“The good, the bad and the ugly”: A legal-literary reflection on Von Meck’s Die heelal op my tong

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Abstract

The development of law and literature as a distinct field in South Africa has been slow since its inception at foreign law schools across the globe some decades ago. With the exception of a few articles on the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that focused on victim and perpetrator narratives and a few others mainly from the pen of legal academics at the University of South Africa, a rich tapestry of unexplored literary themes with huge potential for legal reflection remains.

The purpose of the article is to explore the role and value of legal-literary analyses of post-apartheid jurisprudence in South Africa with reference to Von Meck’s latest novel, Die heelal op my tong. This novel strongly resembles earlier post-apartheid literature, specifically with regard to the focus on the themes of the meaning of legal history; differences and commonalities between history, law and justice; retribution; absolution; collective guilt; and reconciliation. Against the background of the novel – the South African political context of the 1980s characterised by political turmoil, tension and a state of emergency – the reader is pulled into the female protagonist’s cathartic journey towards personal and political (self)discovery.

The legal relevance of this novel may be explained by reference to the value of the law and literature movement in general. The origin of the law and literature movement relates to two legal historical aspects: firstly, growing scepticism regarding the value of law itself and the issue of whether its value should rather be determined against the backdrop of its broader cultural and social scientific context; and secondly, the issue of the variability of all texts, including legal and literary texts. As the law and literature movement started to gain momentum, different foci developed – law in literature, which explores timeless legal themes presented in literary works; and law as literature, which analyses legal texts with the assistance of literary analyses or different literary methodologies of analysis. The law and literature movement in a broader sense regards legal text essentially as literature, with the result that literary analysis and techniques are seen as useful tools for legal analysis. The emphasis in this endeavour is on the ability of literary texts to enhance an understanding of the human condition within the framework of the law that governs human behaviour. Both law and literature could hence be regarded as metaphors for the human condition.

The value of the law and literature movement is, among others, that it provides a critical lens through which social, legal and cultural practices that are directly or indirectly influenced by the law may be examined. It is not always necessary for literary works to address legal themes specifically, as the literary context is often situated in a legal-social order that reflects prejudice or discrimination, hence already sensitising the reader to read the possibilities of alternative solutions between the lines. This article is premised on the understanding that the most pertinent contribution of the law and literature interaction for a post-apartheid South Africa is its ability to critically reflect on the legal order and its shortcomings by presenting the real lived experiences of the protagonists as part and parcel of the human condition of all South Africans of all races and classes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) acknowledged the role of the literary narrative as part of a reconstruction of the legal and political history of apartheid South Africa in its attempt to converge reconciliation and retribution through listening to the stories of both victims and perpetrators. A history worth remembering would be incomplete without both narratives and counternarratives. Despite the main criticism against the TRC for failing to achieve retributive justice from a legal perspective, it has succeeded in avoiding a denial of victimhood, which would have constituted an injustice on its own.

It is for this reason that Von Meck’s novel is significant, as its portrayal of an apartheid time slot does not seek to vindicate or criticise, but rather to assist in completing a picture in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of events. This emphasises the connection between law, justice and history. Historians, like lawyers, are concerned with asking why events happened, and although they do not deliver judgments, they share the duty with lawyers to be receptive to a conflicting or counternarrative. Both historians and lawyers (including the judges) are focused on finding justice by judging the causality of conduct against normative choices. In this manner, a coherent and justifiable narrative or record may be formulated to explain the events that took place. This creates a nuanced understanding of the situation of the protagonists (similar to historical figures); the role of causality; and different explanations for the violence, violations and conflict in each context. One difference, however, is that in contrast to law, which is an integral component of justice, the literary text can merely provide the promise of justice or democracy and not the assurance thereof.

The setting of the novel (characterised as bizarro fiction because of its surreal elements and its effect of alienation and weirdness) is the 1980s until early 2000s in South Africa, well-known for civil unrest, mass riots, the institution of a state of emergency and the deployment of the armed forces in the black townships in an attempt to subdue the rising resistance of the supressed. The characterisation of Von Meck’s characters, their lives and the novel’s context are grotesque and fragmented, aptly depicting an epoch of conflict, suspicion and brutality. This is clear from the father figure in the novel who constantly pits himself against others (the legal system; gangsters) or the Other (“die Rooi Gevaar” or the communists).

This article considers different pertinent themes in Die heelal op my tong. The title of the novel – both a polyhedron and a hyperbole – is linked to religious motifs; the power (weight) of words and of personal autonomy. The protagonist, Willemien, whilst on a journey to the Richtersveld, revisits her tumultuous past through a cathartic and anachronistic account to her younger sister, Precious Cargo. Since “words have power – they may bind or release you” (360; translated into English by the author of this article), the reader anticipates that Willemien’s catharsis will relieve her of a heavy burden. The weight she carries is not only literal, but psychological: the result of her dysfunctional relationship with her parents; her neglect and abuse at their hands, carried further and amplified by other dysfunctional characters. Willemien has become a type of messianic scapegoat for her father’s guilt, as well as for that of others. Her eating disorders and weight gain become the metaphor for the heavy burden and guilt that she is carrying. Just like the biblical scapegoat is banned to the desert, her father’s rejection later forces her into exile in the United States and Sri Lanka. The title further has an association with food, eating, purging and eating disorders. Literally translated as “the universe on my tongue”, the title is a reversal of the proverbial “wêreld aan sy voete” or “world at his feet”, which has a positive connotation.

