Cover image for David's story
David's story
Wicomb, Zoë.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2000.
Physical Description:
278 pages ; 23 cm.
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Unfolding in South Africa, at the moment of Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1991, this novel explores the life and vision of a male activist through the pen of a female narrator. David Dirkse is part of the underground world of activists, spies and saboteurs in the liberation movement -- a world seldom revealed to outsiders. With 'time to think' after the unbanning of the movement, David is researching his roots in history of the mixed-race 'Coloured' people of South Africa and of their antecedents among the indigenous people and early colonial settlers. Provides compelling history that is vividly personal, through the powerful filter of storytelling. Through voices that weave together -- responding to, illuminating, and sometimes contradicting one another -- Wicomb depicts a world where 'truth upon conflicting truth wriggles into shape'. The dramatic and violent turns at the close of the novel further testify to the complexity of truth -- and of telling.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Postapartheid and postmodern, this dense, scholarly novel is for those who know South African history or think they do. At the center of the story is David Dirkse, longtime activist in the struggle against apartheid. He's still part of the movement in 1991, when Nelson Mandela has just been released from prison. David is tracing the history of his "Coloured" (mixed-race) ancestors, right back to the Khoisan people who were there when whites first "discovered" the Cape and found the natives "ungovernable." David's story is also interwoven with other narratives, including that of his lover, Dulcie, who was tortured in the guerrilla detention camps and whose voice is "like a scream through history." Then there are the short racist quotes from white missionaries and writers, past and present, most of them about black women and the shame of racial mixing. There's no preaching. In fact, as Dorothy Driver points out in the lengthy afterword, Wicomb is commenting on her own intricate narrative, showing how hard it is to tell the truth. --Hazel Rochman

Publisher's Weekly Review

A fabulous family tree branches backward into South African history and myth in Wicomb's second novel (after You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town). David Dirkse, somewhat shamefacedly, has left his wife and kids in Cape Town to search for his roots in Kokstad. The date is 1991; David, a cadre of the ANC, Mandela's party, should be feeling elated by the approaching collapse of apartheid. Instead, he is vaguely melancholy, perhaps because he is suppressing his feeling for a fellow cadre, Dulcie Olifant. David, like his wife, Sally, is "colored," which means he belongs to that curious South African racial category, defined in the social hierarchy as some degree above black and some degree below white. In researching his ancestors, he studies the history of a tribe called Griqua, who are considered in Kokstad to be of low social status they are perhaps synonymous with the Hottentots. His inquiries focus on their 19th-century leader, Andrew La Fleur, for whom the Griqua were to be a model of "separate development" a fatal phrase, the root of the apartheid ideal. David's relationship to La Fleur comes from the "telegonic" birth of his great-grandmother, Ouma Ragel; Antjie, Ragel's mother, supposedly conceived from looking at La Fleur. At the top of the whole tree, as far as David is concerned, is the steatopygous Saartje Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, whose large buttocks amazed 19th-century European scientists. Complex, sympathetic, but desultory in its plotting and slow in pace, Wicomb's novel unravels a long, fascinating family history. Her tale is a sometimes happy, sometimes ironic unmasking of denials and a revelation of an imperfect, unlikely reality. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Published in 1987, You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town won Wicomb international fame. Her new work, an epic retelling of the settlement of South Africa's Griqualand, will bring her into the spotlight again. The book opens in 1991, when the legalization of the African National Congress (ANC), the release of Nelson Mandela, and the end of apartheid are effecting huge changes in South Africa. Confused about his identity and status (he is categorized as "colored," placing him somewhere between black and white in apartheid society), ANC cadre David Dirkse leaves Cape Town for Kokstad to research his family tree. There, he discovers that he is distantly related to Andries Abraham Stockhausen La Fleur, who led the Griqua tribe into the desert in the 19th century. What results is an excellent retelling of the settlement of Griqualand. More than a history lesson, however, or even an exciting adventure story, this book is a huge step in the remaking of the South African novel. A tremendous achievement. Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Ouma Sarie has hobbled down the hill bold as you please, smiling to herself at her own boldness, but the world had changed, it was mos the New South Africa, and she'd just ask, just say plainly, Listen, I hear you people put in a new foyer, jazzed up the whole place, as the children used to say, and I've come to have a look. This is also my place: for fifty years I worked here in this grand Logan Hotel, and the old Farquhars will tell you there was no better worker in all those years, not a single day off and all the girls under me just so sharp-sharp. And scraping together her palms in a dry rustle by way of showing the sharpness of her girls, that's just what she said to the woman with the cropped blonde hair. Which is now something, 'cause how often do you think you're going to say one thing and it comes out the other side as something quite different, something quite wrong. But no, she just said it straight, and the young woman smiled with Oubaas Farquhar's skew smile, which really spoiled her looks. Ouma would have known her as one of the straw-haired girlies who'd get under a busy person's feet with nuisance questions of Sarie this and Sarie that, although she could not be sure, what with hair these days coming out of bottles. The woman said politely, You go ahead Mrs. Meintjies, and we shall be most interested to hear your verdict on the blah blah big-words. Still, very nice she was, and left Ouma Sarie in the hallway to inspect at her leisure the renovations, the brand new plush chairs, the rag-painted walls, and the newly stuck-on cornice with its fancy thistle pattern.     My word, she sighed, her hands on her hips as she craned her neck to look at the ceiling, a picture of heaven with gilt-edged clouds and angels swarming like bees. What a funny idea of fixing up the place; this was no modernisation, the foyer now was ancient as the Bible, and the pictures on the parchment-coloured walls looked as if they'd been rescued from a fire, though she could have sworn that some were the same portraits of the old gentlemen with their horses. She folded her hands in the deep small of her back to admire, like any guest, the gleaming hallway of the Logan. The floor made her smile with pleasure: the same old tiles of blue and white and terra-cotta, all laid out in the geometrical pattern that repeated itself, over and over. How she used to linger over them in the olden days with her rag of Cobra polish and lose herself in the triangles and squares and rectangles, and forget her troubles. Not that there has ever been such a thing as forgetting your troubles; the very moment of thinking that you've forgotten them, the demons would rush in, and you'd regret not savouring for longer the moment before remembering, impossible as that might have been--but then thinking is a business that drives you mad. And in those bad old days there was no such thing as thinking things through; there was only thinking yourself into knots and endless sums of rands and cents.     Checking for dust, Ouma Sarie ran an expert eye along the window ledge, along the pretty blue leaded glass, but glad as she was about everything being nice and clean, about the things that had been left, she was disappointed. She had imagined the place airy and modern, brightly painted, and as for the cornice, well, what a business it would be keeping that clean. No, altogether it would be too much work, and just thinking of it made her tired, so tired that she sank into an antiquish velvet armchair--ag, the sort of thing even she wouldn't have in her old-fashioned house. She used to always make a turn in the hallway, look up at the ceiling of wooden squares and triangles that dear God had clicked so neatly into each other, before slipping off into the disorder of her world. Then she would hurry through the green gardens, averting her eyes from the fountain decorated of all things with naked figures in stone, and through the brush until the garden petered out into the karroo that would not acknowledge its presence, that loudly and abruptly announced itself as the stony karroo, where the grey scrub of the veld would have nothing to do with the greenness.     The walk down the hill had taken it out of Ouma Sarie; she found herself drifting off in the chair, and so, not remembering to say something to the nice young woman, she hurried out as of old, through the garden, into the veld, and towards the clump of houses behind the ridge, out of sight of the hotel. Towards the newly whitewashed, wobbly-lined rectangles of a child's drawing, their flat roofs sloping backwards to a wall considerably lower than the front: the steek-my-weg location of unmistakably coloured country houses, the houses of farm labourers. These houses have blind backs with no windows. The door, more or less centred at the front, is divided horizontally, so that in the evenings a person could rest her folded arms on the latched lower half and watch the daylight slipping into dark. On either side of the door the unglazed windows with wooden shutters, sometimes just one, like a postage stamp, but she had insisted on another. And above, on the right, an apologetic chimney from which smoke curls all year long.     