La Guma, Alex 1925–1985
La Guma, Alex 1925–1985
(Justin Alexander La Guma)
PERSONAL: Born February 20, 1925, Cape Town, South Africa; immigrated to London, England, 1966; died October 11, 1985, in Havana, Cuba; son of Jimmy and Wilhelmina (Alexander) La Guma; married Blanche Valerie Herman (an office manager and former midwife), November 13, 1954; children: Eugene, Bartholomew. Education: Cape Technical College, student, 1941–42, correspondence student, 1965; London School of Journalism, correspondence student.
CAREER: New Age (weekly newspaper), Cape Town, South Africa, staff journalist, 1955–62; free-lance writer and journalist, 1962–85. Member of African National Congress, 1955–85. Member of editorial board, Afro-Asian Writers Bureau, 1965–85.
MEMBER: Afro-Asian Writers Association (deputy secretary-general, 1973–85).
AWARDS, HONORS: Afro-Asian Lotus Award for literature, 1969.
And a Threefold Cord, Seven Seas Publishers (East Berlin, East Germany), 1964.
The Stone Country, Seven Seas Publishers (East Berlin, East Germany), 1967, Heinemann (London, England), 1974.
In the Fog of the Season's End, Heinemann (London, England), 1972, Third Press, 1973.
Time of the Butcherbird, Heinemann (London, England), 1979.
Memories of Home: The Writings of Alex La Guma, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1991.
(With Can Themba and Bessie Head) Deep Cuts: Graphic Adaptations of Stories, Maskew Miller Longman (Cape Town, South Africa), 1993.
A Walk in the Night (novelette), Mbari Publications (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1962, expanded as A Walk in the Night and Other Stories (includes "The Gladiators," "At the Portagee's," "The Lemon Orchard," "A Matter of Taste," "Tattoo Marks and Nails," and "Blankets"), Northwestern University Press, 1967.
(Editor) Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism by South Africans, International Publishers, 1971.
A Soviet Journey (travel), Progress Publishers (Moscow, USSR), 1978.
Jimmy La Guma: A Biography, Friends of the South African Library (Cape Town, South Africa), 1997.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Quartet: New Voices from South Africa (includes "Nocturne" [originally published as "Etude"], "A Glass of Wine," and "Out of Darkness"), edited by Richard Rive, Crown, 1963, new edition, Heinemann, 1968; Modern African Stories, edited by Ellis Ayitey Komey and Ezekiel Mphahlele, Faber, 1964; African Writing Today, edited by Mphahlele, Penguin, 1967; Africa in Prose, edited by O.R. Dathorne and Willfried Feuser, Penguin, 1969; Modern African Stories (includes "Coffee for the Road"), edited by Charles R. Larson, Collins, 1971.
Contributor of short stories to magazines, including Black Orpheus and Africa South.
SIDELIGHTS: Until his death in 1985, fiction writer Alex La Guma was among South Africa's most noted anti-apartheid activists, combining autobiographical elements with pointed criticism of his country's treatment of native blacks within his novels and short fiction. Imprisoned in the early 1960s for his continued vocal opposition to the South African government's racist policies, La Guma began a self-imposed exile in London, England in 1966, remaining there until 1979 when he moved to Cuba. Among his novels are And a Threefold Cord and the critically acclaimed In the Fog of the Season's End, both of which were banned in South Africa during their author's lifetime.
La Guma's active opposition to the South African government's racist policies permeates his fiction as it did his life. Growing up in an impoverished black neighborhood, he was aware of the social and economic inequities that surrounded him through the work of his father, a local politician. A member of the Cape Town district Communist Party until it went underground in 1950, La Guma attended technical college for a year and then worked for a time on the staff of the leftist newspaper New Age. He came to the government's notice in 1955, when he helped draw up the Freedom Charter, a declaration of rights; in 1956, he and over 150 others were accused of treason; in 1961 he was arrested for helping to organize a strike and was subsequently imprisoned.
Various acts passed by the South African government kept La Guma either in prison or under twenty-four-hour house arrest for some years, including time in solitary confinement. La Guma spent this time writing; he composed the novel And a Threefold Cord while he was under house arrest in the early 1960s. He left South Africa in 1966 and moved to London where he remained until 1979, writing and working as a journalist. At the time of his death, La Guma was serving as the African National Congress representative to Cuba and working on his autobiography and his sixth novel.
Much of La Guma's work treats the situations and problems he encountered in his native Cape Town and which fueled his journalism career. The short novel A Walk in the Night "concerns the social, economic, and political purpose of the colored community" in Cape Town, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Cecil A. Abrahams. La Guma tells the story of Michael Adonis, a factory worker who has just lost his job because he talked back to his white supervisor. Frustrated, Michael commits a senseless crime; he kills the decrepit old ex-actor Doughty. Intertwined with Michael's fate are the lives of Raalt, a white constable on duty in the district where the murder is committed, and Willie-boy, a malingerer and occasional criminal. The novelette, said Shatto Arthur Gakwandi in his The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, avoids "being a sermon of despair [while also evading] advocating sentimental solutions to the problems that it portrays. With-out pathos, it creates a powerful impression of that rhythm of violence which characterizes South African life." Gakwandi concluded: "All these characters are victims of a system that denies them the facility of living in harmony with fellow human beings and their frustrations find release in acts of violence against weaker members of their society."