Willemien’s father is a lawyer, yet in constant conflict with the law. The duality of his role as brilliant lawyer, whilst also known to be one of the most cunning swindlers, points to the tension between justice and legal transgression. Seeking his approval is her primary objective, yet he disappoints her by punishing or rewarding her with food in a cruel, unpredictable and ambiguous manner. As a child originating from an impoverished background and who has outgrown polio with great difficulty, he was constantly trying to avenge his disability; a trait that has never left him. Although Willemien tries to soften the impact of his physical abuse by satirically referring to the “floaters” that he gave her (the blow was so hard that it left her hanging in the air), she remains loyal and forgiving, always seeking his approval.

The snow coat, one of the most important symbols in the novel, becomes an object of comfort for the young Willemien. Sewn onto the coat were both the apartheid South African and the Namibian flags, whilst the buttons of the coat consisted of animal teeth. Part of Willemien’s unconventional childhood was that she was allowed to drink alcohol, but not eat dessert; she was allowed to use drugs, as long as she didn’t gain weight. Going to school was also not an issue, as long as she obtained an A-plus in all her subjects. This very distorted picture of what is right and wrong and good and bad characterised her entire childhood. When she slept close to her father’s coat, she could smell and feel him. The macabre picture of an abused girl finding comfort in a grotesque coat consisting of the apartheid flag and animal teeth (trophies of the hunter) for buttons is disturbing in its stark contrasts, as it signals both vulnerability and violence; making it an accurate metaphor for apartheid. After her father’s death, Willemien tries on the large coat, only to realise, to her surprise, that it fits her, and that she has become her own coat (373–5). This strong image shows that Willemien had become one with her father’s guilt. The scapegoat theme emerges again – she did not only carry her father’s guilt and sin, she had internalised these as her own.

Willemien’s eating disorders and drug abuse are two further themes that merit closer inspection. During the time of her parents’ divorce, Willemien felt the loss of her father deeply. She was 15 when he finally responded to her letters and bought her a plane ticket to the United States. Both Willemien and her mother suffer from eating disorders. Willemien stopped talking in her standard 5 year, because she felt that words were empty. This relates strongly to the novel’s title, Die heelal op my tong, pointing to her helplessness as the silenced victim. Her eating disorder is an attempt to “obliterate herself, kilogram by kilogram” (75), which marks the beginning of a long history of different eating disorders and drug addiction.

During her journey to the Richtersveld, she confessed to her sister the dystopic nightmare that haunts her, the dream in which she crawls out from a hole in a burnt field, surrounded by nothing and no one, except for the smell of burnt flesh and telegraph cables. She refers to the dream as her own “scorched earth”, hinting at Lord Roberts’ scorched-earth policy during the Anglo-Boer War. The theme of the obese individual body here progresses to that of the historical (collective) body that carries centuries’ pain and suffering, which Willemien describes as “her pantry of grief” (94); her genes where the pain of Boer women and their children have found a resting place. The theme of the enslaved body appears earlier in the novel when Willemien draws a parallel between slavery and her own body as an object of slavery, longing for and hungry for liberation (27).

Willemien’s eating disorders spiralled out of control during the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst living in Constantia (upper-class suburb of Cape Town), the young Willemien hears about the unrests (“onluste” (114)), without understanding the context of these. Excited and thrilled by the unrests, her father one night began shooting wildly into their yard, laughing uncontrollably (115). Shooting at imagined revolters made him hungry (116), and afterwards he feasted on crayfish and eggs. This luxurious meal – a sombre contrast to the plight and need of the victims of apartheid – represents the metaphorical self-consuming gluttony of the apartheid regime. Willemien’s weight continued to oscillate between the extremes of very thin and obese. During her stay in the United States, marked by dysfunctional relationships with men, her drug addiction (motivated by the goal of losing weight) further spiralled out of control, so much so that her father had to arrange for her return to South Africa via the embassy in Sri Lanka.

Upon her return to South Africa, Willemien started a relationship with and later married a dubious character, Clifford O’Kill, who used to work for her father. The resemblances between Clifford and Willemien’s father is striking: Both men have atypical bodies (due to polio, accident or drug addiction); their behaviour is ambivalent towards Willemien (marked by sporadic love, hate and repulsion); and she is always apprehensive in their company (waiting; ready to justify their actions; willing to carry their guilt or buy them out of clandestine activities; and willing to care for them). When Willemien married Clifford, she in fact married their father, a fact that her sister observed (377), thereby reconstructing her father into her life. It is no surprise that Clifford, just like Willemien’s father, died a (criminally) suspicious death.

The climax of the novel, and also the end of Willemien’s cathartic journey, takes place when Willemien and Precious push a shop trolley containing their father’s snow coat, his safe and Clifford’s ash over a clifftop, laughing so much in the process that the cliffs echo (377). This unburdening and relief would not have been possible if it wasn’t for her acknowledgement that she has “become her own coat” when trying on her father’s coat. His guilt had become hers.

The body in Von Meck’s novel postulates the human body in different forms of slavery: obese; anorexic; bulimic; disabled; and addicted (drugs). On a parallel level, this metaphoric body may be regarded in the South African apartheid legal history as an abhorrent indulgence (consumption) of political power and dominance, just as Jan Rabie’s “Drie kaalkoppe eet tesame” suggests. In the final instance, the apartheid narrative can never end, as literature (and art in general) will continue to create in the future a place for the past.

Keywords: law and literature; legal analysis; legal history; legal-literary analysis; post-apartheid literature; reconciliation; retribution; Truth and Reconciliation Commission

 

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

“The good, the bad and the ugly”: ’n Regsletterkundige besinning van Von Meck se Die heelal op my tong

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