Hazara, elegy for an African farm by John Conyngham: reader impression

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Hazara: Elegy for an African farm
John Conyngham
Published in hardback by the Natal Society Foundation, Pietermaritzburg, 2016: 272 pages, ISBN 978 0 99217 668 6
Published in paperback by Shuter, an imprint of Shuter & Shooter Publishers, Pietermaritzburg, 2016: 272 pages, ISBN 978 1430 600 183

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer’s own initiative.

Most of us were imperialists in the end, however gentle our instincts, and hardly a reader of this book will feel altogether aloof to its narrative, or impartial to its judgements. Mine is an aesthetic view of Empire, and there is no denying that as the flare of the imperial ideal faded, so its beauty faded too. It had not always been a pleasant kind of beauty, but it had been full of splendour and vitality …. – Jan Morris, Farewell the trumpets

Who do you think you are? is an enormously popular international BBC television genealogy series in which well-known people trace their family tree, often travelling to other countries to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps. Family secrets and forgotten stories are revealed, sometimes confirming the celebrity’s previous ideas, but often completely subverting their expectations as tales of bravery, charity, loss and heartbreak come to light.

The simple formula of the programme capitalises on the extraordinary recent growth in genealogical research by millions of people able to access ancestral information, thanks to the web. An enormous autobiographical industry has sprung up in consequence, which has greatly enlivened the publishing scene. South Africa is no exception to this trend, and the shelves of bookshops are full of memoirs, their subjects often having led quotidian lives – worthy, no doubt, but not really extraordinary enough to merit public attention.

Hazara, by established author John Conyngham, is a standout exception. While his family history is not especially startling per se, in Conyngham’s knowing hands this enjoyable, meticulously researched memoir merits inclusion in that rarified South African literary stratum occupied by writers like JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, who, in various ways, have reflected on the stony irreconcilability of transplanted European mindsets with African values.

Hazara, taken from the name of Conyngham’s lost dynastic family sugar farm in KwaZulu-Natal (in turn taken from the name of his grandfather’s regiment in the British Indian Army), tackles the torment of confused identity in the ambivalent context of the old Anglo-South African relationship. This is a dynamic further complicated by the white-black relationship – "that bitter-sweet, love-hate, never altogether frank relationship" – which has given rise to a "conscious malaise", according to Jan Morris (whose quotation sets the tone for this book), "behind which there is a more elemental angst which oppresses all minority peoples, the Welsh, the Scots, Jews, Blacks in the New World, exiled Palestinians, lonely Afrikaners". To this list can be added the arrivals from England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who settled on farms in what was then Natal and formed a distinct "minority people", bequeathing difficult identity choices in many cases to their descendants, among whose number are Conyngham’s ancestors.

Hazara is in the tradition of elegiac memoirs such as Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, about Anglo Kenya, and it is onto this rural template that Conyngham stitches a lyrical and multilayered tapestry of Anglo-South African life, with its interwoven destinies shot through with imperial associations, and its divided loyalties and love of the land, to catch a world before it slips from memory.

Conyngham is preoccupied with this enigmatic theme of loss – haunted, even. "I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past," writes Lawrence Durrell in Justine in The Alexandria quartet: "It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price." This price to be paid runs like a golden thread through Conyngham’s previous well-received, award-winning (AA Mutual/Ad Donker Vita Award, Olive Schreiner Prize, Sanlam Award) novels The arrowing of the cane, The desecration of the graves and The lostness of Alice.

In Hazara, we have a departure from the fictional approach. The genre is instead a hybrid blend of memoir and biography, written mostly in the third person, a bit like JM Coetzee’s memoirs. This leads to greater accuracy, because autobiography is often the prisoner of a subjective arc of memory, whereas biography can be more objectively factual. But students of writing can learn from the Conyngham technique when it comes to blending memoir and biography. The explosion in autobiography has given rise to all kinds of "memoir" approaches, and Conyngham incorporates several of these into Hazara. Autofiction, collapsed identity, excessive truth and excess of detail in a Proustian sense (where a single object can be described for 20 pages) are the kind of thing memoirists are experimenting with today. A trend in memoir has also been towards the interplay between the experience of the self and the wider political milieu. A popular narrative arc in this regard involves moving out of the world one was born into, and into another world, which can be a country or work or similar. It’s a shift in class, where lives are mined for inauspicious beginnings, and where we follow the trajectory to see where they have moved on to – perhaps to even more inauspicious endings!

A lot of memoir is also written for therapeutic reasons and, quite often, especially in the business world, for reasons of revenge. But the cleverness of Conyngham’s memoir is turning it inside out to use the lives of his parents and grandparents as a template upon which to explore broader philosophical questions of identity. Conyngham’s craftsmanship highlights in dramatic fashion the difficulties of genuinely integrating into another landscape and the unsettling choices his people faced in this regard.