In the smart black dress with white apron and cap--the Logan Hotel always looked well after its staff--she would halloo up to the house where young girls sat with legs spread around their game of ten-stones-in-the-hole. They were coloured girls; they wore the cutoff ends of stockings--or rather those modern panty hose--on their heads to flatten their hair, swirled smoothly around the skull after a punishing night in rollers. They pored over stones raked nimbly with fingers out of a hole in the earth, returned some with the heel of the hand, raked and returned, made split-second judgments on which to leave behind, so that there was no pause between raking and returning. Their tilted, stockinged heads were those of guerrillas deliberating over an operation. The karroo wind whipped up little whirls of dust from which their hair was well protected. They leapt up from their clandestine game as Ant Sarie, the enemy-general of games, approached, shouting commands, so that, pulling the stockings rebelliously over their faces, the girls scattered to the tasks of sweeping, collecting eggs, and emptying forgotten pisspots.     Ouma Sarie rubs her eyes as she sinks into a chair. If only she had known at the time to thank God for her good fortune, but who could have imagined trouble overtaking her like that, one day the children playing ten-stones in the yard and before you blink they're out there in the terrible world of fighting, as if she hadn't done her best to bring them up as Christians. And as if that wasn't bad enough, to have her child called a guerrilla, a word sounding so like baboon that it took her back, right back to the day she and Joop arrived in the district. When they put down their bundles under the eucalyptus trees in front of Baas Hennie's shop and the little Saartjie, her first, oulik as anything, scrambled off her back and practiced her crawling right up to the stoep where she giggled and babbled into the face of the oubaas, who said, Better take away the little baboon, otherwise it'll get trampled underfoot. Kindly, she supposed, but she should have known then that it was an omen, that the girl should have been kept on a short leash. Ag, she wouldn't dwell so on the past if it weren't for Joop being dead and gone. It would be so nice for him to know that everything turned out alright in the end: that the girl, the apple of his eye, is alive, that she, Sarie, is now an ouma, and that everything is busily settling down. That the Boers have all these years kept Mandela clean and fresh on the island so that when everything had gone stinking rotten, there was someone clean and ready to take things in hand. Yes, everything is going to be just so nice-nice, rubbing her palms together--and it is the very scraping sound that makes her bolt out of her chair. This is no his time for brooding; she would go to Cape Town, go and see the children, because it's pure longing for her little ones that's given her such a turn, and before that she'll go back to see the nice young woman, say the right things about the foyer looking grand and make some excuse about rushing off like a mad old thing. And she casts an appreciative eye over her own modernisation, the glazed windows and the lovely patterned lino that looks just like a photo of the Logan foyer. No, she smiles, the bad old days of dung floors are over. This is no place to start. But let us not claim a beginning for this mixed-up tale. Beginnings are too redolent of origins, of the sweaty and negligible act of physical union which will not be tolerated on these pages and which we all know comes to nought but for an alien, unwilling little thing propelled damp and screaming into this world to be bound in madam's old, yet still good, terry cloths.     Saartjie arrived like any other baby born in the airless rhomboid of a coloured house. The same muffled cursing and mewling and heaving behind the unglazed shutters, the same rush of amniotic fluid and Ant Sarie's final heroic push that propelled her into a recoiling world. And a clutch of anties held her by the ankles to dislodge the last of the foetal phlegm, ascertained that she was a girl, and got ready the nylon stocking to pull over her head, for there was much woolly hair that had to be smoothed and flattened over the pulsating crown. This was the decade of brave baby girls with tightly bound guerrilla heads, which goes some way towards explaining the little-known fact that the Movement managed to recruit so many coloured women.     Who does not know that resourcefulness and frugality are virtues next to godliness and cleanliness? In the stunning heat it was not surprising that bare-legged young women found a new use for the charity bags of old stockings--We cut them up for pillows, Madam--but they came to serve the sinister function of fighting the curl in the hair of women who found that it took no more than a swift tug to drag the nylon across the face and radically transform their sleek-haired selves into guerillas. Thus killing two birds with one stone, they saw in the Movement a liberation from laying their weary heads on the discarded panty hose of the rich. That Africanisation would at the same time discourage the fight against frizzy hair was an irony which they could not foresee.     