New novel portrays cycles of white violence in South Africa

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The Anglo-Boer war memorial in the grounds of the City Hall, Belfast. Photo: Albert Bridge

How do human beings respond to profoundly inhuman events? How do we steel ourselves against the traumas of history? These questions are at the heart of British author Damian Barr's debut, You Will Be Safe Here, a novel inspired by death of South African teenager Raymond Buys. A journalist by trade, Barr had already written an empathetic investigation into the death of Buys, a gay Afrikaner sent to a white separatist training camp where he was tortured and killed in 2011.

Though set in the insular world of Afrikaans South Africa, Barr's novel seems particularly urgent in today's global political climate -- concentration camps, white supremacy and toxic masculinity shadow the characters through the 20th and 21st centuries. Their long and intertwined histories remain terrifying and familiar for those of us reading this story in 2019. While Barr's investment in this story is clear, his narrow vision of contemporary South Africa prevents You Will Be Safe Here from revealing much that is new about the society it depicts.

In the first half of the novel, Barr turns to the Second Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) to trace the particular combination of Afrikaner white supremacy, militarism, and masculinity at the centre of the novel. Fighting Afrikaans settlers for control over newly discovered diamond and gold fields, British forces used "scorched Earth" policies, burning large tracts of farmland and forcing Afrikaner women and children into concentration camps while dispossessed Black South Africans were interred in separate camps and forced to work for the rations provided to white prisoners.

We join Sarah van der Watt and her young son Fred as they are forced into one of these camps in 1901. Sarah's story is told through diary entries she addresses to her husband, one of the many absent men in the story. She painstakingly details the putrid conditions of the camp: malaria and typhoid rip through the population, and food and clean water are scarce. Here Barr's prose is both vivid and disturbing: Sarah describes "coughs of every texture and cries of every colour and even possibly bedroom laughter. And from the tents in darkness, only low animal weeping."

The novel is unsparing in its description of the camp, and Barr effectively traces a clear trajectory from these humiliations to the violent racism of apartheid and contemporary South Africa. Always present in the camps is a fear of contamination and with it the fear of Black South Africans: A woman released from solitary confinement is "a sight. Nearly K*ffir black." As conditions worsen, Sarah is reduced to eating "on the ground like K*ffirs." An unspoken panic emerges -- what we've done to Black people might be done to us --  but it is one of many threads that remain underdeveloped.

Barr's strengths lie in his historical focus and his unflinching depictions of British cruelty. Yet his portrayal of Sarah's experience ends abruptly, and as both the historical setting and the diary-form of the novel is shed, You Will Be Safe Here struggles to bring together a sensitive rendering of Willem -- a stand-in for Raymond Buys -- with the broad sociological investigation his story demands.

The narrative picks up again in 1976 with Rayna, her daughter Irma, and finally her grandson Willem. As the novel edges toward the present, it also loses its way. We are given chapter titles with historical significance in South Africa (the Soweto protests of 1976 and the first democratic elections, for example) but Barr seems to have little to say about them because the novel is tied to one parochial family, leaving the narrative little space to offer the diagnosis it attempts. Indeed, a lot of heavy-lifting is done by the historical note after the end of the book, suggesting the novel's inability to both inhabit the psychology of this particular family and offer an account of a changing nation.

The results are often confusing. When Rayna follows the highway to downtown Johannesburg, for example, the narrative takes a 20-kilometre detour through the township of Alexandra -- far removed from both her home and the train station where she works. But Barr needs this geographical accident to allow Rayna to reflect on "plastic bags, whipped up by traffic and dust devils, whooped through the air chased by dirt black children." The narrator then also needs to scold her: "If Rayna ever turned off (and it didn't occur to her that there were whole streets, whole worlds, out back) she'd see women hanging out improbably white washing, line to line, stretching as far as the eye could see, a river of clean sweet laundry where the road couldn't soil it." These people are small-minded, Barr wants to remind us, but this novel is not.

Throughout,You Will Be Safe Here remains enmeshed in similarly unproductive contradictions. Most strikingly, Barr identifies a specific brand of evil -- masculine Afrikaner nationalism -- as the cause of Raymond's murder, but its ultimate victims always remain other white South Africans. Black characters are largely stoic servants in the face of oppression, confined to the background of the primary drama, and even the late entry of shallow nouveau riche Black characters lapses into lazy caricature.

Barr's investigation into conservative Afrikaner malaise remains frustratingly limited and stands in stark contrast to other writers who dramatize South African dysfunction -- like J.M. Coetzee or Ivan Vladislavić -- who resist the impulse to immediately wash their hands of the people they depict. What becomes obvious is Barr's limited engagement with South Africa, its history and its complicated political realities -- all of which contributed to the death of Raymond Buys. It feels like a missed opportunity, particularly because Barr's reporting on Buys is moving, and his rendering of Willem is often tender.

For all of its good intentions and ambitious goals, You Will Be Safe Here feels slight and unable to truly grapple with the monstrous crime that inspired it.

Photo: Albert Bridge

Deena Dinat is a PhD candidate in the department of English language and literatures at the University of British Columbia. He tweets @deena_dinat, and his photography can be seen at www.deenadinat.com and @deenadinat on Instagram.

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