a more serious-minded approach. Ivan Vladislavic's playful take on the modern African metropolis makes for effortless reading; the Johannesburg of the more earnest Es'kia Mphahlele and Nadine Gordimer could, one suspects, be left for another, more dutiful day.
In a country where imaginative literature has been, if not a weapon of political struggle, then often a journalistic account of it, or at the very least obliged to acknowledge its existence in some obscure parable or brooding landscape, this is an exercise which leads one toward a potentially radical, almost blasphemous question: What does it mean to read South African literature purely for pleasure?
It is the ideal anthology in which to conduct such an experiment, not only due to its bulk and range, but also because it brings together various conceptions of what a South African short story collection might be. The Omnibus makes available the contents of three best-selling editions: A Century of South African Short Stories, selected and edited by Jean Marquard in 1978, Martin Trump's revised edition of 1993, and The New Century of South African Short Stories compiled by Michael Chapman in 2004.
"The 'Century' brand," we are told in the marketing blurb, "has endeared itself to a wide public that supported the original editions through ten reprints", and no doubt the popularity of the initial format owed much to Marquard's decision to move away from the notion that art "should operate as a signpost of freedom", to attempt for the first time a shared treasury of southern African stories in English. Her vision was updated by Trump, who added the voices of previously banned writers - La Guma and Mphahlele among them - but made the curious decision of allowing only one story per author, and remarked in the introduction to this rather thin selection that "it is difficult to be an equal opportunities / affirmative action editor."
Chapman's New Century, on the other hand, was motivated by a much stronger sense of redressing omissions and doing justice to the full spectrum of southern African literatures. The collection begins with a wide selection of creation myths and folklore drawn from the Bleek and Lloyd records, from Zulu traditions and even from the proto-Afrikaans of the so-called Eerste Taalbeweging. So it is a relief to find that instead of William Charles Scully's account of witchdoctors being outwitted by colonial servants with lumps of potassium, the first named contributor is now the /Xam rainmaker /Kabbo. Reaching us via 19th-century transcribers and modern reshapers, his account of how "A Story is like the Wind" hauntingly evokes the universality of the impulse to narrate, setting his confinement in a Cape colonial household against the fluidity of spoken tales, their tendency to float between people and places:
I want to return to my place so that I may sit in the warm sun listening to the stories which come from a distance. Then, I shall get hold of a story from yonder, because the stories float out from a distance, while the sun is a little warm. I feel that I must visit there, so that I can talk with my fellow men.
A suitably loose definition of the short story permits an excerpt from Eugène Marais's finely worked Dwaalstories for children as well as the inclusion of near novellas like William Plomer's "The Child of Queen Victoria". There are fragments of memoir from Doris Lessing and Gcina Mhlope, a dramatic monologue from Barney Simon, and the newspaper columns of John Matshikiza, as well as an array of post-apartheid perspectives which culminate in Marlene van Niekerk's "Labour", one of several stories translated from Afrikaans.
In his encyclopaedic companion to Southern African Literatures (1996) Chapman set himself the task of writing against the apartheid notion of culture a series of discrete linguistic and ethnic entities. So here we find a much greater curiosity across language barriers: in addition to pieces by C Louis Leipoldt, Abraham H de Vries, Chris Barnard, Karel Schoeman and PJ Haasbroek, there are specially commissioned reworkings of modern stories from isiXhosa, as well as Antjie Krog's retelling of "The Sheep Herder's Tale" from Country of My Skull. In this testimony (originally given in seSotho before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), square brackets record the audience's laughter at the shepherd Lekotse's bravura delivery - his relief and relish in finally being able to narrate his experience - even as he describes a brutal police raid on his house.
It is a reminder that the pleasure of reading is a complex, almost indefinable thing, and even more so given the recurring South African situation where the writer finds him- or herself in the position of being the recorder and shaper of an oral heritage: in the words of one critic, an "amanuensis of the spoken word". Surveying the remarkable range of writing on the contents page, one can speculate that there are pleasures of recognition and pleasures in being misled, pleasures in layered, urbane ironies as well as kernels of mythic simplicity.
There are dated pleasures: the knowingness and clubby masculine tone of the colonial yarn is something that few would share nowadays. And yet, because these early written stories of the 19th-century are now preceded by oral material recorded by colonial administrators of a different sensibility, we can read them with a greater understanding of how "colonialism was not only about the hunter with his gun", in the words of the editor, but "also about more variegated interventions of power, control, and even sympathy".
In the latter stages of the Omnibus - those which have undergone the most changes between editions - there is a tension between the different anthologies, and one which reveals the inevitable paradox in trying to class literature in terms of nationality. For Marquard, trying to define a new and barely recognised literary field, the aim was to offer the reader "an interesting variety of artistic responses to a society we all know", and from authors whose reputations were already established. For Chapman, this society is hardly a given, shared reality, but still in the process of being constructed, not least by its literature: "My view is that we are not yet so free of history as to privilege in an anthology designated 'South African', stories which ignore entirely the special accents of this country."
As a guiding principle it is entirely admirable, but it does lead to the feeling that certain boxes are being ticked as one comes to his selections: stories by Stephen Gray, Joel Matlou and Rosemary H Moeketsi address homophobia, industrial labour and rape in grim succession. Njabulo S Ndebele could be better represented, perhaps; his sombre "Death of a Son" might well be joined by the joyful "Uncle", which evokes from a young boy's perspective the visit of a flamboyant, jazz trumpet playing relative who tells of his travels and in the process draws a map of a new South Africa long before it became a political reality.
