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Exactly. The whole exercise seems contrived, and Coetzee has set the story in Australia, where he now lives. Let's hope some Elizabeth Costello takes control of his life and returns him to South Africa to find his inspiration. But lalela listen. The man has fought the good fight for literature and humanitarian values in novels like Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K, as well as in savannahs of trenchant nonfiction. Who would begrudge him a little diversion?
André Brink might. He too championed the anti-apartheid cause, paid his dues, had his works banned. And in his latest, Praying Mantis, which appeared August, South Africa's leading writer in Afrikaans harks back to the 18th and 19th centuries for a conscience-stricken novel about Cupido Cockroach, a character who despite his colorful name is based on a real historical figure. After a hell-raising youth, Cupido converts to Christianity and becomes the first "Hottentot", or Khoi, missionary ordained in the Cape region. The passionate new recruit is sent to proselytize in a remote area where the church cruelly forgets him, plunging him into near-fatal hardship. As in more than a dozen other novels, including A Dry White Season (the 1989 movie version won Marlon Brando an Oscar nod), Brink rails against righteous colonialism, the father of apartheid. "My God, my God, what have we done in the name of that dominion and for the sake of that subjugation?" he asks. "All those countless dead, now rising up to nod their heads at us and shake their fists at us in silent sorrow and accusation."
No one knows that sorrow better than Zakes Mda, whose 2000 The Heart of Redness, about the assault of modernity on traditional ways, is the most powerful novel by a black writer in recent years. Mda's The Whale Caller, published in August, is a much subtler tale. The Whale Caller (his real name is ignored) has retired from itinerant laboring to Hermanus, a pleasant tourist mecca on the Cape, where he spends his days blowing a kelp horn to attract whales for his own amusement. Then Saluni, the alluring, tempestuous town drunk, moves into his shack, curbs her boozing and tries to civilize his slovenly bachelor ways. But she soon grows jealous of a migrating female that the Whale Caller spends hours serenading. "That stupid fish has castrated you," Saluni howls. It's a mammal, he corrects, ineffectually. This improbable triangle ripens gently until its heart-breaking conclusion. Meanwhile, the new, tourism-obsessed, environmentally threatened South Africa festers in the background. A masterpiece of understatement, The Whale Caller is the real winner among this year's crop of South African fiction.
What about future vintages? Next year will see new novels by Mark Behr, Patricia Schonstein and other young whites who have made their mark since apartheid's fall. Expect more from Damon Galgut and Pamela Jooste, as well as nonwhite stars like Achmat Dangor, E.K.M. Dido, Niq Mhlongo, Mongane Wally Serote, Miriam Tlali, Zoe Wicomb and countless more. Now that all citizens can, in theory, get the education once reserved for whites, a new, thoroughly African generation could rise to replace the white liberal warhorses of the struggle years. (Gordimer turns 82 this month, Fugard is 73, Brink 70, Coetzee 65.) Then the new South Africa will have a fitting accompaniment to its flawed, feisty, adolescent democracy: a literature born in equality and fired with impatience. Phambili go for it!