In Tribute to “Burger’s Daughter”

Against the Current, No. 3, May/June 1986

Alan Wald

BURGER’S DAUGHTER (1979), the sixth novel by the white South African writer Nadine Gordimer, blends political subtlety with compelling insight into the psychology of radical activists in the contemporary anti-apartheid movement. With acute sensitivity, Gordimer focuses on the dilemma of Rosa Burger, the rebellious daughter of a martyred South African Communist of Afrikaner descent, who initially abandons and then resumes commitment to the anti-racist struggle of her father.

Gordimer appears to have written her novel as a response to the complexities of political engagement in the contemporary world: a world in which the sophisticated person knows that most political struggles do not lead to the promised land; that many individuals who appear to be moral and righteous, whether religious leaders or social activists, can be just as neurotic and self-seeking as anyone else; that the racially and economically oppressed can be tragically imperfect; that all members of the oppressing group are neither fools nor conscious villains; that life is short and the molding of one’s behavior to please someone else, be it parents or society, can result in personal bitterness and a stunted existence.

To this end, she presents us with the odyssey of Rosa Burger, a woman of our time, seeking freedom and personal fulfillment, in a social order in which the contending forces of Afrikaner ideology and her parents’ Communist subculture deny her free choice and shape her destiny against her will.

Burger’s Daughter is remarkably faithful to the historical setting of the movement for social emancipation in South Africa. Indeed, it has a certain non­fiction, almost documentary component. Many of the background characters and events are factual.

Even the life of Rosa’s father, Dr. Lionel Burger, resembles that of the South African lawyer Abram Fischer, also a member of a noted Afrikaner family who became a Communist in his youth and died in prison in the 1960s.

A leaflet from the Soweto uprising of 1976 is reprinted just a few chapters before the end of the novel, which terminates when Rosamarie Burger (named for both the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and her own Afrikaner grandmother) is incarcerated in 1977.

Despite the authentic recreation in the novel of much of the social and political reality of South Africa, Burger’s Daughter is also an experimental work with a modernist sensibility echoing James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Sometimes the plot is narrated in the first person, by Rosa; other times in the third, by an omniscient voice.

Several chapters are addressed by Rosa to “you,” referring to Conrad, her former lover; other times “you” refers to her father, and occasionally to Zwelinzima Vulindlela (called by the nickname “Baasie”), a Black African youth who lived for a while with the Burger family when his own father was imprisoned for anti-apartheid activity.

The reader is not always immediately informed of the identity of the “you” to whom Rosa addresses her interior monologue. Moreover, the punctuation of the novel is eccentric; there are no quotation marks around the dialogue. The plot is non-linear, constructed by flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Reflection and Reality

Despite all this, Burger’s Daughter is characterized by a high degree of unity between Rosa’s internal reflections and the external reality. As the critic Robert Boyers observed in an unusually perceptive commentary (“Public and Private: On Burger’s Daughter,” Salmagundi, Winter 1984), the novel probes to a large degree the “personal,” especially the disruption and reorientation of Rosa’s social consciousness, and also the ambiguous family bonds that can exist between an overwhelming father and an independent­minded and sensitive daughter.

Yet rarely have we been more powerfully reminded of the profundity of the feminist movement’s observation that “the personal is political.”

Gordimer’s exceptional skill as a political artist is most evident in her characterizations. Gordimer intends to dramatize political themes through her protagonists, but avoids the vulgarity that Karl Marx called “Schillerizing,” in reference to the German poet Johann von Schiller (1759-1805), whose characters Marx believed to serve as merely mouthpieces for ideologies. The main characters in Burger’s Daughter are memorable, human, and complex, distinguished by the same blend of foibles and virtues that render the choices made by political activists in real life far from simple and self­evident.

Dr. Lionel Burger, for example, is a man who from moral conviction abandons a successful career to become an outcast and die in prison. He comes from a wealthy family of the white ruling minority of South Africa: he has had such a first-class education and possesses such enormous personal talents that even his enemies regard his defection to the side of the Black majority as a terrible loss. And he undertakes his struggle to overthrow the racist apartheid system with no illusions about what will happen to him, adhering to that struggle to the end, which is death in prison.

