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Thursday, October 14, 2021

On Modern Literature

After losing their colonial empire, the Western nations are losing their literary empire. Since 1940, there has been a decline in the quality of literature coming out of the West. The former colonies are producing better literature.

Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, written in 1948, is the most widely read book by a South African writer. In the novel’s chapter 7, the character called Msimangu, says: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” His fear is that when “they” (the white people) turn to love, then “we” (the black people) will turn to hate. Paton examines the seemingly irreconcilable racial and class differences which are threatening to tear apart South Africa, and gives the perspective of both sides: the white people who face the problem of rising crime, and the black people who face social instability since they are morally and culturally disoriented.

Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart presents the Nigerian view of the world. Its title is a line from the poem, “The Second Coming,” by Y. B. Yeats. The novel portrays how Nigeria was before the arrival of the Europeans in the late nineteenth century, and how the country was transformed during the period of colonization. When I read this novel, I thought that its theme was reminiscent of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—since it evoked a longing for a world that had vanished. Nadine Gordimer’s 1979 novel Burger's Daughter presents the perspective of the white population in South Africa—it gives a view of their fight against the apartheid regime. Gordimer was herself an anti-apartheid activist.

V. S. Naipaul’s epic-length 1961 novel A House for Mr. Biswas is the saga of a Hindu Indo-Trinidadian family. The novel’s central character, Mr. Biswas, is plagued with the feeling of alienation since his childhood. When he is middle-aged, he begins a desperate quest for a house that would be his own, where he would not have to live in the company of those from whom he is alienated. A Bend in the River (1979), another superb book by Naipaul, is set in a Central African country that is facing catastrophic decline after the colonists have departed. The novel opens with the words which describe the personal philosophy of the protagonist Salim: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Salman Rushdie is interesting because he is controversial—I think, Shame (1983) is his best book. Then there is the South African writer J. M. Coetzee. I liked Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999), which is the story of David Lurie, a South African professor who loses his job and reputation due to his affair with his student, a girl called Melanie Isaacs. He goes to live with his daughter in her farm, but there he loses his peace of mind when he realizes that he cannot protect her from acts of violence. South Africa is in the grip of a moral and cultural crisis, and Lurie and his daughter are incapable of judging which side is responsible for the violence.

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