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Anita Virga’s Peter Horn – Walking the Road of Death

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In story after story of the collection Walking the Road of Death by the South African scholar, anti-apartheid poet and author Peter Horn, the reader will find a chameleon-like first person narrator, who moves through apocalyptic and surreal atmospheres. Written and set during the Nineties in South Africa, the stories underwent a long journey before they appeared in print, having been turned down by several publishers before twenty years later, in 2015, Phehello Mofokeng, the publisher of the small publishing house Geko decided to publish this anthology of nineteen topical stories.

The first one, which gives the title to the book, sets the tone for all the other stories, even if it is one of the few with a third person narrator. We are on a deserted road, with no explanation provided. The description of the place evokes an apocalyptic scenario: “Most houses along the stretch of road which was visible to Stofile were gutted by fire, most walls showed a profusion of bullet marks. Stofile thought that that was weird. Crazy. Unusual. A few cars were standing abandoned along the sides of the road, one had been burned out. Strangely enough, none of them seemed to have been vandalised. The tyres had not been removed, and from one even the radio was still blaring” (9). For a moment, it reminds one of The Road by the American writer Cormac McCarthy, but this South African story precedes it by a decade and it does not express the constant fear of ending and the everlasting hope for a rebirth of the American society: it rather represents the real ending and rebirth of South Africa.

Indeed, as some of the other stories make it clear, we are in the transitional years from the apartheid era to the contemporary democratic one, with all the turmoil and contradictions that characterized the period.

More specifically, this story is set against the hostilities between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party, the predominantly Zulu party with its charismatic leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was alleged to have ties with the old apartheid state and army, and thus wanted to undermine the transition to democracy and the almost inevitable rule of the ANC. However, there is no specific reference to these events: there is only a man in a deserted street, death bodies in a car and someone shooting from nowhere that can be located. And it is precisely through these three elements that the reader has an idea of what was happening at the time and experiences some of the feelings, emotions, and sensations of that turbulent period. It is in fact not an historical account of the South African transition towards democracy but an intimate and subjective response to it. Besides being an isolated and marginal episode of a bigger event, the first story is the description of the emotional state actually experienced by the protagonist who finds himself in an ordinary reality changed into an uncanny and inexplicable one.

That is, the realization that he is in a street turned into a no man’s land, where concealed forces are playing for power and possibly determining your destiny, threatening your life.

A similar atmosphere is found in many of the other stories, in which there is always something unexplained that creates a constant nuance of suspension. Usually they start in media res or initially taking for granted that one knows the many essential facts needed to situate the story – the I-narrator starts talking as if he/she is answering an interlocutor’s, possibly the reader’s question or continuing an ongoing conversation. The colloquial tone establishes an intimate alliance with the reader, renewed at the beginning of each new story. However, paradoxically this alliance is then ‘betrayed’ by the lack of details which leaves the reader disoriented. It is a well-constructed reaction through which part of the meaning of the collection is conveyed: disorientation, lack of information and points of reference, uncertainty about the future – what is going on and what will happen? The future of the story is as the future of a country. The reader is frustrated in her/his need for security.

Furthermore the I-narrator, as said above, is chameleonic: while every time he/she seems to address the reader as if they knew each other, the latter is always in the position of attempting to understand who is speaking. Usually a male character, intellectual or from a lower strata of society, more often a city-dweller but occasionally someone from the countryside, who can be a member of any of South Africa’s different ethnic group. It is with surprise, then, that the reader encounters the female I of “In the Centre of a Circle” where she narrates the story of her rape. It is probably one of the most difficult stories to write for Horn, who this time has to put himself in the shoes of a woman enduring an almost unspeakable experience.

“I was gang-raped” (53): the incipit of the story is a single laconic and sharp sentence in which everything is contained. What follows it is the attempt to unpack this box-like sentence and supply the missing words. The difficulty of narrating, defining, explaining something, is a leitmotiv of the collection: “I don’t know how to talk about this, and it does not help to eat words and spit them out in your face” (53), she says. That is also the difficulty of the intellectual to grasp a world which is – sometimes violently – abruptly changing and in which he is not sure there is still a place for him.

In “The Exhibit” the narrator/intellectual is a kind of freak enclosed in a human zoo and exposed to the view of curious visitors who wonder what he is thinking; in “The Green Mamba and the National Institute for Research in Mediocrity” academia is downgraded to a body that disseminates mediocrity against high-brow culture.

Along with the intellectual’s crisis, or even as an expression of this crisis, characters always struggle to explain their truth or reality, walking on a path where reality itself is unstable and uncertain: “In reality nothing happens. It all depends on what you mean by reality” (64), says the protagonist of “Through the noise of darkness”. In contrast, we find a gallery of puzzled characters: perplexity is indeed a common reaction in many characters of these stories and descriptions of being ‘puzzled’ abound throughout the book.

If turning into a female protagonist is a challenge for the author, in two other stories he also trod other very risky paths. Placed one next to the other, “The Manifesto” and “Lighting and Fire” talk respectively of a group of die-hard Afrikaners, who do not want to surrender and accept the fall of the apartheid regime, and a man from a traditional rural village who justifies his action of killing an old lady accused by the community of being an evil witch. The two stories bring out the contradictions of this new country in which contrasting ideas have to coexist, in which on one hand racial hatred is still alive and on the other equally entrenched traditional beliefs and customs collide with the rule of law upheld by the state; each scenario creates individual tragedies. All these social and political issues are dealt with by the author in his usual style that tends toward the absurd, and with a hint of underlying irony.

On other occasions, the surreal dominates the page. In the already mentioned “The Green Mamba and the National Institute for Research in Mediocrity”, for instances, the protagonist flies to Pretoria using two feathered wings found in the cupboard of her bedroom. Surreality and absurdity are the critical tools used by Horn to describe reality. Where it seems he is talking about something unreal, the reader will slowly discover signs of her/his own reality and that absurdity is not only a writer’s invention but something that is already there. Similarly, the dark tonalities of “Count Walter von Witzenbach”, a story à la Edgar Allan Poe, give a disturbing feeling about reality which is not what it seems to be; until the last page the reader is left wondering together with the protagonist what the different possibilities and interpretations opened to them are.

On the other hand, the uncanny feeling that comes from reading “The Struggle is no longer What It Used to Be” is not due so much to the plot or the style with its fairly sweet and almost melancholy tone, but rather to the incredible coincidence of rereading after twenty years the story of unsettling university protests that took place then while they are taking place again right now.

In fact, one wonders if also today, as in this story, there are not parents who, being on campus to register their son while protests are going on, look at the unrest and think that “the struggle is no longer what it used to be”.

Although perfect timing makes this story so current, the entire collection despite being written twenty years ago remains relevant in the contemporary South African context. Something of the fraught climate of the time in a certain way is repeated now that Mandela – a South African icon – has died and it has become clear that the expectation of bringing about a change that would lead to a more fair and equitable society with equal rights for everyone has simply remained a principle on paper, and now that with the country is going through an economically difficult period more often than ever, alongside the never dying hope of a better future, discordant voices are heard proving that racial tensions were merely dormant.

A large part of the population still remains excluded from rights to health and education and economic freedom, despite these being guaranteed by the new constitution. Therefore, reading Walking the Road of Death by Peter Horn gives one both an insight into the feeling and emotion experienced during the South African transition to democracy, and presents a good mirror of contemporary society and opens a window on the past which can offer useful food for thought for the present.

Anita Virga
University of the Witwatersrand

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