Unforgettable is his courtroom speech during his trial for subversion, which he knows will bring him a life sentence:

“My covenant is with the victims of apartheid. The situation in which I find myself changes nothing . . . there will always be those who cannot live with themselves at the expense of fullness of life for others. They know ‘world history would be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favorable chances.’

“… this court has found me guilty on all counts. If I have ever been certain of anything in my life, it is that I acted according to my conscience on all counts. I would be guilty only if I were innocent of working to destroy racism in my country.”

We do not sense in these and other statements of Lionel Burger a power-hungry person in the manner that Communists are often depicted by their enemies. He is only a man with a vision of a better world for which he is willing to sacrifice.

Yet, at the same time that Gordimer unambiguously acknowledges the heroic qualities of Dr. Burger, she also shows his blindness and insensitivity. For example, although Lionel in his courtroom speech defends the record of the Communist Party, we are reminded in other episode that being a party member has meant supporting some unconscionable acts by his foreign and domestic comrades.

Rosa’s world-weary lover, Conrad, points out to her early in the book that being a loyal party member may have meant fighting totalitarianism in South Africa, but it also meant supporting in the USSR and Eastern Europe a system that enforced its own brand of “totalitarianism” by imprisoning its own dissident Lionel Burgers: “There were the Moscow trials and there was Stalin–before you and I were even born–there was the East Berlin uprising and there was Czechoslovakia, there’re the prisons and asylums filled with people there like your father here.”

We are also presented with a list of some of the bizarre twists and turns in Communist policy in South Africa, which Lionel has apparently endorsed, even at the price of having to vote for the expulsion of Sidney Bunting (an historical figure who was a central party leader until 1930), the Communist he most admired:

“After the shame of the red banner “Workers of the work unite and fight for a white South Africa,’ flown in 1914 [sic; this is apparently a reference to the 1922 miners’ strike on the Rand] had been erased in the 1920s by the acceptance of Lenin’s thesis on the national and colonial questions, after the purges when Lionel Burger … voted for the expulsion of his mentor Bunting, after the Party in South Africa turned right and then left again, after it refused to support the war that South Africa was fighting against racialism in Europe while herself practicing racialism at home, after the Soviet Union was attacked and this policy of opposition to the war effort was reversed…. “

Moreover, it is suggested that Lionel, out of the best of convictions, uses people; that is, he draws others into the struggle who may not understand fully the price they might have to pay. He has no hesitation in involving his daughter from a very young age. It is in fact her sense of having been used, almost created, by her father that inspires Rosa’s anti-political rebellion and flight from South Africa.

The broken health of Rosa’s mother, Cathy, which results in her own death after a long period of detention in prison, is likely a result of the excessive pressures of the political struggle which she has carried out side-by-side with her husband even as she has raised a family. There is also the woman who testifies against Lionel in the subversion trial, claiming that she was ignorant of the full scope of the dangerous anti-government activities to which he had recruited her.

Tough Choices

Lionel’s disturbingly familiar combination of utter devotion to an idealistic cause with a frightening emotional toughness is also dramatized in the poignant episode of the death of his son, Tony, in the swimming pool.

The Burger family swimming pool is a symbol of Burger’s anti-racist politics. It is the only pool where whites and people of color come together, and he personally teaches the children to swim. In a certain sense the communal life he establishes at the pool is a prefiguration of the non­racist society he hopes to establish.

Yet one day Tony decides to show off his diving when his father isn’t around, cracks his head on the bottom of the pool, and drowns. The emotional response of most parents to that situation would likely be to shut the pool down for a long time, perhaps forever. But Burger knows that the pool is more than a private possession; it is a symbol of anti-racism. Within a few days he throws his daughter back into the water and the pool is open for the Black and white neighbors again. We see here effectively dramatized a useful point about the relationship of politics and character-character in the psychological, not moral, sense. Burger’s toughness in standing up against the apartheid dictatorship is not without major consequences for his emotional and personal life.

Other characters, both major and minor, show the same convincing and authentic pattern of a mix of motives and qualities, no matter with which side they allied.

