Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

La Guma’s primary theme is unquestionably the deteriorating quality of life under a system of apartheid. Moreover, he suggests that both blacks and whites lose their humanity in the midst of apartheid’s refusal to see despair and decay in the urban slums. A genuine sense of community is impossible, yet the tenement dwellers feed upon one another’s illusions of community, and intimacy is glimpsed in individual gestures, not as a value that one can come to expect. With collaborators trying to gain a shred of dignity, however false, no one can completely trust anyone. Joe is left to seek solace by the sea when Michael joins the gang. Franky is isolated with the misery of his family. No one can be certain that a loved one will be there at the end of the day. Like Michael’s dream of marriage, a stable domestic life seems largely a matter of illusion.

Because the violence is abstract and random in nature, the perpetrators seem vague—victims turn on each other. To vent anger at their powerless state of life, fathers beat mothers who beat children who grow up to mug defenseless old men. Even those, such as Michael, who struggle to nurse a slim sense of dignity and an illusion of power are subject to the senseless whims of apartheid and, subsequently, are themselves capable of brutal acts of rage that can erupt without cause or warning.

Underlying these overt meanings in the novel’s violence is the precise description of physical...

(The entire section is 408 words.)