In Burger's Daughter, Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer uses a coming-of-age story to explore the complicated political circumstances of modern South Africa. Rosa Burger is a white South African woman in her early twenties trying to uphold the political heritage handed on by her martyred parents while carving out a sense of self. Cast in the revolutionary mold, the only survivor of a family known for their anti-apartheid beliefs and practices, Rosa is under the watch of the government and the rebels alike, all of whom seem to have great expectations of her. A quiet, private person, Rosa herself is more concerned with introspection and with trying to understand her identity and her political climate in her own way. Through her journey, the journey of a nation comes to light.
Gordimer's writing style is not easy for me to ready. The narrative voice constantly shifts. I think this is because we see Rosa through the eyes of different people, and never really through her own eyes. This makes a statement about the perils of a life lived as a public figure. Also Gordimer doesn't use quotation marks for conversation. This makes it feel as if the whole story takes place in someone's head. Again, interesting, but not as readable as I would like.
It is the story of one woman’s search for self-identity. Her challenge is that she grew up in the shadow of parents who were famous anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. Part of the story is told in first person narration, and partly by an omniscient narrator; this is one of the techniques that I think works quiet well (the narrator clarifies some of the stream of consciousness rambling of the first person narrator).
This is not a book to read quickly. The author writes in a cryptic style that often requires contemplation at the sentence-by-sentence level. Her weakness is definitely dialogue. In what seems like an attempt at realism, she throws out all conventions for representing speech (including quotation marks and the opaque “he said”). She mixes narration and dialogue in this “creative” style, and the result is confusion. At one point, there is a lengthy conversation between a group of people that results in pages and pages of gibberish. A motivated reader would be able to figure it all out, but frankly, for the most part, the book wasn’t interesting enough to put out the effort. There were pages scattered throughout that were interesting and I realized that I was enjoying the book and hadn’t been working at it, but those parts are few and too far between. There are also many beautiful examples of unique phrasing. It’s too bad Gordimer made a mess of the book with her style for representing dialogue.
I’ve read a few books about South Africa now and this is not one I would favor. It just was not that fun to read. The story is told through internal monologue as Rosa converses in her thoughts with Conrad, her father or other people. I gave it three stars but really I hovered over 2 stars for awhile. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Her somewhat cryptic style and the difficulty I had trying to focus on what was happening in the story made reading it more difficult than it was worth. There were moments of beautiful prose and my own travel to South Africa helped me picture some of the settings. However the history seemed to overwhelm the story of Rosa Burger. I asked myself whether this was a novel about Rosa Burger with historical context or if Burger's daughter was a cipher who inhabited a narrative about the history of twentieth century South Africa? There were moments in the narrative arc that seemed to exist for Rosa, but there were others that intruded creating a jagged edge. It was these moments where I had to force myself to keep reading from page to page. For a while I hoped the next chapter would bring some relief, but I gradually realized that this book was not going to succeed for this reader.
It has taken me a while to attempt to process how I feel about this book. It was difficult to get through because of the nature of the book. For starters, I know relatively little of what was going on in South Africa during apartheid and the anti-apartheid movements. I got the glossed over and sugar-coated versions in school. I knew of Nelson Mandela, even back in school, and what he was known for, but I couldn't grasp it. It was real in that I knew it to be nonfiction but it didn't really exist in my mind. As an American, so far away from South African, I just didn't get it.
While I will never understand the full impact of everything involved with apartheid, getting rid of it and getting past it, reading this book began to paint a picture I wasn't familiar with. I was lost for most of the beginning because the topic was so for it's time and place and they were still in the thick of it that I don't think it occurred to the author that it might be necessary one day. Still, I wish there was some sort of forward that was added for modern readers who aren't as familiar with the time that the story begins.
Another confusing thing in the beginning was the way it switched from the third person to the first person in some chapters, with the first person being Rosa's internal monologue talking to different people. It was mostly an old lover in the beginning but some others are added at the end.
The story itself isn't about apartheid or ending it, so much as this girl trying to live in that time and with her own heritage. Rosa is the daughter of a prominent white Communist who actively advocated for apartheid to end and for the Africans to be complete citizens in their own country. He is believed to be based on Bram Fischer. What makes the book magical in its own way isn't so much the story itself but all the little observations of Rosa when she is in the first person. She occupies a strange place in the history of South Africa where she sees things about the status of the places that other's within the story don't see.
