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Review of Alex la Guma – A Literary and Political Biography


By Eckhard Breitinger

Alex la Guma – A Literary and Political Biography. Roger Field. James Currey, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2010. Pp. 258 (Cloth). ISBN. 9781847010179 (pb). £50.

While Cecil Abrahams based his biography of Alex la Guma (1985) essentially on his personal experiences and contacts, Roger Field could use the collection of the la Guma papers in the University of the Western Cape library. This provides an abundance of detailed factual information which makes the book valuable as a source for further research.

Field opens his biography with a genealogical preface (Family, society and founding political moments) outlining the activism of Jimmy la Guma, “the Ambassador of Marcus Garvey”, his involvement in the resistance of the pre-WW II years, the early ANC with Sol Plaatje, the Communist Party and first contacts with the Soviet Union art movement and the American NAACP with Langston Hughes. Field details la Guma’s (father and son) experiences as “the brown sons of Africa”: “la Guma made a conscious effort to write about the community and life of District Six because nothing satisfactory or worthwhile…had been written about the area” (p 38).  He speaks about la Guma being imbedded in the artistic and intellectual environment of Cape Town in the 1940s, about the importance of the debate about a specific “coloured identity” and the resultant tensions within the South African resistance movement, particularly vis-à-vis the ANC. Due to the increasing repression after the National Party election victory in 1948, la Guma follows the footsteps of his father Jimmy, joining the Communist youth organisation and the CPSA (Coloured People of SA), he publishes stories and essays in Fighting Talk, New Age and also in Drum Magazine. He subscribes easily to Stalin’s theories of nationhood and ethnic identity as a model for South Africa. The Soviet Union’s solution of the nation state/multi-ethnicity dichotomy made a life-long impression on la Guma’s thinking and therefore became a recurrent topic in his writing.

Alex la Guma involuntarily follows his father’s footsteps also as far as the prosecution by Special Branch/secret police is concerned. He suffers imprisonment without trial several times (1960 after Sharpeville, 1963 at the same time as his wife Blanche), he is one of the defendants in the Treason Trial, he is under ban and house arrest, which determines his mode of creation and procedure of writing. Being under ban and house arrest means that he must not meet other people, receive materials, receive or pass on information, i.e., the entire research for the biography of his father is illegal, conspiratorial: he is under permanent thread of imprisonment. The notorious Special Branch searches of his house or his friends means that he has to be constantly alert to hide the materials he is using, the manuscripts he has been writing, always loosing materials and scripts and having to start all over again. “What we have in the published versions are beginnings, middles, ends that initially stood in unresolved relationships to each other…la Guma began, restarted, continued, and “re-continued”, ended and “re-ended” [a story] under a succession of different conditions with different pre-.texts and memories at his disposal”. (151) La Guma tried to beat the system by diverting into popular art with his comic series Little Libby for New Age and Liberation Chabalala .With this excursion into comic art (as equal to “high art”) he  deviates from the pure gospel of socialist art theory. On the other hand he establishes contacts with foreign writers, editors to circumvent censorship and the publishing ban. Ezkia Mphalele was in Nigeria at the time working with Black Orpheus and Mbari Press, Ulli Beier managed to smuggle la Guma’s manuscripts out of South Africa and published them by Mbari Press, Seven Seas Press in East Germanytook over later. Robert Serumaga from Uganda linked him to BBC, a contact which he could use when he came to London as an exile, supporting himself with radio essays and newspaper articles on African writers and the South African condition in particular.

Exile eased the pressure from the Apartheid regime, but as official representative of the ANC in Cuba, Alex la Guma attained diplomatic status that demanded political allegiance to ANC doctrine. Field’s approach of the “literary and political biography” underlines this allegiance and suggests a direct translation of political convictions into literary production. This leads to a reading of la Guma’s later works as propaganda, rather than fictional and aesthetic representations. Field sees a similar closeness between literary models like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and The Stone Country (Tom Joad equals Shilling Murile), Hemingway’s To Whom the Bell Tolls and The Time of the Butcherbird, (Pilar = Mma Tau), or Death in the Afternoon and A Soviet Journey. This seems to me a simplified reading of la Guma’s texts which is definitely not supported by his latest essay “Is there a South African Culture”, published posthumously in The African Communist. Just like Albie Sachs and Njambulo Ndebele in the middle 1980s, la Guma pleads for a concept of culture suitable for a post-Apartheid South Africa, transcending fixed ideological positions of the struggle.


A response from Roger Field:

I value the opportunity to respond to this review.

In the bibliography five of the eight Manuscript Sources are from the Mayibuye Centre (University of the Western Cape). These provided invaluable material, which resources from the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas) and the Archives of Traditional Music (University of Indiana) complemented.

Yes, La Guma’s “diplomatic status…demanded political allegiance to ANC [and SACP] doctrine”, but this misses three important points. In some instances, for example his radio play ‘Situations Vacant’, he uses satire to mount a strong aesthetic and political challenge against this orthodoxy. Secondly, La Guma’s unpublished poetry, ranging from ballad to haiku-like forms, suggests a far greater aesthetic interest in the fragmentary than socialist realism accommodates, and contradicts his critique of Dennis Brutus and his analysis of the aesthetic and political changes in Lorca’s poetry. Thirdly, where I demonstrate how much La Guma copied Sir Walter Scott, Steinbeck or Hemingway, I aim to show that he struggled to reconcile public commitment to socialist realism and a theory of literary production based on observable reality with significant literary debts. They were debts because his public commitment meant that whether or not he was aware of contemporary developments such as intertextuality or (post)modernism, for aesthetic and political reasons he could not have used them to theorize these textual relationships. Hence his equivocations about Steinbeck in relation to And a Threefold Cord, hence his ironic stagings of Hemingway in an ostensibly factual travel work, A Soviet Journey, and his silence on Hemingway in Time of the Butcherbird, the novel which he wrote around the same time. My reading of “Is there a South African Culture” follows a similar pattern: like many of his time (and today), La Guma could not think outside or beyond race, hence the limitations and contradictions in his thinking about culture in a post-apartheid South Africa.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 134-136]

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