Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Critic Ben Lindfors has stated that La Guma’s works are characterized by a skillful creation of atmosphere and mood, colorful dialogue, a mixture of pathos and humor, and occasional surprise endings. La Guma is known for his ability to portray character and for his keen, reportorial eye for detail, which he conveys with poignancy and meticulousness. His main character, Choker—appropriately named to reflect both his own personal experience as a victim of poverty and oppression and a victimizer of fellow slum dwellers—is described as “a drifting hulk, an accursed ship moving through a rotting Sargasso.” In other words, he is a man who must respond with brutality and viciousness in order to survive the environment of slum life. La Guma describes the sounds and smells of the slum in language that is at once sparse but graphic: The woman’s bed and blankets are described as smelling of “cheap perfume, spilled powder, urine, and chicken droppings.” By choosing blankets as the metaphor of entrapment, La Guma is able to convey the squalid living conditions under which disadvantaged South Africans live during apartheid.

Everything about internal and external spaces and objects is fraught with tension: the breeze is hot, the light is “slum-coloured,” the baby’s cry is a “high-pitched metallic wail,” the bed springs make “agonized sounds,” the houses are old and crammed, and the shanties are cardboard and tin, the blankets are “exhausted” and a “parched field,” and the bedstead of his childhood is “narrow, cramped,” and “sagging.” If anything is humorous in “Blankets,” it is the light-heartedness of the dialogue among the slum dwellers and the pathetic bravado Choker exhibits even as he lies helplessly on blood-soaked layers of old newspapers in a lean-to that reeks of “dust and chicken droppings.”

La Guma’s use of flashbacks to tie Choker’s childhood experiences with blankets to his more recent adult experience with his lover’s blanket gives a circular shape to the narration. It is ironic that at the end, Choker does get a “thick and new and warm” blanket, granting his adult wish for “fresh-laundered bedding,” as he lies, perhaps on his last breath, in the ambulance. This may be an example of one of La Guma’s surprise endings, or perhaps this is how the writer infused the element of hope in seeming hopelessness.