La Guma, Alex
Alex La Guma 1925-1985
(Born Justin Alexander La Guma) South African novelist, short story writer, and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of La Guma's career through 1998. See also Alex La Guma Literary Criticism.
La Guma is best known for his fiction concerning racial oppression under the apartheid system in South Africa. In his novels and short stories, he conveys, as Nadine Gordimer says in her The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing (1973), “the sight, sound and smell of poverty and misery, so that the flesh-and-blood meaning of the colour bar becomes a shocking, sensuous impact.” Driven into exile in the mid-1960s, with his books banned in his own country, La Guma gained international recognition for his efforts to bring down white-minority rule in South Africa.
La Guma was born on February 20, 1925, in District Six, a working-class ghetto of Cape Town, South Africa. He was the son of Jimmy La Guma—president of the South African Coloured People's Congress and a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party—and Wilhelmina Alexander La Guma, a worker in a cigarette factory. Like most members of their community, his parents were of mixed race, which meant that they were classified as “Coloured” under the governmental policy of racial segregation. He grew up in a politically aware household and, following his father, joined the Communist Party in the late 1940s and became a member of the Cape Town district committee before the Party was banned in 1950. He graduated from Upper Ashley primary school and attended Trafalgar High School. In 1942 he left high school without graduating, but completed matriculation examinations in 1945 as a night student at Cape Technical College and in 1965 was a correspondence student at the London School of Journalism. In 1954 he married Blanche Herman, a nurse and midwife. La Guma held several jobs, working as a clerk, bookkeeper, and factory hand, before joining the staff of the leftist newspaper New Age (Cape Town) in 1955. That same year, as a delegate to the Congress of the People, he came to the government's attention in helping to draw up the Freedom Charter, a declaration of rights. Along with 155 other delegates, he was arrested in 1956 and flown to Johannesburg on a charge of high treason. The last of the defendants was finally acquitted in 1960, after many appearances at the famous Treason Trial. By this time, however, South Africa was in crisis. In March of 1960 there was the Sharpeville Massacre, when white policemen shot down unarmed blacks demonstrating against the apartheid “pass laws” that required nonwhites to carry identification documents; subsequently, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned, and a state of emergency was declared. La Guma was again arrested and detained for seven months. Then in 1962, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and finally, a year later he was placed under house arrest for five years. During this last period he was barred from leaving his house, communicating with friends, participating in politics, and practicing journalism. Prior to his arrest, however, La Guma continued to work as a journalist for New Age. Besides his news reports, he wrote a weekly column, Up My Alley, and in 1959 created a political cartoon strip called Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala. In 1966 La Guma began a period of self-imposed exile in London, England, where he remained until 1979, when he moved to Cuba. La Guma died on October 11, 1985, leaving behind fragments of his sixth novel and several short stories, as well as plans for his autobiography.