The Communist friends of the Burgers, Dick and Ivy Treblanches, are devoted to anti-racism but quite conformist within the norms of Communist Party behavior. Their own daughter, Clare, is a conform­ ist counterpart to Rosa.

The journalist Orde Greer is an unattractive man with a drinking problem. His political commitment seems questionable, almost parasitic. Early in the book he embarrasses Rosa, exploiting her situation insensitively in a debate with Black activists. When challenged as to whether whites can play a role in the struggles, he simply points to Rosa and reminds them of her father’s death in prison. Yet at the end of the book when he, too, is tried for subversion, there is a kind of modest dignity in his statement quoted in the papers:

“I’ve spent many years being proud of hob-nabbing with the people who were brave enough to risk their lives in action. l spent too many years looking on, writing about it; I would rather go to prison now for acting against evil than have waited to be detained without even having done anything.”

Political Ambiguities

It would be a perverse violation of the best traditions of Marxist literary criticism to attempt to translate the ideas and events in Burger’s Daughter into a “political line,” judging it according to precise policies and organizational allegiances that the book, which states problems and dilemmas more than clear­cut answers, may or may not imply.

Indeed, by emphasizing the fact that the South African Communist Party is the only leftwing group presented in serious struggle against the regime, one might interpret Gordimer’s concluding stance as a critical endorsement of that organization.

On the other hand, by emphasizing the fact that Rosa grows more fully conscious of the defects of the South African Communist Party than her father had, and does not join any organization at all, one might interpret the ending as a call for a new kind of post-Marxist or non-organizational commitment.

But despite the ambiguity of Gordimer’s novel, and probably her own political views which have only recently taken her from liberalism to socialism, one must still recognize that there is, after all, an important political argument in the novel-one that has a far broader relevance than to the situation in South Africa alone.

This argument can be apprehended by tracing the development of the novel’s protagonist, Rosa.

Rosa has grown up as a dutiful daughter. What is unusual is that her duty was to a devout Communist, a father to whom she was utterly loyal and whose wishes she automatically carried out. When Dr. Burger dies after serving sixteen months of his life-term imprisonment for violating South Africa’s anti-subversive laws, everyone, from the police to family friends, assumes that Rosa will simply take her father’s place and carry on his work.

Yet Rosa is already in the process of rebelling–rebelling against what appears to her to be a predestined role of conforming to the behavior of a man who was regarded in his own society as a nonconformist. Thus she is drawn into an affair with Conrad, an aimless young man who first hangs around the fringes of the Burger’s community swimming pool, and later attends Dr. Burger’s trial, Conrad assumes the role of an observer who refuses to commit himself to the cause although he is clearly not a supporter of apartheid.

To some extent Conrad may be a projection of Rosa’s own psychological uncertainties, Indeed, before long she halts sexual relations with him, feeling they are “incestuous,” If Rosa has experienced the world through the prism of politics, Conrad’s viewpoint is distinctly psychological She has been shaped by the social strife of race and class struggle; he has been shaped by the psycho-sexual trauma of having witnessed his mother copulating with a strange man in his father’s absence, While Conrad assists Rosa in breaking free of the conformity of her family-by questioning Dr. Burger’s real motives and the efficacy of his actions–it eventually becomes clear that Conrad himself presents no viable alternative, He imagines he is freer than Rosa because he eschews social commitment, but he remains a prisoner of his own egoism and self­ centeredness.

This insight, however, only comes late in Rosa’s development. Soon after meeting Conrad, she becomes increasingly detached from the memory of her father and his way of life. She concludes that his social concern, his political commitment to ending suffering, was itself a form of neurosis: “Even animals have the instinct to turn away from suffering. The sense to run away.”

Several subsequent encounters with the stark brutality of life convince her to abandon political struggle altogether, assuming a more or less stoic philosophy. At one point, she witnesses a man die on a park bench; at another, she sees a Black African brutally beating a donkey. In the face of the inevitability of death and of the imperfectability of humanity, she concludes that the effort to remake the world is futile. Consequently she seeks out her father’s first wife, Madame Bagnelli, now in France, because Rosa wants to learn from her how to break away from the emotional grip of Lionel and his world of austere political commitment.

