Violence and the ethics of reading: the 'body' as site of violence and resistance in Alex Languma's In Fog of the Season's End and Sony Labou Tansi's La Vie et Demie.

Author:Diop, Oumar Cherif


Since the 1960s, African writers have been dredging the abyss of violence that has been the hallmark of the postcolonial African states. After gaining independence, many African states have failed to create viable institutions to spearhead national integration and sustainable socio-economic development. Instead, dictatorships and massacres have dashed African people's dreams for social justice and progress. Even in the heyday of African independence, authoritarian patterns of government were the rule in most of Africa (1) According to the logic of tyrants, once political opponents have been eliminated and private citizens gagged into perennial voicelessness, then the hegemonic script can be imposed easily through violence. The goal of despotism is to establish political, cultural, and symbolic paradigms that will function as the unique and ultimate boundaries of thought and action. The resulting personal dictatorships have been fictionalized and denounced by a number of African writers. As cases in point, in Kongi's Harvest (2) Wole Soyinka satirized Kwame Nkrumah's regime and, in A Play of Giants, (3) he laid bare the dictatorial regimes of Idi Amin Dada, Jean Bedel Bokassa, Macias Nguema, and Mobutu. Contemporaneous to Sovinka's literary crusade against African tyranny was Nurrudin Farah's trilogy Sweet Sour Milk (4), Sardines (5), and Close Sesame (6) which denounced the despotism and megalomania of Siad Barre's regime. Farah's works travelled two of the Machiavellian strategies shared by most contemporary African dictators: fostering tribal division to remain in power and tracking the opposition relentlessly. Both Sovinka and Farah denounced and ridiculed despotic rule by exposing its political and rhetorical methods. In the same vein, Camara Lave's Dramouss (7) exposed the atrocities of Sekou Toure's reign while Henri Lopez's Le Pleurer Rire (8) (The Laughing Cry) used the burlesque to ridicule Amin and Bokassa. (9) In their war against tyrannical role, these African writers revealed a variety of strategies used by the dictators to attain ascendency.

In this paper, I analyze the varied ways in which Alex Laguma's In the Fog of the Season's End and Sony Labou Tansi's La Vie et Demie dramatize the confrontation between the perpetrators and the victims of violence. By using the body as locus of both oppression and resistance, these works share two major traits: They represent violence as the cause of individual and social disintegration and focus on the ways the victims of violence deal with their predicaments. In the first section of this study, I show how, in the Fog of the Season's End, the silence of the victim of torture destabilizes his tormentors and how La Vie et Demie underscores the importance of speech where tyranny tries to silence its victim. In the second section, I argue that in both novels tyrannical power becomes impotent in the face of popular resistance. In the third section, I explore how the novels expound the relationship between ideology and resistance. I conclude this study with an argument that is salient in both novels: True emancipation is a result of oppressed people's converging initiatives and forces.


In the Fog of the Season's End: Silence as a Form of Resistance

Alex Laguma's In the Fog of the Season's End is set in South Africa where the Bantustans and the pass-laws, outward expressions of the structural violence of the Apartheid system, led to chronic unrest among Blacks. Their forms of defiance matured into a variety of subversive activities that no repression could stifle. The massacres of Sharpeville and SOWETO, the mass arrests, and the imprisonment and assassinations of Black leaders fueled anti-Apartheid anger and contributed immensely to the radicalization of the struggle in South Africa.

In this context o f systemic violence, In the Fog of the Season's End focuses on the activities of a secret underground movement fighting to end the Apartheid system. The plot describes the activities of Beukes, the "colored" operative, and is framed by the account of the torture of Elias Tekwane, the Black organizer. Beukes sacrifices a happy personal life to devote himself to the revolution. His political activities, which include distributing anti-Apartheid pamphlets and coordinating the efforts of the movement to withstand full-scale repression, are interspersed with memories of happier times spent with his wife and his young child. He has been separated from them since being forced underground. The narrative is also interlaced with the activities of Isaac, the young office clerk who escapes arrest and eventually re-emerges as Paul, the third recruit to be smuggled out of South Africa for guerrilla training.