More importantly, it's the way Gordimer says things, whether it is the way Rosa sees things or the arguments of people around her. Here is a piece of a conversation that I just don't really know what to do with:
It’s not peace at any price, it’s peace for each at his price. White liberalism will sacrifice the long odds on attaining social justice and settle for letting blacks into the exploiting class. The ‘enlightened’ government crowd will sacrifice the long odds on maintaining complete white supremacy and settle for propping up a black middle class whose class interests run counter to a black revolution.
It's just one piece of a larger conversation about whether or not the black who were invited to box with the whites at the Olympics and what it means for everyone. Is it progress that they are being invited? Is it a stall tactic for the whites who are in power to not have a full on revolution? And then what does it all mean when you take a second and look back on your own country's history? It sent me in circles for days thinking about how things work in the US and whether or not this person was on to something and what it would mean for everyone if it really worked this way. Passages like this happened several times in the book.
Rosa was a great character, not necessarily because she is likable but because she isn't always likable. A character shouldn't always have to be likable. Sometimes they are going to do disagreeable things, just as people do, if they are to be true to life characters. Her world and her problems were interesting and foreign to me and it was completely understandable to me for her to feel every way she felt, even when it resulted in her doing things I didn't think were a good idea.
The most relatable thing about the book, especially right now with the way so many people are feeling in the wake of the US's own recent political upheaval, was the way Rosa doesn't like her lot in life as one the "named" from birth. She has no chance for a normal life because of who her parents were but she also doesn't appear to want what a normal white girl there were have because of how her parents raised her. She spends most of the book in a place of hopelessness about how apartheid will never end. I can imagine that given the time it took, many people felt that way.
Altogether, it was a great book to read, it just wasn't fun or enjoyable. It was thought-provoking, it was difficult, it was heart-breaking, it rocked my world every few chapters, and it was a touch inspirational here and there. That said, it's not for everyone but anyone interested in world history should give it a try. Or anyone else interested in Reading all the Nobel Women, which I totally recommend because they are incredible women.
The central character Rosa Burger is the daughter of a great anti-Apartheid activist and his equally committed anti-Apartheid wife. In the course of the book, she emerges from the shadow of her parents to become her own person. All this takes place in the backdrop of South Africa - specifically in and around Johannesburg - in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with most of the action taking place prior to the 1976 Soweto riots. Gordimer uses an interesting narrative style, not in itself an issue - there is both a first-person narrator, and a third person voice as well. The problem is that both used the same abstract, indirect, verbose, overly complex diction - so that they were both rather indistinguishable - as well as both being undistinguished. Too many compound complex sentences that don't go anywhere! And, finally, Gordimer does not use quotation marks for character speech - and I found it very annoying not always to be able to tell the difference between spoken words and inner thoughts.
The style has elements of Virginia Woolf's experiments with stream of conscious monologue, but the subject matter has far more weight than the things that concerned Woolf. The prose also has the coolness of Hemingway about it, a detached observational stance. The descriptions of place and season, and the way people move through life and among each other, are lyrical without being florid. There is a stillness running through the book that I found strangely comforting. There are no depictions of brutality or activism, nothing visceral or passionate, but the book feels more powerful for that. I felt like I had read something significant.
Rosa Burger is the daughter of a white South African Communist imprisoned for his political activity. We only ever meet him in the ways Rosa tries to distance herself from him, and his admirers eulogise him. He was a huge public figure. When he dies, Rosa realises she only really knew the public Lionel Burger. She did not know or really have a father, because Lionel belonged to everyone. The book explores the socio-political struggle of black South Africans without being about that struggle. From the people around her, we learn about the continued struggle. From Rosa, we learn what it is to be the child of a political hero and demon. We hear from Rosa in her one-sided conversations with an absent former lover, as she struggles to explain her life so far and the shadow her father casts over it. We hear about her in the third person, as though described in a newspaper report. We see her through the eyes of the surveillance service who follow her. Without having acted politically herself, she is automatically a named person following her father's death. She is white, she is an Afrikaner, but by the accident of her birth, and her father's political beliefs, she is denied freedom of movement and has expectations placed on her. She is the victim of oppression in different ways to someone black, but she shares their experience. She chooses not to become the person her father's friends and the state expect her to become. Her aim is to keep out of the limelight and obtain a passport. Only by leaving South Africa can she discover who she really is, and even then Lionel is still present.
The book made me think about racism and political oppression from the perspective of the oppressed, particularly in its rejection of a liberal white-led movement towards a 'free' South Africa. I found the passages where black characters spoke of their need to be in charge of bringing about change on their own terms very powerful. It also made me think about how we define ourselves, and how the experiences of our parents shape us just as much as our own experiences do.