Search for Liberation

A subtheme in the novel is the ambiguous role played by “sexual freedom,” in the sense of casual, non-marital sexual relations. Because sex is primarily self­centered, it can be an avenue to detachment from an environment or way of life in which one is unthinkingly imprisoned; in that sense it is a positive, liberatory factor, as in Kate Chopin’s classic novel, The Awakening. Madame Bagnelli had wanted to be a dancer and felt unsuited to the Communist movement; her break with Lionel was prefigured by her affair with his comrade, Dick Treblanches. Rosa uses sexual relations with Conrad and also a Swedish filmmaker to distance herself from her father’s world as well.

But sexual liberation in and of itself seems to lead nowhere. Thus, while visiting Madame Bagnelli in southern France, Rosa finds herself in an environment that is depicted as one of sexual decadence. The milieu in which she lives for a while is replete with heterosexual and homosexual seducers immersed in their personal lives, which go on aimlessly and meaninglessly, oblivious to the world of social strife that lies beyond.

Rosa naively falls into what is certain to be a frustrating dead-end affair with a married school-teacher, Bernard Chabelier, working on his Ph.D. He will not leave his wife, so Rosa must be content to share him, and she will have to forsake the idea of having her own family, should she desire one.

But Rosa’s adaptation to this new way of life is only superficial. Visiting London, she is drawn to an anti-apartheid gathering, and, recognized by the participants as the daughter of the legendary South African Communist martyr, she again becomes “Burger’s Daughter.” To her surprise, she encounters Zwelinzima Vulindlela at the event, and is deeply affected by her interaction with him.

He does not plead for her to return to the struggle; such a moralistic approach would have been unsuccessful, since part of her new-found cynicism is a skepticism of people’s moral pretenses. Rather, he denounces her and her father as frauds who are totally useless to the struggle, and who, in fact, have personally benefitted from it. He points out the all too painful truth that many Blacks, including his own father, had died just as nobly as Lionel Burger, yet no one had sung their praises; no one had treated them as martyrs; and no one had celebrated their children.

The New Republic (29 September 1979) criticized Burger’s Daughter on the grounds that this encounter with Vu!indlela provides insufficient motivation for her decision to break her relationship with Chabelier and return to South Africa to work as a nurse in a Black hospital, protest apartheid, and ultimately and inevitably assume her place in prison.

I strongly disagree with this view. It is true that her change, her switch after Vulindlela’s explosion, is not explained to us in ideological or intellectual terms. Her response is emotional, indeed, physical; Rosa goes into the bathroom and vomits. But from the beginning, Gordimer has been demonstrating to us that politics is not mere ideology–not pure logic, reason, or rhetoric. Political commitment is based on personally felt experience. Rosa’s father was a Communist not simply because he read logically-convincing documents, but because he genuinely wanted to see the harmonious existence of whites and people of color, as demonstrated by the interracial community he created at the family swimming pool. True, the intensity of his vision caused.

Burger to embrace a doctrine by which to explain and combat the oppressive social reality, and this doctrine, like all doctrines, had its limitations. But such failings only indicate that Burger is human and therefore defective; they do not negate the fact that, given his social context, he was on the “right” side in a situation where right and wrong are clearly demarcated.

Thus Vulindlela’s harsh words are quite plausible as the catalyst of her change, precisely because they strike her at an emotional and personal level. At once she sees that his words are true: even as a martyr, Lionel Burger, being white, received privileges.

What is it, then, that affects her so strongly? Some would say “guilt,” an explanation often proffered condescendingly by non-activists to discredit the behavior of politically active people who themselves are not especially oppressed. But a careful reading of the novel shows that Rosa’s decision is more likely due to a clearer sense of how she can affirm her dignity as an independent woman, not from a neurotic need for atonement.

A View of Freedom

Rosa’s return to South Africa is a consequence of her enhanced understanding of social reality, and new insight into the dialectical relation between freedom and determinism. When she acted as her father’s daughter, carrying out her political obligations the way a Catholic or Jewish daughter carries out her Catholic or Jewish duties, she was more a determined function of external forces acting upon her than an agent of her own desire. Yet it has become evident to her that the momentary happiness she achieved with Bernard in France was in its own way equally imprisoning and artificial.

