Ronald Harwood Peter Prince - Essay

Peter Prince

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ronald Harwood is a South African and his new novel [Articles of Faith] is concerned with the tragic clash of races in his homeland. I almost wrote 'inevitably concerned' for it's difficult to imagine any serious South African author who wouldn't feel moved to comment in more or less depth on his country's racial tragedy. There is a danger here, however, as in any literary tradition—the québécois writers of French Canada offer another example—where authors feel duty-bound to reflect their society's overwhelming interest in a particular political or cultural concern. Conscious that he is in the service of crucially significant ideals, it's only too easy for a writer to slacken in his attention to such mundane matters as strong and individual characterisation, intelligent plotting, credible dialogue, and all the other nuts and bolts that help distinguish a novel from a political polemic.

Happily, Articles of Faith almost never drifts into that trap. I did say 'almost never': there are times in this epic novel, which traces the dismal history of Southern Africa over the past 180 years, when Mr Harwood's characters tend to settle a bit into cardboard representatives of the various ethnic groups who have ruled or pillaged or perished in that sad land. There is the boorish Dutchman, the ineffectual Englishman, the liberal Jewish lawyer, dense black masses of superstitious 'Kaffirs': altogether looking just a suspicion like yet another appearance by the grand old troupers of South Africa's long-running horror show. But against this, time and again the book snaps into life through Mr Harwood's shrewd and inventive perceptions, so that a broadly familiar historical tale becomes fresh and almost surprising in his hands.

Peter Prince, "Out of Afrika," in New Statesman, Vol. 86, No. 2226, November 16, 1973, p. 744.∗