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Books Column: How South Africa deconstructs the world

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams explains why Jacques Derrida would approve of his zany pet notion that South Africans live at the centre of the world... or something like that.

For many years I have nursed a pet hypothesis: that South Africa is the centre of the world. This notion grew, as many fantastical notions do, out of a detail in a book – in this case the novel Herzog by Saul Bellow.

Over time, I admit, I’ve had to revise my hypothesis somewhat, so that it now excludes, for example, places like the Far East. I cannot claim with any confidence that South Africa is the centre of the Far East. I simply don’t know enough about that part of the planet; perhaps someone more familiar with it can lend a hand and start collecting references for later submission into evidence.

The places I do know a bit about, though – the West, Africa, the South Asian subcontinent – have the habit of regularly confirming my hypothesis, to the point that I now look upon the idea rather dotingly as having grown up into a proper theory, widely accepted everywhere. This is nonsense, of course: who has ever heard or ventured aloud the zany assertion that South Africa stands as the fulcrum upon which the rest of the world (a good portion of it, anyway), erm, rests?

But bear with me, and let’s take a trip back to Cape Town, 1998. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is on the road with its public hearings, and the eminent French philosopher Jacques Derrida jets in to give a lecture at the University of the Western Cape, on the fitting subject of forgiveness. The crux of his talk is that forgiveness achieves its highest purpose when the act being forgiven is unforgivable. To rephrase, forgiveness works best with things that cannot be forgiven. (See: apartheid.)

Up to that point in my life, I’d formed a reasonable grasp of deconstruction, the framework Derrida invented for breaking down the ways we make sense of the world into their component parts, but I’d never seen it in action before. The truth that he conjured in that small, overcrowded lecture room – the elegant architecture of his sentences, the dizzying profundity of his conclusions – was a revelation. At the end of the hour, I found he’d handed me a gift: a model for tapping and tinkering the nagging ideas that ticked in my head into some kind of proper clockwork.

(Incidentally, I took a scandalously sultry black-and-white picture of the sage at the event, with a used Zenit SLR that I’d picked up in a pawn shop on Long Street, but that’s a story for another time.)

Among the ideas ticking in my head was the old niggle arising from that passage in Herzog. Here it is, in its full glory:

“Zipporah said a few more pious things, and then in a more normal manner she added, ‘Well, he was an active fellow. Had plenty of money, in his time. Who knows what a fortune he brought back from South Africa?’”

This is the only time South Africa is mentioned in the book. Not much to base a hypothesis on, is it?

But hear me out. What gave me pause was the following thought: if a writer reaches for a detail that will complete a small episode in his work, and his imagination pulls “South Africa” in to do the job, then there’s something about the utility of this concept, “South Africa”, that’s worth taking note of. Why use “South Africa” at that moment? This question may be asked of hundreds of books, where, as in Herzog, a passage requiring a slightly-out-of-the-ordinary accessory to help it stand out discovers that “South Africa” makes the best accoutrement.

After first noticing this phenomenon in Herzog – long before I met Derrida – I soon discovered that South Africa was in fact omnipresent in my reading, appearing in margins, minor scenes and footnotes everywhere. It turns out this country is impossible to avoid in books published outside its borders. Just last week, for example, an email exchange reminded me that the great South African writer Dan Jacobson features in the final pages of WG Sebald’s masterwork, Austerlitz.

South Africa, then, appears to count as a necessity in modern literature: an outlier country on so many fronts, entwined in so many different global conversations, its complexities endlessly working themselves out, the place serves conveniently as a key metaphor, or shorthand conceit, or splash of colour to drop into boundless combinations of plots and settings. South Africa is the oddly-shaped item in a writer’s cluttered toolbag that is overlooked until no other tool seems to fit the purpose of the paragraph. It’s like a scrimshaw scribe.

At some point, with so many examples of how South Africa is necessary to the modern literary imagination piling up, you arrive at a situation Derrida would have recognised: the opposite of a thing starts to embody the thing. The unforgivable becomes what is forgiven; the scrimshaw detail becomes the main story.

And so the margin becomes the centre, and South Africa deconstructs the world. If our country didn’t exist, the world would have to invent it, or suffer a lacuna in its collective imagination and be left to wonder, when grasping for just the right element to add dimension to a moment, or tease it out for a beat longer, what’s missing. Fortunately, South Africa isn’t missing. It’s right here, the ouroboros knot at the centre of things, spinning off deep meaning in tiny glints, a free service for all. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • And, while not literary or entertainment masterpieces, I was thrilled to learn in Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z’ that SA was one of only two countries to successfully beat the dead; while in the film ‘2012’, the survivors of the global flood head for the Drakensberg to find land and build a new world…

  • The play and movie called ‘Six Degrees of Freedom’, which takes place in an Manhattan apartment has a similar SA scrimshaw. A major character is South African. Not rhyme or reason. No politics. Context never mentioned at all. He just is. Nice one, Ben.

  • In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, the South African example is foremost in the new Martians’ minds when they get down to constitution-building.

    • I entirely missed that. Will have to re-read all 3 books. A wonderful series.

      And SpaceX is bringing us ever closer to achieving it! So cool.

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