La Guma, (Justin) Alex(ander)
La Guma, (Justin) Alex(ander) 1925–
A black South African novelist and short story writer, La Guma is an outspoken critic of apartheid. In his overriding concern to portray apartheid's moral injustice, La Guma depicts a violent urban landscape peopled by oppressed characters in generally hopeless situations. His later work has been progressively revolutionary. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
The Times Literary Supplement
It is difficult to separate Alex La Guma's novel, And a Threefold Cord, from its author's life and the circumstances of its writing. One of the Coloured leaders against apartheid in Cape Town, where he was born, Mr. La Guma … wrote the book between two terms of imprisonment while under house arrest in 1963…. [The novel] is a restrained account of a few days in one family's life in the shanty slums on the outer fringes of Cape Town. The book has no overt message—save the simple one of its epigraph, from Ecclesiastes, which gives the work its title—yet it is impossible to read the description of death, birth, crime, tragedy and brutality in these lower depths of South Africa, of the maggot-infested rubbish-dump which is the children's favourite playground and of the incessant struggle to keep the crazy shacks standing against wind and rain, without saluting the valiant protest which is the author's life-work.
"Eastern Europe Speaking English," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3282, January 21, 1965, p. 52.∗
(The entire section is 180 words.)
What distinguishes La Guma's work is that it shows real people waging a bloody contest with the forces of oppression: they celebrate their few short moments of victory, credibly enough, in sex, cheap Cape wines and stupid fights with one another.
A Walk in the Night describes for us what happens to Michael Adonis, a Coloured boy thrown out of his job for talking back to a white foreman, and a supporting cast of thugs, derelicts, spivs and neurotic cops doomed for a certain term to walk the night. (p. 165)
Lewis Nkosi, "Annals of Apartheid," in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXIX, No. 1768, January 29, 1965, pp. 164-65.∗
(The entire section is 111 words.)
Gideon-Cyrus M. Mutiso
A Walk in the Night is a representative novella and six short stories by Alex La Guma.
The novella, "A Walk in the Night," is set in the slums of Capetown where living and getting ahead are based on violence…. In "A Matter of Taste," La Guma explores the relationship between a white tramp who wants to go to America and two African railroad workers who are the ones who teach him the "trick" of jumping the train to travel to Cape Town to catch the ship. In the story, there are vivid details of how the Africans sublimate some of their knowledge of European culture which they cannot afford. "Blankets" is a story of deep anguish. Although the protagonist is near death because of a street stabbing, his origin and life are captured in his memories of dirty blankets…. It is not surprising that people of the slums who live in constant violence from the racist government and the brutal gangs find solace and enjoyment in boxing as in the "Gladiators," where the sport is almost a license to murder. A Walk in the Night documents the social conditions of the urban South African. (p. 217)
Gideon-Cyrus M. Mutiso, "O Shango! Uses of African Literature," in Social Education (copyright 1971, by the National Council for the Social Studies; reprinted with permission), Vol. 35, No. 2, February, 1971, pp. 213, 215-17.∗
(The entire section is 225 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
In the Fog of the Season's End is best described as a novella, for it is short and confines itself almost entirely to one character. This is "Buke" Beukes, full-time underground organizer in Cape Town…. Mr La Guma does not pay much attention to exploring Beukes's psyche. He is defined by his actions, a type, a man of great integrity and real courage if little imagination. He organizes his cadre in the activity possible in police state countries: distributing pamphlets and helping to smuggle out of the country men prepared to topple the government by force.
Mr La Guma's prose is usually spare and deft. He tells it like it is, but is capable of using imagery imaginatively, and of illuminating his grim scene with wit and irony. He notes the callous signs that underline the horror of South African life: "Drive Carefully, Natives Crossing Ahead" and "For Children under sixteen and non-Whites". But his ear for dialogue is even more acute, recording sensitively the idioms and peculiarities of polyglot Cape Town, bringing alive one character, Tommy, by his speech alone.
Mr La Guma knows about the fog of autumn; let us hope he survives to write about the South African spring.
"Cape Autumn," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3685, October 20, 1972, p. 1245....
(The entire section is 224 words.)
In the Fog of the Seasons' End reminds us that South Africa is not merely an 'issue', some abstract fixture to arrange in the liberal conscience; it is a complicated country full of living people and able to retain the love of those who suffer in it. The novel tells us chiefly about three men, two Coloured, one African, who work in a political organisation which, years after bans and arrests have driven all radical opposition underground, still distributes revolutionary leaflets and ferries volunteers out to train as guerrillas. The elegiac title is not misplaced….
No one is especially brave or particularly clever. Even the dedicated Beukes is essentially an average sensual man, always carrying with him the pyjamas, symbol of banal decency, wished upon him by the wife he yearns and fears for. Yet when every action is measured against the viciousness of police and the omnipresence of spies, even friendship becomes appallingly heroic.