After weeks of surveillance, the police capture Elias Tekwane, torture, and beat him to death. By refusing to reveal any information, Tekwane protects the movement and allows Beukes to escape and help smuggle three freedom fighters into neighboring countries. Through Beukes, the reader is acquainted with the daily risks associated with revolutionary clandestine operations; and through Elias's torture and death, Laguma exposes the brutality of a regime that made such resistance and sacrifices inevitable. According to Mark Ledbetter (10) the wounds and scars caused by such callousness reveal the ills of society, initiate a process leading to knowledge and action, and awakens the victims to the possibility of better worlds. The "narrative scar" (11), Ledbetter argues, manifests in the master plot as characters move from physical and emotional paralysis to the ability to freely make moral decisions and give voice to pain and suffering.

In the Fog of the Season's End exposes a series of narrative scars. The novel first foreshadows the ultimate dismemberment of the main protagonist, Elias, through its use of images of shattered life, e.g.:

A serrated horizon of office blocks with rows of parking-meters like regiments of armless robots in front of them. (12) Odd pieces of old furniture [...] packed and jumbled around the old woman: an old wardrobe with the door loose at the hinges and a cracked mirror; a chest of drawers that had once been painted, but which was now covered with ancient grime that clung to the crevices of the joint and wherever the paint had worn off. (13) These scenes of desolation and degradation are vivid expressions of the structural violence that rules over and confines the Black social body in squalid living conditions. The scenes also prefigure the degradation of Elias' body, which punctuates the story with a multitude of narrative scars:

His flesh burned and scorched and his limbs jerked and twitched and fell away from him, jolting and leaping in some fantastic dance which only horror linked to him. A thousand worms writhed trader his skin and broke through the surface of his flesh, each one them shrieking in the black darkness. (14) The disintegration of Elias' body gestures toward the collapse of his world. At this juncture, where his self is being shattered and death is looming, Elias is expected to surrender to pain and to confess.

In the Fog of the Season's End, such scenes of torture are concomitant with the repeated assaults against the mass-body and with the relentless tracking of the Black political body: the movement.

The movement writhed under the terror, bleeding. It crouched like a slugged boxer, shaking his spinning head to clear it, while he took the count, waiting to rise before the final ten. Life still throbbed in its aching arms and fingers: wholesale arrests had battered it. The leaders and the cadres filled the prisons or retreated into exile. Behind them, all over the country, may groups and individuals who had escaped the net still moved like moles underground, trying to link up in the darkness of lost communications, and broken contacts. (15) In their attempt to annihilate the opposition to the Apartheid system, White supremacists deal deadly blows to the Black political organization. The killing and the arrest of the Black leaders and the constant raids of the homes of suspected militants offer no alternative to the movement but to retreat and try to regroup. A consciousness of the danger of fragmentation is undergirded by the political awareness that mending the broken links and preserving the unity and the movement is crucial to the triumph of the cause of freedom and social justice.

In this way, the assaulted Black bodies become the locus of repressive violence and resistance. The state brutality directed towards the Black and the Colored, and towards their organizations is meant to disintegrate and subjugate. William Carpenter notes that in this narrative "[w]e sense La Guma straining to retain a sense of bodily unity of the movement, a unity that is buried in the subterranean darkness of his mole simile, which brings the idea of communication through invisible penetration". (16) The movement's heroic resistance against disintegration is an expression of a will to claim agency where death is constantly infecting life. Like the movement's collective body, Elias's body becomes the site of both violence and resistance. However, as Ledbetter puts it, the violence in itself is not the ethical centerpiece. Instead, it is how the victim uses the violence to outdo the violators that is the true ethical moment. (17) Elias's resistance to torture and dismemberment leads to his symbolic reunification with the ancestors, and gesture to a future of intensified guerilla warfare.

In their failure to make Elias confess, the security forces subject him to a form of violence that the narrator describes like a devil usurping Elias's body:

[The pain] was wrenching ha his wrists and hands and the sockets of his shoulders as he dangled with all the weight on the handcuffs that...

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