Saartjie, the ten-stones-in-a-hole wizard, turned Sarah at high school, and thereafter, boldly, since recruitment by the ANC, the more distinctly English-sounding Sally, clocked into her first clerical job at Garlicks with the required English accent and sleek hair flicked up at precisely chin level. Thus no one would have recognised her, wearing in broad daylight a stocking on her head like any rough, roesbolling girl, on the afternoon she first met David. It was a minor assignment, in the early days of her training. On a suburban train bound for Simonstown, between Wittebome and Retreat stations, with collar drawn up and a cap turned back to front, he slouched through the third-class carriage and joined her on the wooden seat she had in a sense been reserving for him.     He said, tugging at the red scarf draped around her neck, Miss Rooi Scarf, hey! seeming to note neither the telltale stocking on her head nor the redundancy of his observation, as she correctly replied, Rooi soes 'n rose--red as a rose--so that he slipped a package deftly into her shopping bag, so deftly that she could not be sure. Then he moved on, teased another young goosie but returned to glance at her, and she looked deeply into his green eyes before he leapt, nimble as any skollie, from the already moving train at Retreat Station. There was no knowing if she would ever see him again. Indeed, she knew nothing of him, could make no enquiries in Cape Town where everyone knew each other because she did not know his real name. But believing in destiny and touching wood whenever an opportunity arose, Sally waited. In the meantime she summoned his face in her mind's eye as often as possible, not realising that the features blurred and blunted and the lines shifted with the passage of time, so that when she finally met him almost two years later, in the community centre where she was now nominally employed, he only faintly resembled the mental picture she had been carrying around. But the eyes were the same, the very bewitching shade of green.     As for David, he had no memory of her, retained no image of the woman, although he recalled the event with clarity. When he gave her an awkward long-stemmed red rose and tried to pin it to the red chiffon scarf she had taken to wearing, she spoke of their meeting on the train. Had she been content with the repetition as coincidence or remembered that red roses are routinely given by young men, Sally would never have learnt from his own mouth how he had not recognised her as the girl on the train--a woman now, with all that weight of carrying around an image with which to fall in love. How could he have told, he pleaded, without the stocking on her head, for having not yet been to bed with her, he had not seen her wearing it at night. Then he castigated her for being indiscreet, for speaking, although her words could not have been more carefully chosen, more cryptic. How could she be so sure, what if he were not the man, could he not after all say the same of her? Forgetting the disintegration of features, the shifts in bone structure, the shrinking of his form, she shook her head emphatically and with her hand over his eyes declared that this was not at all possible, that they were who they were.     Months later, during rush hour, when the old Ford Capri broke down in Long Street, she leapt out of the passenger seat to help him push the car into a side road. Shamed and perplexed at first by such odd behaviour, he thought of her training in the Movement as explanation, and tossing in bed that night decided that a woman who did not sit respectably in the car with head tilted and legs crossed at the ankles while he pushed was perhaps not such a disadvantage; indeed, there was a curious lightness in his heart as he thought of marriage to such a woman, a cadre, a comrade to whom he need not always lie about his activities. David Dirkse, alias Dadzo, or rather Comrade Dadzo: Has no illusions about war and so accepts both the acts of glory and the acts of horror, neither of which will be or need be disclosed by anyone.     Age: 35     Race: `Of no consequence'     Training: Angola, USSR, Botswana, Cuba, and, of course, sessions within the country, under their very noses, where nothing untoward had happened.     Only once, recently, in the hills of Natal where the ground gives spongily and the whispered words of the dying lie in scattered syllables on the surface, has he felt his own weight on the earth, on time, on the very murmur of decomposition, until the muffled silencers of the gunshots amplified into thunder in his ears. The doctor called it tinnitus and prescribed a week's rest, but a day of doing nothing did the trick. Others have lost limbs, but nothing untoward has happened to Comrade Dadzo. Only there were deep scars on the soles of both his feet, and the dislocation of the bone on the ball of the left foot gave him a slight emphasis on the right when walking, a mannerism which both men and women with an eye for detail found attractive.     As one would expect, Sally asked questions, to which he replied jokingly about initiation rites. David's discipline and loyalty were legendary among his comrades. No stoic could have imbibed army codes more thoroughly, so that his replies were curt. She knew not to badger him, knew that there were limits to probing.     