When his debut novella A Walk in the Night was published in Nigeria in 1962, then clandestinely disseminated throughout his homeland, a new star of Black South African writing came into view with astonishing alacrity. This remarkably assured first work, written while its author was under house arrest for his political journalism and anti-apartheid activism, articulated many of the themes which would come to dominate Alex La Guma’s writing over the next 20 years: fierce opposition to apartheid, lyrical celebration of his working class community, potent use of nature as a mirror for the psychology of his protagonists and, perhaps most distinctively, a sensuous and ornate prose style, heavily infused with a Dickensian realism.
This year has been full of celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. But it is worth sparing more than a thought for La Guma—whose work has the sweep and moral power of his Victorian predecessor—and his formidable but neglected oeuvre.
Hewn from the miasma of poverty and oppression that was the enclave of District Six on the outskirts of Cape Town, A Walk in the Night unrepentantly celebrated the lives, hopes and fragile dreams of the down-and-outs, prostitutes, skollie boys and gangsters who inhabited this tawdry, bohemian slum. The protagonists in the novel are very tellingly all “coloured,” to use La Guma’s phrase. (Here I employ the word, like La Guma, in the wholly non-pejorative usage specific to the South African context, designating the racial group, which, as a result of several centuries of métissage, incorporated indigenous Khoi and San tribes, West African slaves, Dutch settlers, Malay indentured labourers and even some Caribbeans). The title’s Shakespearean allusion (a quotation from the ghost scene in Hamlet) set the tone for La Guma’s body of work in which he seamlessly combines and juxtaposes the coloured proletarian plight with a style deeply influenced by the Western literary canon.
Reflections on what it meant to be coloured in the South African apartheid era are central to his work, but this may also explain La Guma’s relative obscurity in today’s post-apartheid South Africa, and abroad. Often deemed “too black to be white and too white to be black” (an error,…