Conyngham sets about tracing the factual history of three branches of his family: his father’s family, his mother’s biological family and her adoptive family, all of whom are descended from a British Empire background. The reader needs a few pointers in the early chapters, especially, while trying to decode what the narrative is about. Few clues are offered as the author sets about forensically dissecting the origins and doings of his forebears. He is as clinical and precise as Truman Capote in In cold blood. Facts are sacred. Faded black and white family photographs are subjected to relentless focus and scrutiny of what was happening in the background. Was that an unhappy little girl? Why did there seem to be an awkwardness in body language between various couples? Was it simply indifference, or active like or dislike? This is an effective approach preferred by writers on the human condition, like William Boyd, whose Sweet caress, about the life of an actual photographer, is a good example of a phenomenological approach to the central question.

Conyngham likewise initially makes you work for insight (a family tree here would have been useful), but, imperceptibly, by around chapter four, two themes entwine. The first is a gradual awakening sense that things cannot simply go on as they are "in empire’s glow". Choices have to be made – identity choices that have to do with the changing political landscape, the rise to power of the Afrikaners after the Second World War, the proverbial "other" for English speakers in Natal. And there are snippets conveyed by the odd throwaway remark at dinner or lunch, that so-and-so in sixties Kenya, old friends, are writing to say they are selling up and moving to Canada because there is "no place for the white man in Africa". And, as Conyngham’s mother and father grapple with this landscape of change, the questions are made stark for the reader – not in any obvious way, but it becomes clear that it all comes down to asking oneself whether one can simply "choose" to change one’s nationality from being British to being South African. The role-playing that this implies, conscious or unconscious, is unsettling. It cannot easily be captured. Judith Butler, the doyenne of sex change, describes gender change as involving a process of performativity; you have to learn the role by rote. Women are not born wearing lipstick, as Simone de Beauvoir says. Similarly, changing one’s nationality is an exercise in performativity, in role-playing, until you learn the part; and it asks a lot of the role-player – perhaps too much, as would-be post-Brexit British emigrants to France, Italy or Germany are finding when they fail the language tests for residence.

This is marvellous territory for the alert reader. You suddenly see what Conyngham is driving at with his deceptively simple approach. He is reprising William Faulkner: "That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long, like our rivers, our land, opaque, slow, violent, shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image."

Meanwhile, decisions have to be made on the farm. Conyngham’s parents are like the couple in Paul Scott’s Staying on who elect to remain in post-Raj India. A new house is built on the footprint of the old homestead with its deep verandas. Trees are lopped down. The future is being faced with optimism. The tennis parties and cocktails and the dinner circuit continue as before. The children are at good private schools in Natal. The sugar crops are excellent. 

It all hangs on too long.

And these practical and hopeful events cannot conceal the identity choices gnawing at the protagonists, who fail to wrestle themselves away from the tones and habits of the "mother country", Britain, which forged them in mores, manners and set Anglo ways. More and more, they feel the weight of the future that demands from them a clear, new identity, but which isn’t enough to suppress that curious sense of loss and exile they still feel after all these years, of hiraeth, that uniquely Welsh word signifying unspecified yearning. The old country exerts a magnetic pull, and eventually Conyngham’s parents sell up and leave South Africa to return to a bleak and cold life in the United Kingdom. However, finding that it is no longer the country that forged them, they return "home" to Africa. They are located in a cultural and climatic limbo.

But this aspect of identity and personal family choices has by now almost become a subsidiary theme to a greater issue, as Conyngham leads you stylistically from the particular (individual family members) to the general (the question of what they are up against), and into the dark woods where, like the missing victim from some Scandinavian noir film surfacing in a bog, the thorny issue of racial identity in post-apartheid South Africa is finally dredged up. And the bigger question is confronted, the question of whether, despite being rooted for many generations, white settlers and their descendants, even though they make the effort, will ever be accepted in black Africa.

There are no easy answers to this question by the end of Hazara. Had his parents not sold up, Conyngham would have been master of the farm, but, as he says, he would now also be ensnared in the same kind of angst experienced by his own father. Today, 26 years after the end of apartheid, expropriation of white-owned farms is becoming a reality.

Conyngham describes Hazara in the foreword as not a political book, or even a conventional history, but simply an impressionistic account of a farm and some of the people who lived on it. Every character is the double of a real person, and every action is rooted in fact, although assumptions have sometimes had to be made. And, because no piece of land or group of individuals exists in isolation, it is also the story of a diaspora of men and women who were borne across the globe on an imperial tide that has since receded. As a child and youth, he caught the era’s afterglow, as one sees at twilight the salmon-pink suffusion of a sun that has already set.

That he has done very well. Lawrence Durrell writes: "Ideal voices and much beloved of those who died – sometimes within a dream they speak – or in the ticking brain a thought revives them …."

Hazara works very well as an elegy for a nostalgic, forgotten past in "old" Natal. Recommended for anyone interested in a wistful era when people still dressed up for cocktails. But it is also commended for the much starker light it throws on South Africa’s future.

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