In 1964's And a Threefold Cord, La Guma again examines his native Cape Town, particularly the slum that serves as the novel's setting. Winter has begun, bringing with it rain and illness and discomfort to slum residents like the Pauls family, who live in a cardboard shack woefully inadequate in keeping out the rain. Slum life is portrayed in all its squalor, as prostitution, alcoholism, violence, famine, joblessness, and sickness are an accepted part of daily life. La Guma's protagonists can be distinguished by their ability to perceive the inadequacies of their situation; "He distinguishes consistently between those who live parasitically off the slum people, and those whose work [in communities outside the slum] has given them a wider conception and extended standards of comparison," according to Journal of Commonwealth Literature contributor David Rabkin. And a Threefold Cord, which was completed during one of its author's imprisonments, was published in Berlin and did not achieve the widespread distribution of some of his more recent works.
In The Stone Country, which La Guma released in 1967, the author includes perceptions of the South African jail system he had by now become very familiar with. The title refers to the stone-walled world of prison, and the hierarchical social system, racial segregation, and acceptance of brutality toward blacks make the prison a microcosm of South Africa as a whole. Enter new inmate George Adams, who embodies the dignity of the free man, confident in his basic rights. Adams's treatment at the hands of a prison guard named Fatso causes him to slowly realize that, as Abrahams noted, "rights may exist but they are ignored…. [in] a world of survival of the fittest." Gradually, Adams is made aware that in prison, as in South Africa, "to exist one must either become a bully or find alternative means of survival that are not any more honorable."
La Guma's 1979 novel Time of the Butcherbird would be his last published novel. Written while its author was in self-imposed exile from his native land, the novel's title reflects La Guma's belief that the hour of South Africa's moral transition would soon be at hand. The butcherbird, common in areas where livestock are housed, preys on disease-carrying ticks and is therefore hailed as a bringer of good luck and renewed health. The history of an Afrikaaner family—a counterpoint to the profiles of impoverished blacks that appear in La Guma's work—is represented through the character of Meulen, a racist landowner participating in a government-sanctioned effort to remove blacks from their homelands and apportion those lands among "deserving" whites. Meulen, then, is the parasite that threatens the country, and through his ultimate—and completely justifiable—death at the hand of a black agitator, the country finds itself rid of yet another destructive element threatening its health. Because of the novel's heavy use of symbolism and history, rather than action and current events, "readers have not shown the same enthusiasm for it" as they have other books by La Guma, according to Abrahams.
In the Fog of the Season's End remains La Guma's most highly praised work of fiction, as well as the one that reflects most on the author's own life. The protagonists, Elias and Beukes, are committed members of the resistance movement and are being hunted by the police for their activism against the oppressive white government. During a raid by the secret police, Elias is captured and eventually tortured to death, while Beukes escapes with a gunshot wound. Containing descriptions of acts of graphic violence done to blacks by whites, the novel also reflects La Guma's belief that the fight against apartheid would not be suppressed by such tactics. The power of La Guma's writing led John Updike, writing for the New Yorker, to say of In the Fog of the Season's End that it "delivers, through its portrait of a few hunted blacks attempting to subvert the brutal regime of apartheid, a social protest reminiscent, in its closely detailed texture and level indignation, of Dreiser and Zola."
Jimmy La Guma: A Biography is a warm recollection that Alex La Guma wrote of his father in the early 1960s, although it was not published until 1997. A youthful orphan, James La Guma spent most of his life as a political organizer and member of the South African Communist Party. This little book sheds some light on how and why the Soviet Union served as inspiration for much of the political left in repressive South Africa. In his review for the Journal of African History, Alf Stadler wrote: "Something of an oddity, this little book provides a lively footnote in the history of South Africa's left." Several of Alex La Guma's books have been translated into Russian and other languages, and portions have been included in numerous anthologies.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Abrahams, Cecil A., Alex La Guma, Twayne, 1985.
Asein, Samuel O., Alex La Guma: The Man and His Work, Heinemann (London, England), 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Duerden, Dennis, and Cosmo Pieterse, editors, African Writers Talking: A Collection of Interviews, Heinemann (London, England), 1972.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 3, revised edition, Ungar, 1983.
Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, Africana Publishing, 1977.
Moore, Gerald, Twelve African Writers, Indiana University Press, 1980.
Mphahlele, Ezekiel, African Image, Praeger, 1962.
Wanjala, C. L., Standpoints on African Literature, East African Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya, 1973.
Zell, Hans M., and others, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, 2nd revised and expanded edition, Holmes & Meier, 1983.
Black Scholar, July/August, 1986.
Busara, Volume 8, number 1, 1976.
Freedomways, Volume 25, number 3, 1985.
Journal of African History, October 1999, Alf Stadler, review of Jimmy La Guma: A Biography, p. 518.
Journal of Commonwealth Literature, June, 1973, pp. 54-61.
Journal of the New African Literature and the Arts, numbers 9-10, 1974, pp. 5-11.
New Statesman, January 29, 1965; November 3, 1972.
New Yorker, January 21, 1974, pp. 84-94.
Phylon, March, 1978, pp. 74-86.
Sechaba (London), February, 1971.
Times (London), November 23, 1985.
Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 1965, p. 52; October 20, 1972.
World Literature Today, winter, 1980.
World Literature Written in English, spring, 1981, pp. 5-16.