During the time leading up to his house arrest and then afterward while in confinement, La Guma wrote the majority of his short stories. Set in cheap cafés, prison cells, tenements, and backyards, they reflect the author's preoccupation with the effects of the color bar, whether expressed through the immorality act or liquor raids by police. “A Glass of Wine” (1960) tells of the unlawful courtship of a coloured girl by a white boy. In “Blankets” (1964) a young hoodlum, stabbed three times by an old enemy, returns in his delirium to earlier scenes of despair and deprivation. The novella A Walk in the Night (1962) details the chain of events that occur after a black factory worker is fired from his job for talking back to his white supervisor. Collectively, the stories form a powerful indictment of the evils of apartheid, particularly in relation to the coloured community of Cape Town. In these short stories, and in his journalism as well, one can find not only the language but also many of the themes and narrative devices that La Guma later employed in his longer fiction. Occasionally episodes were developed, and certain phrases, scenes, and anecdotes repeated. It was not uncommon for many black African writers of the time to move freely among different literary modes, bringing together elements of popular culture from such forms as pulp fiction, American gangster movies, and journalism. La Guma combines these elements to startling effect, developing a style of writing in these works based on what has been termed “Englikaans,” a dialect of Cape Town's mixed-race ghettos that blends Afrikaans with English. Like his stories, La Guma's novels expose the hopelessness and desperation of life under apartheid, not only for South Africa's black and coloured citizens, but for the whites who refused to live harmoniously and respectfully with their fellow human beings. All are portrayed as victims of a social system that ultimately robs them of their humanity. In And a Threefold Cord (1964) La Guma portrayed life in a Cape Town slum in all its squalor, with prostitution, alcoholism, violence, famine, unemployment, and illness accepted as part of daily life for the inhabitants. Published in 1967, The Stone Country examines conditions in the South African prison system; the hierarchical social system, racial segregation, and acceptance of brutality toward blacks make the prison a microcosm of South Africa as a whole. La Guma's most highly regarded novel, In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972), is also his most autobiographical, concerning itself with the South African resistance movement. His final work of published fiction, Time of the Butcherbird (1979), is his most metaphorical, recounting the history of an Afrikaaner family as represented by a white racist landowner whose eventual death at the hands of a black activist is portrayed as fully justified.
While La Guma and other black African writers were initially the objects of high praise and adulation by critics worldwide for their unflinching portrayals of the conditions in which blacks have been forced to live in Africa, critical reception turned on them in the 1980s, when commentators began to question the aesthetic merit of their works beyond the bounds of social analysis. Ultimately, however, many critics continued to laud La Guma's artistic sensibilities, and he remains one of the most highly regarded South African writers of the twentieth century.
Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala (cartoon) 1959; published in journal New Age
A Walk in the Night (novella) 1962; revised as A Walk in the Night and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1967
And a Threefold Cord (novel) 1964
The Stone Country (novel) 1967
Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism by South Africans [editor] (essays) 1971
In the Fog of the Seasons' End (novel) 1972
A Soviet Journey (travel essay) 1978
Time of the Butcherbird (novel) 1979
Memories of Home: The Writings of Alex La Guma (short stories and memoirs) 1991
Jimmy La Guma: A Biography (biography) 1997
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SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “Man's Fate in the Novels of Alex La Guma.” In Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell, pp. 344-60. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Coetzee evaluates La Guma's novels against literary criticism of the late 1960s that questioned the artistic merit of much African literature.]
THE WRITER IN SOUTH AFRICA
By the late 1960s, in reaction against a degree of overestimation of African writing by the literary establishments of East and West, a skeptical reassessment of its achievement was in full swing among African intellectuals. The harshest critics were writers themselves. Thus Wole Soyinka:
The curiosity of the outside world far exceeded their critical faculties, and publishers hovered like benevolent vultures on the still foetus of the African Muse … The average published writer in the first few years of the post-colonial era was the most celebrated skin of inconsequence ever to obscure the true flesh of the African dilemma.1
And on South Africa in particular, Lewis Nkosi's judgment was:
With the best will in the world it is impossible to detect in the fiction of black South Africans any significant and complex talent which responds with both...
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SOURCE: Green, Robert. “A Chopin in the Ghetto: The Short Stories of Alex La Guma.” World Literature Written in English 20, no. 1 (spring 1981): 5-16.
[In the following essay, Green discusses the tension in La Guma's short stories between social determinism and humane idealism.]
A gang of burglars is planning a robbery in a pub in District Six, Cape Town. One of them, Harry, is captivated by the music coming from a nearby house, in particular by a Chopin nocturne, and he goes to listen for a while before rejoining his criminal colleagues. He is momentarily touched by Chopin, but not reformed; the music overpowers him, but ordinary life, crime as an escape from poverty and racial discrimination, soon reasserts itself.
