The presence of the past: The relevance to South Africa

Article for the Cape Times
by AnnMarie Wolpe
September 2003

In 1997 a German book The Reader was published in English. It was an instant hit. The Independent Sunday Magazine said that it is a "compelling meditation on the connections between Germany's past and its present, dramatised with extreme emotional intelligence as the story of relationship between the narrator and an older women". And it was one of the question of memory and collective responsibility and guilt that the author, who visited Cape Town last year as a guest of the Holocaust Centre, chose to speak.

I read the book when it first came out but felt the need to reread it, particularly in the light of some of the points raised by Schlink's lecture. What emerges is the complexities of the problem of memory and reconciliation.

The book set initially in post-World War II Germany is gripping reading. Essentially it portrays a young adolescent's affair with an older woman. The portrayal of youthful love, his tenderness and awakening sexuality are wonderfully portrayed. The relationship is all embracing for the youth, although the woman appears to be less involved and distanced from it. Part of their intense sexual relationship also involves the young scholar's reading aloud to the woman a range of books - German literature, the Odyssey, War and Peace amongst others. It continues for some years and alters perceptibly when the youth becomes more involved with his own age group. When his lover comes to the swimming baths where he is consorting with his friends he fails to acknowledge her presence.

The affair comes to an abrupt end through the disappearance of the woman. He cannot find out where she has gone. The puzzle is resolved when, as a law student, he attends a trial of women concentration camp guards. And there in the dock is his former love, one of the guards. His professor points out that "you won't find a single one who really believes he had the dispensation to murder". He remains apparently unperturbed by his former lover's presence and neither he nor she acknowledge each other. But at a general level the trial crystallises a number of problems for him: memory, guilt - individual as well as collective, the "prohibition of retroactive guilt", the role of laws that existed prior to the perpetration of crimes, the role of the state and so on.

Hi s former lover appears not to protect herself beyond posing a question to the judge of what would he have done under such circumstances. The narrator, the young man, suddenly realises that his former lover is totally illiterate. This would seem to be the reason for her behaviour in court and failure to protect herself. She, the narrator thinks, was struggling to show what she could do but to hide what she couldn't do. He faces the dilemma of whether to reveal to the presiding judge this knowledge. He fails to do so. He feels that he had betrayed her in the past and was still guilty.

She is convicted to life imprisonment. During the latter part of that period he resumes his reading to her through doing so on tapes which he sends in without any comment. The book reaches the climax when she is about to be released from prison after serving 18 years incarceration. The end is unexpected.

The book and Schlink's lecture raises so many questions pertinent to South Africa not least of which is collective guilt. It is interesting that in the Mail and Guardian of the 19th March, Itumeleng Mahabane, senior editor at the Financial Mail raises the very question of white collective guilt. The whites are collectively guilty, and the blacks (it is not clear whether all) are victims. He does this through an unwarranted attack on former President Nelson Mandela for the "pursuit of pragmatic reconciliation". This Mahabane argues "absolves whites of any responsibility in the maintenance of a system held together by white electoral democracy". He says that Mandela ignored the need for the "development of sympathy and empathy [for the black victims] that shared interests alone cannot generate". He said that Mandela in "the virtue of martyring himself for the sake of reconciliation', received "that sympathy in bucket loads" presumably ensuring the loss of sympathy for those murdered and through "other exploits of the apartheid regime".

This polarised and simplistic argument of Mahabane's suggests that the events in South Africa are unique. He fails to consider similar events such as the holocaust, or the three-month genocide in Rwanda, or other more recent examples, such as the Bosnian situation. The recent world's history is filled with stories of massacres and failures even to acknowledge some of them. Responsibility is the type of question that, as can be seen from the above, has been seriously considered in German society since World War II. It has also been the basis for analysis of what Stan Cohen, a sociologist, called "The States of Denial" in a recently published book on knowing about atrocities and suffering. As Cohen said there are two ways of evading the realities of personal and mass suffering. The one is turning a blind eye" in which he says "we have access to enough facts about human suffering, but avoid drawing their disquieting implications".

The second is more complicated. It is what he terms "retreat from truth to omnipotence and cites the example of Oedipus "now actually blind, can no longer turn a blind eye, [but] shows a contempt for the truth". One can only hope that Mahabane's enlarges his reading of situations outside of South Africa.

To return to Schlink's book, it was fascinating to hear him talk about some of the issues. It was because of this and the desire to address some of these questions that the Wolpe Trust through its regular forum meetings decided to provide space to do so. And to this end Professor Andre du Toit of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town will lead the discussion on Schlink's lecture on Wednesday 31st March at the Barry Room, Iziko Museum Cape Town at 6p.m.

Dr AnnMarie Wolpe is a Trustee of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust