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#STBooks: Ashamed (and Angry) That We Feel No Shame, by Ben Williams

High Low In-betweenDisgraceBy Ben Williams for The Sunday Times

The angriest book I’ve read in the last several years is Imraan Coovadia’s High Low In-between. It won the 2010 Sunday Times Fiction Prize. The cold fury that informs its deft prose deepens with the story until you touch an icy bottom of outrage at President Mbeki and his magical thinking on HIV/AIDS – thinking that metastasised into a spell that held an entire government under its sway. How many South Africans fell?

Another angry book – though its author might dispute this – is JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, published in 1999, 10 years before Coovadia’s brilliant novel. (Hard to believe it was so long ago.) Reading it is like being filleted on Kafka’s harrow. Again, cold fury is present: fury at our collective penchant for violence, at the fact that we’re largely unmoved by suffering, at an old man’s cupidity and caprice in the teeth of his dying of the light.

It’s arguable that President Mbeki, in office when they were written, lost face with the publication of these novels: they are works of art that attacked the nation under his watch and received wide acclaim. For a politician to lose face in South Africa is rare, as Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has observed. “Loss of face is not a big thing [here],” she told the Sunday Times in November, while the furore around her Nkandla report blazed. “There is no sense of shame.”

Perhaps scandalous newspaper articles and gleeful frenzies on social media don’t go deep enough to dig up this missing sense of shame. Perhaps it’s only something that can outlast a president and his legacy – withstand time as it rubs away his name and dates – that poses the real threat.

In the same year that Coovadia’s novel was published, journalist Sam Sole wrote an extremely prescient op-ed in the Mail & Guardian entitled, “The Nkandla Mafia is Coming”. The mafia has, indeed, thundered in, a seemingly impervious juggernaut fuelled by righteousness and contempt, sweeping aside those who object like slaves thrown by the wheels of war chariots. The Nkandla Mafia is the new metastasis, and it hasn’t left us outraged so much as hyperventilating.

The mafia’s current season of depredation is ripe for an angry book. Given the likelihood that President Zuma will serve a second term, there’s time yet for a novelist who feels the requisite cold fury in her viscera to test the prevailing imperviousness to loss of face. There’s time still to publish a story that will raise shame up like a ghost to haunt the living and their names and dates; time left for a work of fine prose that shows the mafia their rough bare asses.

But it’s surely running out, just as Mbeki’s did.

The angriest book ever written is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, laced with irony bitter as cyanide. Writers, take a leaf from Solzhenitsyn’s work and spin a tale that pries deep into some shadowed corner of the Nkandla archipelago (lush and fertile where Solzhenitsyn’s was starved and barren). It would be pity if this era were to pass without its own great angry book. Don’t squander the opportunity. – @benrwms

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