This episode from one of the short stories of Alex La Guma, the coloured South African writer now in exile in London, illustrates the two most common themes in his stories: the brutalizing effect of apartheid and of poverty on people and places, and man's ability to survive the resulting impoverishment and indeed to erect some monument, however slight or evanescent, to his stamina. Thus in “Nocturne” the world of the pub and streets is demeaning, crippling and corrupting, yet at the same time, a young girl is there playing beautiful, dignified music. This combination of brutality and humanity might seem incompatible in some writers, but it causes no tension in La...
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SOURCE: JanMohamed, Abdul R. “Alex La Guma: The Literary and Political Functions of Marginality in the Colonial Situation.” Boundary 2 11, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1982-83): 271-90.
[In the following essay, JanMohamed examines the ways in which La Guma's fiction reflects the socioeconomic and spiritual effects of colonialism on native peoples.]
The life and fiction of Alex La Guma perfectly illustrate the predicament of non-whites in South Africa and the effects of apartheid on them. His formative years were spent in a society that is still colonial and characterizes the black man as the incarnation of evil and the continent as the “heart of darkness.” Fanon's description of such a society has still not been superseded:
The colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. … The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare admit it, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil.1
The absolute negation of the very being of colonized people breeds a counter...
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SOURCE: Maja-Pearce, Adewale. “The Victim as Hero: Alex La Guma's Short Stories.” London Magazine 24, no. 3 (June 1984): 71-4.
[In the following essay, Maja-Pearce explores La Guma's handling of the victims of apartheid as characters in his short stories.]
It seems odd, on the face of it, that Africa has produced more novelists than short-story writers. One would have imagined the African condition to be perfectly suited to a literary form which, in the words of Bernard Bergonzi, ‘deals with life's victims, the insulted and injured, the forlorn and alienated’,—in a nutshell, the history of modern Africa. And the case for the short story, as opposed to the novel, is further supported by the absence of a stable social order against which the novelist can set his characters: it was out of such order and stability that the great European novelists of the 19th century were born; it is the absence of it that is the strength of the short story, as America demonstrated during the same century.
Alex La Guma and Bessie Head from South Africa; Luis Bernardo Honwana from Mozambique; and the young Zimbabwean, Dambudzo Marechera, seem to me the four most successful black short-story writers in Africa today. Interestingly enough they all come from countries where blacks are, or until very recently were, the most victimized on the entire continent. And it is this condition that all of them...
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SOURCE: Carpenter, William. “‘Ovals, Spheres, Ellipses, and Sundry Bulges’: Alex La Guma Imagines the Human Body.”1Research in African Literature 22, no. 4 (winter 1991): 79-98.
[In the following essay, Carpenter discusses La Guma's metaphorical language about the human body as a way of exploring what it means to be human.]
Observations on La Guma's figurative language tend to occur haphazardly in the midst of more general discussions of his work. Individual figures are interpreted, usually in terms of the social relations fostered by apartheid, but attention to the figures as such is limited to praise for his “memorable similes” (Wanjala 209), which have been described as “both arresting and yet artistically functional” (Roscoe 240), or is simply absorbed into an admiration for his “painter's eye” (Whitman 113) and the “controlled manner” with which he can “accurately depict a moment of intense activity” (Ngara 93) like “the exquisitely described fight” in The Stone Country (JanMohamed 247). Critics are understandably more concerned with the meaning of La Guma's fiction in its broad outlines or with his “revolutionary vision” (as Samuel Asein calls it) than with the contribution of a few rhetorical devices to that meaning. Michael Wade offers the beginnings of a critical account of La Guma's figures when, in an effort to demonstrate “the...
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SOURCE: Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam. “The Coloureds of Cape Town.” In A Study in Trans-Ethnicity in Modern South Africa: The Writings of Alex La Guma, 1925-1985, pp. 52-105. Lampeter, Wales: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Chandramohan explores La Guma's portrayal of black South Africans.]