Reading for pleasure, however, allows one to leave off debating whether the category "South African literature" is anything more than a publisher's shorthand, and to turn instead to the best stories, stories which inevitably take these things in their stride. After all, much of the narrative energy and irony of Bosman comes from precisely this play between intimacy and ignorance, between the local and the world beyond. In "The Music-Maker" Manie Kruger, the virtuoso concertina player, returns to his home town in the Marico and begins abusing his adoring audience, "calling us a mob of hooligans and soulless Philistines, and saying how much he despised us". Fortunately Letta Steyn is on hand to explain that Manie didn't really mean the things he said:
She said it was just that every great artist was expected to talk that way about the place he came from. So we knew it was all right, and the more offensive the things were that Manie said about us, the louder we shouted "Hoor, hoor vir Manie".
As Bosman's light touch suggests (and so too the oblique angles offered by Vladislavic and Zoe Wicomb), if the novel is often wedded to large narratives of nationhood and liberation, then perhaps the short story doesn't suffer from the weight of such expectations. It is not an art of reputation, writes Chapman, but "an art of the left-hand", and for many black writers from the 1950s onwards provided the only viable literary outlet: several of the Drum generation confessed to being too nomadic, too hounded by police or just too drunk to finish a novel. The short story concerns itself with the fragment, the slice of life or unresolved image where more is left to the reader in terms of furnishing larger meanings or the sense of an ending. And in a medium where exposition and careful characterisation is relinquished in favour of pen sketch and the pregnant moment, it seems authors are less prone to what JM Coetzee once called "the insidious pressures faced by South African writers to simplify and explain for a foreign audience".
In pieces written for small magazines rather than international publishing houses, in other words, one is more likely to find an unapologetic entering into a local idiom, an approach at once more direct and less conventional. And this is why it would be a mistake to postpone Gordimer or Paton; working at a smaller scale, in stories like "The Bridegroom" and "The Quarry" their ear for dialogue and descriptive powers are at their most accomplished and seductive:
Only Mitchell's Quarry had resisted the march of the city. It was a stony scar cut out of the side of Pigeon Hill, and though it was ugly it was a piece of nature. The large green pigeons had long since gone, but small birds and animals still clung to it, and lived in the trees and grass that ran down each side of the scar. Frogs and very small fish lived in the pools. Children were attracted there, for it was the only bit of wildness in the city.
So too, the strained conception of Mphahlele's longer works is nowhere to be found in the curt, evocative style of "Down the Quiet Street" or the unexpected (and perhaps unintentional) comedy in the opening lines of "Mrs Plum":
Madam's name was Mrs Plum. She loved dogs and Africans and said that everyone must follow the law even if it hurt. These were three big things in Madam's life.
The inclusion of Matshikiza's avowedly local Mail & Guardian columns permits a wonderfully surreal moment when the writer, while looking at property in the hills of the Transkei, is guided around by a man who "had been born with a birthmark that had covered the whole of his head with a purple cowl", but who refuses to acknowledge the presence of his potential buyer:
Now, we have all sorts of problems in this country and most of the time we would prefer to ignore them, considering how far we have already come. But when a purple man who is really a white man has a reality problem with a black man in what was formerly a black Bantustan, we have to stand back and look at what kind of situation we are actually sitting on.
Then, of course, there are pleasures in discovering something new: the almost unbearably black comedy of Ernst Havemann's depiction of the border war in "A Farm at Raraba"; the lavish attention given to politically inconsequential lives like that of the failed writer who is taking in by the police in Ken Barris's "The Questioning": "a large, greasy poet of uncertain stability" who "wrote poems about mournful gnats, the defunct river mill of his childhood, and faded hydrangeas".
For sheer, inspired strangeness, the stories of Peter Wilhelm can hardly be bettered. "Pyro Protram" describes a day in the life of the last man on earth, an alpha male who patrols a nightmarish landscape that reads like the West Coast done by William Burroughs or JG Ballard. He spends his days in a deserted hotel blasting the eyes off menacing giant crabs and doing away with the Janets, spectral reincarnations of a wife he had murdered in a past life, and who now comes back to taunt him for being a "mincing queer" for reasons that are as unclear to him as they are to us:
He cursed God for having left him alone in this place, where elementary truths of the past were flexible and change was arbitrary. Over the past two years he had killed thousands of Janets: but there was no end to them.
Yet even in the furthest reaches of science fiction one can't help but read this account of warped masculinity with the subtext of South Africa's political transformation in mind: "This was his greatest pleasure: the destruction of the monstrous forms of the new reality."
Finally there are guilty pleasures, and no matter what his many champions might say, reading Bosman must surely be placed in this category. For even as Jean Marquard goes to great lengths in her 1978 introduction to explain how the complex irony of his narrative voice distances the author from the bigotry and small-mindedness of his characters, there is still in the act of reading an enjoyment in Oom Schalk's turn of phrase, a momentary empathy which renders you, the privileged reader able to afford this hefty volume, in some small way complicit. It is a quality which makes Bosman perhaps the most authentically South African voice of them all, one which explored a minutely imagined, self-contained world in stories shot through with the tragedy of divided history, yet eschewing explanation or justification for sublime comic effect, and leaving one feeling (as the ex-con and gutter journalist surely intended) ever so slightly guilty.