Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Betrayal, by Gillian Slovo

Not exactly a Forgotten Book Friday entry, but an 18-year-old thriller about a past that we should not forget: Gillian Slovo writes mystery novels featuring amateur detective Kate Baeier as well as stand-alone novels, including two that deal with the end of apartheid in South Africa. Red Dust (2000) a legal thriller set in a rural court during the era of the truth and reconciliation process and Betrayal (1991) about the last gasp of apartheid, just before the release of Mandela from the Robben Island prison. Slovo says that Betrayal was actually finished just before Mandela was released, and the novel is poised at just that moment, when everyone in the country and beyond knew that change was coming but no one quite trusted that the change would mean the real end of apartheid. The Betrayal is a very subtle post-Cold War spy thriller, and there's not one betrayal: there are lots of them, at every turn of the plot. One of the main characters, Rebecca, is an ANC activist in exile--she is leading a tribunal charged with finding out if Alan, a white South African who is also an ANC activist (in fact, a member of the military wing), is a traitor. Rebecca says toward the end of the book that the certainty that had driven away all gray areas during the struggle against apartheid "had gone and complexity had taken the place of its endless simplifications." No one can be certain if the various betrayals are based on ideology or jealousy or sex. No one's motives are pure. Alan and his girlfriend Sarah (an English woman who has also joined the movement) are both in Johannesburg on separate missions when the novel begins, and Alan has discovered a team of traitors when he is seen by Peter, another ANC soldier who already hates Alan, walking in a neighborhood where he shouldn't be and seeming to pass a note to a police operative, setting in motion that tribunal headed by Rebecca. Meanwhile, a police captain named Malan, a true believer in the apartheid system, is pursuing Alan and other ANC soldiers, and is suffering both from cancer and from a superior officer who seems to be undermining him. All these forces criss-cross their way toward a conclusion, revealing ulterior motives and hidden pasts, and when the real traitor is finally revealed, his identity is less important than than the understanding that the reader has gained into these characters and the realities that they've had to deal with during the long struggle. And two of the strengths of the novel are its anticipation of the long struggles yet to come, after the end of apartheid, and the three-dimensional female characters intimately involved in the web of political and personal struggles. The Betrayal has not been rendered obsolete by history; in fact, its honesty and its suspension at exactly the point of imminent historical change make it a fascinating prelude to the equally honest and complex Red Dust and perhaps to the current complexities of a splintered ANC and the new South Africa.


Barbara said...

Damn, that looks good. Thanks for pointing it out and making it clear why it might be so worth reading.

Alexander Anichkin said...

sounds exciting! I visited South Africa at the time, the feeling you describe was everywhere.

Helen Dunmore's last novel is The Betrayal, and they both wrote about Russia under Stalin - Ice Road and The Siege. Is it a case of kicking the competition under the table?

I published a comparative review of Ice Road and The Siege on Tetradki, mu blog.