Moreover, this attempt to find “freedom” by establishing an existence far removed from the intense, daily social struggle she had known when she was still “Burger’s Daughter” is such a fragile illusion that it is easily shattered by Vulindlela’s powerful expression of emotion, his bitter truths.

In one instant she repudiates the subjectivism of Conrad, the view that one creates reality through one’s state of mind. A dose of that kind of solipsism was perhaps liberating at a certain stage of her development, but, as a mode of life, it is fraudulent.

Rosa’s ultimate evolution is foreshadowed in an earlier exchange with Clare Treblanches. Clare, like Rosa, is the daughter of Communists, and has taken up her parents’ struggle in what Conrad had characterized as a conformist manner. In many ways she is a less impressive version of Burger’s daughter: her appearance less attractive than Rosa’s; her father, a laboring man, less prepossessing than Rosa’s; her affair with a married man less romantic than Rosa’s.

Yet, in her simple way, Clare sees much earlier a truth that Rosa had tried to evade. When Rosa complains that the two of them had been impressed into radical political activity by their parents, and asks, “were you given a choice?” Clare replies: “Yes … I suppose if you want to look at it like that …. But no! Rosa! What choice? Rosa? In this country, under this system, looking at the way Blacks live–what has the choice to do with parents? What else could you choose?”

Thus Nadine Gordimer communicates to us that freedom is not a subjective abstraction; it cannot be equated with a retreat from social pressure into pure intellect or fantasy, or the artistic construction of an imaginary life that “liberates” us from objective reality. Freedom comes from taking appropriate action to control one’s life by first recognizing the authentic dynamics of one’s environment.

This perception is what may be intended by the epigraph to the novel from the structuralist-anthropologist Claude Levi­Strauss: “I am the place in which something has occurred.”

We are created by the world around us–the environment in which we are born and in which we grow up. What is required to achieve the maximum autonomy available to self-conscious humans is to challenge what is oppressive in that environment.

After all, one diminishes one’s freedom not 6nly by retreating to an imaginary world devoid of the social strife that still continues to affect one, but also by unthinkingly and unquestioningly conforming to the moral, religious, and cultural beliefs and practices of the family or society into which one is born.

Rosa may be partly intended as a role model for the generation of young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a generation that has in some respects evidenced a waning of political commitment in comparison to that of the 1960s-although the book may also be a plea to lapsed radicals of the 1960s to abandon Yuppie hedonism and return to their best instincts.

But Burger’s Daughter is certainly not an argument for the predestination of the children of political parents. Rosa in essence returns to her father’s position of activist opposition, even if not of party membership; but her return is by choice, not from conformity.

She is well aware of some of the weaknesses and even hypocrisies of revolutionary commitment by white South Africans. Yet she has also observed the even greater weaknesses and hypocrisies residing in the illusion that one becomes “free” by eschewing politics, by wishing away the maelstrom of class forces so central to the making of the world today.

Technically and thematically, the novel has many complex origins. What is especially striking is the manner in which Gordimer, whose vision is partly animated by an individualistic socialist and feminist consciousness, surpasses many of the achievements of her more famous male European predecessors who have written in the tradition of the “political novel.”

In her setting, Gordimer depicts the “real, existing totalitarianism” of Johannesburg and Soweto, not a fantasy world of the future, as in George Orwell’s ambiguous 1984, or a tendentious blend of imagination and historical fact, as in Arthur Koestler’s anticommunist Darkness at Noon.

Moreover, in contrast to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s early socialist novels, The First Circle and Cancer Ward, Gordimer explores the multifaceted effects of political and social repression in a broad, natural way; she never relies on contrived mechanisms such as Solzhenitsyn’s technique of assembling a group of “representative” figures in a prison for political dissidents or a cancer ward.

Gordimer’s incisive dramatization of the superiority of a conscious political choice is also heightened by her acute and modern awareness of the problematic nature of commitment itself. Thus Burger’s Daughter not only transforms the conventions of the political and modernist novel into a stunning artistic achievement, but her book also deserves recognition as a moral beacon for the anti-racist movement of our time.

May-June 1986, ATC 3

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