One of the aims that La Guma had in taking up creative writing was to fill the gap that he felt existed in the portrayal of the Coloured community in South African literature.1 The gap arose as a result of the preoccupation of South African writers with the events of the expanding frontier of the Cape Colony which was dominated by the White-African military and cultural conflict. The preceding conflict, the Khoisan resistance to White inroads into their territories though heroic, Shula Marks demonstrated,2 was less bloody and lasted for less time as compared with the White African conflict. Consequently, the interest in Khoisan ways of life was relatively less. Even the little interest that the Khoisan resistance aroused was dominated either by outright racial denigration, as in the observations of many travellers,3 or by a Rousseauite ‘Noble Savage’ formula as evidenced in the writings of Thomas Pringle.4 These stereotypes, February points out, were transposed to the portrayal of Coloureds5 who, similar to the defeated...
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SOURCE: Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam. “Inter-Ethnicity to Trans-Ethnicity.” In A Study in Trans-Ethnicity in Modern South Africa: The Writings of Alex La Guma, 1925-1985, pp. 149-82. Lampeter, Wales: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Chandramohan studies Time of the Butcherbird for evidence of La Guma's transition from concerns about black Africans specifically to all ethnic groups in South Africa.]
La Guma's pursuit of the notion of a trans-ethnic society in South Africa acquires greater complexity in Time of the Butcherbird,1 an overtly symbolic novel. The use of symbolism in the novel is a consequence partly of the social divisions that compartmentalise life in South Africa, and partly of the author's exile since 1966. Behind the shift in literary technique lies a change in the mode of La Guma's social concern. Thus, the shift from near-naturalism in the early works to symbolism and allegory in the later works coincides with the shift in La Guma's concern with Coloured life in Cape Town to life across ethnic divides. In this ‘widening of range’2 La Guma's concern with Africans, ‘the largest and the most oppressed group [of South Africans]’,3 is natural; and Time of the Butcherbird is mainly about the dispossession that an African community faces in rural South Africa. The divergencies between...
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SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “Alex La Guma: In the Fog of the Seasons' End.” In The African Novel in English: An Introduction, pp. 155-70. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Booker views In the Fog of the Seasons' End as a turning point in La Guma's revolutionary writing.]
The political commitment central to all of La Guma's work is not unusual in African literature, but In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972), in its elaboration of the possibilities for armed resistance to apartheid, represents a step toward the advocacy of violent revolution that is distinctive in African literature and a significant turning point in La Guma's career. The book focuses on the activities of a secret underground organization dedicated to the destruction of apartheid in South Africa. Its two principal protagonists are the “coloured” operative Beukes, who gives up a happy personal life to devote himself to revolutionary activity, and the black organizer Elias Tekwane, who is captured by the South African police, tortured, and beaten to death. La Guma refuses to romanticize revolutionary activity, showing starkly the sacrifices that must be made in the interest of a cause whose ultimate success is by no means certain. Tekwane's fate is gruesome; Beukes's work is more tedious than glamorous, although he is forced to endure extreme physical and mental hardship in the course of...
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Green, Robert, and Agnes Lonje. “Alex La Guma: A Selected Bibliography.” World Literature Written in English 20, no. 1 (spring 1981): 16-22.
Lists publications of La Guma's short stories, interviews, and essays in magazines and periodicals; published versions of his lectures and addresses; and secondary texts, some with annotations.
Field, Roger. “Art and the Man: Alex La Guma's Comics and Paintings.” Critical Survey 11, no. 2 (1999): 45-63.
Argues that La Guma's paintings and comics should be considered alongside his works of fiction and journalism because of the light they shed on his experimentation with narrative and representation.
Scanlon, Paul A. “Alex La Guma's Novels of Protest: The Growth of the Revolutionary.” Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, no. 16 (November 1979): 39-47.
Discusses La Guma's first and last novels to analyze the literary development of his revolutionary evolution.
Tremaine, Louis. “Ironic Convergence in Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 2 (1994): 31-44.
Examines La Guma's narrative technique for intersecting the lives of black and white South Africans in Time of the Butcherbird.
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