The book is written with an exile's loving care for remembered life, for effects of summer light, for snatches of talk in the streets, for urban landscapes mouldy yet familiar. But as detail after detail builds up a very vivid background, simile after simile suggests the ceaseless violence of apartheid. There are passages where anger boils beyond the control of style, but these make the book's general restraint more impressive. Its imagery builds up a picture of man almost, but...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
La Guma is a committed opponent of the South African system of government, and his writings reflect this political stance. At the same time, they avoid the pitfalls of South African writing on the colour question, which Lewis Nkosi has accused of being 'journalistic fact parading outrageously as imaginative literature'. Nkosi considers that black South African writers have failed to satisfy the requirement of literature as a 'maker of values'. On the other hand, La Guma's novels, especially [In the Fog of the Season's End], would satisfy Dr. Gurr's request for 'Third World' writers who 'help us to change the world'. (p. 54)
A Walk in the Night is about crime, not politics. A robbery is planned, an innocent bystander is robbed and two murders are committed, one by the hero and one by the police. Yet these events are not the heart of the story, and their impact is muted, even casual. The cause of this effect is the limited subjectivity which La Guma imparts to his characters. The inhabitants of the slum live almost at the level of instinct, and their mental processes are minimal. Even Mike Adonis, the hero, is restricted to the simple emotions of anger, lust, truculence, and a dogged pride. La Guma's purpose is to enlarge our understanding, not of the characters, but of their situation. The basis of this situation is a power equation…. This power, to which the powerless hardly dare raise their eyes, defines the whole...
(The entire section is 1964 words.)
["In the Fog of the Season's End"] delivers, through its portrait of a few hunted blacks attempting to subvert the brutal regime of apartheid, a social protest reminiscent, in its closely detailed texture and level indignation, of Dreiser and Zola. (p. 84)
In Alex La Guma's novel of South Africa, white men are everywhere, "pink and smooth as strawberry jelly." They function as bosses, owners, policemen, and torturers. "In the Fog of the Season's End" has a setting … [thoroughly urban]. (p. 89)
Mr. La Guma is not … one to let his message slip by unnoticed, nor is his descriptive prose shy of insistence. Similes proliferate; at their best they quicken their referent … and at their worse smother it beneath a clumsy muchness…. The writing does, however, convey a jumbled, sweaty sensation not inappropriate to the subject—the human jungle the white man has imposed upon the South African black. And when La Guma's prose connects directly to outrage—as when Tekwane is tortured by two tweedy policemen, or when the maze of permits the police state has created is dramatized—the fuzz of overwriting burns away. As a thriller, "In the Fog of the Season's End" suffers not only from its chosen interweave of flashbacks but from a certain languid futility in its basic mission; the risk Beukes runs in distributing the leaflets seems far greater than any possible effect they can have. As political description, the book is...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
[In the Fog of the Season's End] marks a new and refreshing direction in South African literature. For in this novel the characters are no longer merely acted upon by events but are themselves acting, showing a marked determination to control their future through positive struggle. (p. 59)
La Guma is still as angry about apartheid as he was in his earlier works. But here the anger is carefully controlled and the self-pity that his characters indulged in A Walk in the Night is here absent. In that bitter work the oppressed of South Africa were capable only of turning their anger on themselves. Michael Adonis was caught without having done anything more to recognise the real enemy in practical terms than to kill a defenceless white man who had been exiled into the coloured community. Since mere bitterness is equivalent to blindness, the people in A Walk in the Night could only sink further into their futureless existence. In the Fog of the Season's End suggests that the South African black should not continue in this fashion and that the oppressed, wherever they may be, must be re-educated to examine what possibilities exist for leading more dignified lives in the future.
We have here at least a few people who are able to see beyond their immediate lot, beyond the fog, into those possibilities. In other words, a more mature type of character emerges who is able to think outside himself...
(The entire section is 1187 words.)
Samuel Omo Asein
[Alex La Guma's novels] tell a long continuous story of oppression, exploitation and dehumanization of blacks by a ruthless social machine.
La Guma's appraisal of the agony of South African blacks and coloureds is well represented in two suggestively dramatic and symbolic situations in And A Threefold Cord and The Stone Country, respectively, accounts of a fly trapped in a cup, and of a prison cat sadistically chasing a mouse. In the first, we are given an insight into the gruesome struggle against the stifling, almost elemental, force of apartheid. In the second, La Guma attempts to capture the life of haunted blacks as they enact their tragic drama against the parched background of "the stone country."… (p. 77)
La Guma's main success in [the passage about the cat and mouse] lies in the sympathetic relationship which is established between the prison inmates and the mouse in this symbolic confrontation with the prison cat. In the tripartite relationship which is thus established, the cat becomes synonymous with South Africa's authoritarian rule, while the mouse signifies the oppressed downtrodden black and coloured community in its desperate struggle for survival…. [The] point is that ultimately the common man will need to rise against the authority and assert his humanity and essence. George Adams' perceptive comment that "even a mouse (will turn) someday" reveals that latent revolutionary impulse...
(The entire section is 1132 words.)
[In Time of the Butcherbird] La Guma has again deftly constructed a novel whose action develops as a puzzle. Individuals are independently introduced, fleshed out with current concerns and flashback biographies and placed in the setting where they collide. The event which results is brief and final, but all that has preceded is needed either for explanation or evaluation of the denouement. An epilogue suggests the future of the survivors.
The oppression of blacks in a South African hamlet permeates the setting, offers a sketchy, unintegrated subordinate plot and motivates one character, whom we may identify with the proverbial butcherbird, "a hunter and smeller-out of sorcerers, because he impales insects." But most of the text is devoted to the world view of disparate, mean-spirited whites, hardly ever conscious of the kaffirs they abuse.
The elegant structure of montage and the focus on personal foibles dissipate the novel's intended moral force. Apartheid seems merely venal and insulting; revolt is symbolic, fruitless and even costless. The blacks are merely craven, rhetorical or vindictive; the whites more fit for pardon or pity than censure. The systemic iniquity seems what most of the characters assume it to be: immutable fact, unrelated to their own perceptions, values and choices. The one exception, the chief's sister, articulates little and achieves less. The analogous visionary in each of La Guma's...
(The entire section is 299 words.)