South Africa's Growing Pains

When Yann Martel's literary dark horse, "Life of Pi," won the Booker Prize last year, it seemed to herald the beginning of a new trend. Long dominated by well-established authors, the prestigious contest is increasingly recognizing newer talents, tackling more radical ideas. Five of the six writers shortlisted this year for the prize, to be handed out Oct. 14, are either first-time novelists or writers who have received little recognition or sales from previous novels. The 39-year-old gay South African writer Damon Galgut, for instance, caused little stir until "The Good Doctor," his fifth novel, which was published just last week in Britain. The compelling book is an allegorical tale about a cynical thirtysomething physician unwilling to confront his compliancy to South Africa's racist past. Galgut spoke last week with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell. Excerpts:

BROWNELL: What was your reaction when you found out you had made the shortlist for the Booker?

GALGUT: I was pleased and delighted, and then I got drunk. I can say being on the shortlist has made a huge difference to my life and career already. My first book got a fair amount of attention primarily because I was so young when I wrote it. Since then my career has been steadily shrinking till this turnaround. It is nice to know that the spotlight can still fall so far south.

Did your book touch a raw nerve when it was published in South Africa?

Reaction has varied from being intensely enthusiastic to intensely critical of the character of Frank because some people felt he belongs to the past and should be left there. But we cannot afford to not look at people like Frank. He is the kind of figure without which apartheid could not have survived, and in a way, it is people like Frank that drive any country along. He is a cynic, but South Africa is rich ground for cynics. His big sin, his crime, is to do nothing. But it is that sin that kept apartheid rolling along.

There is this overriding theme that young people, with only a generation separating them, view not only history but the future in completely different terms.

Exactly. The changeover in South Africa happened overnight. I taught at the University of Cape Town, and the kind of young people rising up through the university have no idea of what apartheid was about, what it entailed and what its values meant. To young people, black and white, it is a vague demi-event at the edge of things; it is not central in the way that it was to us when we were growing up. Maybe it should give us hope for the future and the remaking of the country that people do not carry that memory around with them.

Are these the kinds of things that a new generation of South African writers is touching upon?

I guess the older set of South African writers established themselves on the face of apartheid--that is to say, there was a clear-cut, overriding moral issue to be confronted. Obviously, since apartheid has been moved out the way, the moral issues are not so clear. These issues have to define themselves, and writers are still timid about confronting them.

What are the implications of generational divides in terms of the nation's psyche?

Well, I guess it depends on which generation comes out on top. Clearly in terms of the book, Frank's generation is the one that triumphs, but I mean that as a kind of warning, I guess. I think South Africa has got to overcome the cynical strain of the past.

Do you feel positive about what is happening in South Africa now?

My feeling is that South Africa is sitting on an edge and could tilt either way, and that we still have a few years' grace within which to resolve some very pressing problems, like the land issue. Poverty is another crushing issue.

What about the racial fault lines?

I think racism in South Africa is more obvious than it has ever been. Previously people could hide behind the law, but that is not possible anymore. I would say the political power has been handed over but economic power hasn't, so by and large the racial fault lines still follow class lines quite closely.

What do you want readers to get from your book?

Most books about South Africa have kind of resolved the moral questions for the reader by the time the book is done so people feel comforted. You know which side you are on, you know who the villains are. I wanted a kind of book that leads people into places where they feel uncomfortable and a bit ambivalent and then have to sit with the moral issues themselves afterward. And I want to do that because I do not think there are easy moral answers to South Africa. I think most of the questions that are thrown up around race and sorting out equality issues are profoundly disturbing to people. It is more human and more real and more helpful if I portray the reality of South Africa in all its ambivalence.