To Sally it may have seemed like an adventurous life; he would not have used such a word. Not that he had any replacement. He would never have attempted to find a descriptive word, like the arbitrary names on a Dulux colour chart--personality blue, stratos, sailboard, sea rhythm, or soft rain--names that gave one no idea of the actual shade of blue. No, it was simply his life. To put a name to it would have invited disappointment, would have left him unprepared for the unexpected. So now, with the unbanning of the Movement, he does not lament the lack of adventure, although there is much to do here at home that demands even greater vigilance, greater secrecy. But nowadays there is also more time to think, and turning an eye inward he finds a gash, a festering wound that surprises him, precisely because it is the turning inward that reveals a problem on the surface, something that had stared him in the eye all his life: his very own eyes are a green of sorts--hazel, slate-quarry, parkside, foliage, soft fern, whatever the colour chart may choose to call it, but greenish for God's sake--and that, to his surprise, he finds distasteful, if not horrible.     It is, he supposes, unlike the rest of his life, personal, a matter entirely unconnected with the Movement or with the way he relates to his comrades. They saw little of each other during their courtship. Only once, at the beginning, they were on a mission together in Gaborone, but the pleasures of combining work and play were limited and laced with guilt. After that, their activities overlapped only here and there, in spite of attempts on Sally's part to influence locations. Moments stolen from the Movement in unexpected places were like feasting on the sweetest watermelon, but whole, pips, rind, and all, for the next morning as they slipped apart there should be no trace of the fruit. Naturally they never went away together, and naturally months would go by without them knowing of each other's whereabouts, without knowing whether the other was alive. When they found themselves in Cape Town, David said that they should not be seen together too often, that this made them easy targets, but they met up at night at various safe houses, with their ordinary red stoeps and neat lawns. You must have a wife and two-point-four children hidden somewhere in town, she teased. Sometimes on sultry evenings they sat in cafés to drink coffee without chicory or even a beer, and then in public his hand would linger deliciously on hers. But stranger than the eating places of Harare or Gaborone were the drinks in Stuttafords or on the seafront, under the Apostles--places that still held the taste of the forbidden as black people entered defiantly. Sally felt the chill of discomfort at those tables of trimmed carnations and muted conversations.     Were they being watched? she whispered. When she looked surreptitiously about the room to identify that Boer, the lone, dark-skinned white man with blunt features, David laughed. The young, flashily dressed black couple behind them were no less suspicious; there was no telling in these days of treachery and flux and things being all mixed up, no telling who was who and where danger might lurk. If it were not for the pleasure of being together in public, the seductive whiff of the illicit, Sally would not have bothered learning to sit around in cafés, spending money, inventing personas that spoke quietly about subjects such as gardening or holiday resorts or even a baby called Tracy, and behaving, except for the customary hushed tones and the eavesdropping, as if there were no one else about. She could not tell whether there were looks and whispers when they entered, or whether she imagined it; she hated the less discreet raising of eyebrows, although such things were of no consequence. David stretched and yawned comfortably, had no difficulty remembering at all times not to raise his voice, and if he knew about the devices she sometimes carried in her handbag to record a muted conversation at a nearby table, he said nothing.     Sooner or later he would suggest marriage. Sally laughed, It's all that talk about Tracy and blue kitchen cupboards. But no, he was serious. The struggle had made unprecedented progress; despite the government's bravado, it would not be long before the country would be free, before democracy would reign; it was only sensible that they should think of the future, of leading normal family lives; they were no longer spring chickens. Sally had not realised the extent of his influence: she was released from her underground work after protracted debriefing and that was that. The so-called part time job in the community centre became real, full-time, and community issues were to be her domain. Which was an important aspect of the struggle, David assured her, but there was an emptiness, a hollowness inside as if she had aborted, no, miscarried, and a rush of unfamiliar hormones left her listless for weeks. It was not surprising, then, that she fell pregnant soon after, vomited for three months after every meal and forgot at night to swirl her hair in a nylon stocking. When the baby came, a healthy boy whom they could not very well call Tracy, Sally was an emaciated scarecrow of a woman with uneven, vegetal tufts of hair and liverish spots on her brown skin. (Continues...) Excerpted from David's Story by Zoë Wicomb. Copyright (c) 2000 by Zoë Wicomb. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.