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With An Imperfect Blessing, Davids perfects truth, reality in South Africa

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
05 February 2015   |   11:00 pm
FOR so many years, South African literature has been dominated by the themes of violence, apartheid and matters that generate enthusiastic and spectacular responses. However, in An Imperfect Blessing, Nadia Davids celebrates the ordinary. Growth, self-discovery and pregnant expectations become the signifiers of the new dawn, which 1993 represents in the minds of South Africans.…

FOR so many years, South African literature has been dominated by the themes of violence, apartheid and matters that generate enthusiastic and spectacular responses. However, in An Imperfect Blessing, Nadia Davids celebrates the ordinary. Growth, self-discovery and pregnant expectations become the signifiers of the new dawn, which 1993 represents in the minds of South Africans.

  The 410-page novel, which was published in 2014 by Umuzi, is a valuable addition to a rapidly growing collection of new South African stories. It is a story with a strong grip of indigenous and regional detail. 

   It takes the reader on a literary journey, moving across generations and communities, through the suburbs to the city centre, from the lush gardens of private schools to the dingy bars of Observatory, from landmark mosques and churches to the manic procession of the Cape Carnival, through evictions, rebellions, political assassinations and first loves. 

   Set, majorly in Cape Town in 1993, the novel, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for African Literature, is part family drama and part national narrative. And it is commended from various corners for its sharp insights, subtlety, humour and compassion. Suffice it to say, the novel’s narrative structure brims with hope, excitement, and paradoxically, fears of tomorrow. 

    Therefore, through a little girl, Alia Dawood, the reader is taken on a journey to Walmer Estate, a busy suburb on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, and every recognisable landmark that could create the feeling of a world, which people know, but do not pay serious attention to.

    With a good eye for detail and an ear for authentic dialogue, Davids’s first novel symbolises a national narrative that is “imperfect blessing”. It is both an intimate saga and a tale of political change from oppressive apartheid to a system pivoting on a transitional point, which is at once uncertain and pregnant with promise.

   The lucid, well plotted narrative, which flows rhythmically in 1, 2, 3 sequences is a moving image of the Rainbow country before the dismantling of apartheid. 

   Set largely in Walmer Estate, on a windy mountain slope in Cape Town, the book places one family’s story at the heart of a country’s rebirth and interrogates issues of faith, race, belonging and freedom.

   Fourteen-year-old Alia is the eye of the camera through which all the actions are seen. Through her innocent eyes, the reader is exposed to South Africa on the brink of total transformation. She watches with fascination and fear as the national drama unfolds, longing to be a part of what she knows to be history in the making. As her revolutionary aspirations strengthen in the months before the elections, her intense, radical Uncle Waleed reappears, forcing her parents and sister Nasreen to confront his subversive and dangerous past.

   Davids’s story chooses to unfold the dilemma of South African history through the trials of a Muslim family in which generations become conflicted, where custom confronts liberation, and age wrestles with youth.

   Through the young protagonist, Davids gives her readers a sense of hope and longing, at the same time, they glean the nature of South African struggle for change through the politically resolute and critical activist Waleed. 

   As a socialist, Waleed is keenly aware SA’s battle for democracy has been hijacked by global capitalism, and human need will be short-changed in favour of transforming our society from global pariah to new inductee into western civilisation.

      Though, the London-based academic and playwright has said the world she has recreated should not be confused with her real world, Davids’ debut novel is a pure work of fiction, which intimately landscapes South Africa prior democratic government. However, it is this critical and ongoing debate, and mixed blessing, that Davids uses as a framing device for a novel that, on many levels, explores the nature of transition.  “If her blessing is imperfect,” as a writer puts it, “is because Davids is all too aware of the dangers of messianism and jingoism.”

   Set at time when change was under way but democracy had not been formalised, the novel takes a retrospective study of South Africa in most thrilling manner. Even an event as tragic as Chris Hani’s assassination, during the bleak Black Easter weekend in 1993, is handled with a modulated and portentous sense of dread. Same year, when the freest and fairest election in Nigeria was annulled, and also, when the black-on-black violence reached its peak. 

   While still attuned to the bigger political and cultural picture, An Imperfect Blessing reminds the reader about the immense importance of mirroring lives through fiction. That Davids is able to achieve this without sanctimony or self-congratulation or colonial cringe, reveals the extent to which South African fiction has evolved. The ordinariness of the tale, its delightful parochialism, reminds us that, finally, our literature is assuming a degree of normalcy. 

  Be that as it may, Davids’s fear is assuaged years later, though not captured in the narrative, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which effectively united all South Africans and giving them that true rainbow coalition.

   In the words of Zoe Wicomb, author of October, the novel is “a poignant evocation of Cape Town in the last of the apartheid years. With subtlety, compassion, and a brilliant blending of the personal and political, Davids’s debut novel traces the lives of a family shaken by the complexities of the struggle.” 

   The Nobel laureate and author of The Childhood of Jesus, JM Coetzee, describes the debut effort as “a novel that is sharp in its insights yet warm in feeling, Nadia Davids gives us the tumultuous years between the end of white rule in South Africa and the Mandela presidency as seen through the eyes of a family from a Muslim community that is itself coming under pressure to adapt and evolve.”