JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Two recent books -- one fiction, one fact -- bear eloquent testimony to the literary allure of a society in the throes of historic change.
"The House Gun" is the first of Nadine Gordimer's novels to be set in the new South Africa. It is rooted firmly in the troubled social transformation that has engulfed this country since the end of almost half a century of apartheid.
"Country of My Skull" by Antjie Krog, an Afrikaner poet and journalist, grows out of the most agonizing initiative taken to lay a shameful past to rest: the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a national confessional where forgiveness can be gained in return for awful honesty.
Tying the two works together is the search for reasons behind the violence that tests a family's strongest bonds in Gordimer's fascinating murder story and, in Krog's work, as it was practiced by the torturers and assassins of the apartheid era.
Gordimer's new South Africa lives in fear of crime and violence, witnesses an intermingling of the races previously taboo, and recognizes black abilities so determinedly belittled in the past. The best chronicler of the national experience weaves the current turmoil into a family trauma.
Krog shows the depths from which this country has risen, the horrors endured and the complexities still at play in creating "the new dispensation," as the politicians like to call the 1994 transfer from white-minority to black-majority rule. The lyrical musings of a poet illumine the most unspeakable side of human nature.
Gordimer's Harald and Claudia Lindgard are a white middle-class couple. Like many of today's South African whites, they have moved for personal security from their spacious property to a walled and wired "cluster" development of townhouses offering strength in numbers against a dangerous outside world.
Their garage has an "electronic gadget that lets them into their home but provides no refuge." Their car has "a locking device" to secure it against thieves. They set the burglar alarm before going to bed. They are very much of today's fortress mentality here.
No sooner are they settled into this supposedly secure environment than their world is shattered by a murder, committed by their son, Duncan, who shoots a former male lover caught on a sofa with his current girlfriend.
What follows is the parents' emotional odyssey as they prepare for their son's trial, verdict and sentence.
To defend their son, they retain the best criminal trial lawyer, Hamilton Motsamai, a black anti-apartheid activist recently returned from exile in England.
Harald is a devout Christian who believes all humans are God's creation. Claudia, a doctor, knows that "flesh, blood and suffering are the same, under any skin." They are not racists, but like many South Africans, they did little to protest the inequities of the apartheid system, and, indeed, accepted many of its manifestations. And they have doubts about employing a black lawyer.
Nevertheless, the white minority's future now lies with the majority; the Lindgards entrust their son's fate to the "pink-palmed black hands" of Motsamai. "One of those kept-apart strangers from the Other Side has come across and they are dependent on him. The black man will act, speak for them. They have become those who cannot speak, act, for themselves."
Harald ponders the impact of the crime and violence that are all around him: "He knows himself as part of it, not as a claim that what his white son has done can be excused in a collective phenomenon, an aberration passed on by those in whom it mutated out of suffering, but because violence is the common hell of all who are associated with it."
Then there was the gun that Duncan used in the killing, "The House Gun" of the title, the sort of gun that is in many, if not ## most, white South African homes.
"If it hadn't been there, how could you defend yourself in this city, against losing your hi-fi equipment, your television set and computer, your watch and rings, against being gagged, raped, knifed. It if hadn't been there, the man on the sofa would not be under the ground of the city."
Duncan's world is different from that of his parents. While they have never visited a black home until Motsamai invites them to his, Duncan is involved in racial -- and sexual -- intermingling that is foreign to their generation. His circle includes blacks, gays and Jews. "He had moved on."
Motsamai's plea that Duncan was temporarily unhinged when he shot his friend in a jealous rage fails, but he manages to advance enough extenuating circumstances to get a minimal sentence of seven years, ensuring that the "murderer has not been murdered."
As much as Gordimer uses her imagination to mirror reality, Krog uses reality to inform her musings.
For two years she witnessed the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reporting for SABC radio. Anyone who has sat through a session knows how traumatic they can be, not just for the witnesses and the commissioners but for even the most detached observer.
"Week after week; from one faceless building to another, from one dusty, god-forsaken town to another," writes Krog, "the arteries of our past bleed their own peculiar rhythm, tone and image. One cannot get rid of it. Ever."
The hundreds, or thousands, of horrific accounts take her into the darkest of this country's corners. These words from a mother: "In the mortuary, after the Queenstown massacre, I had to identify my son. We waited in front of the mortuary. A thick black stream of blood was running from under the door blocking the outside drain. Inside, the stench was unbearable, bodies were stacked upon each other. The blood from my child's body was already green."
As an Afrikaner, Krog wants to understand particularly her people's involvement in the past horrors.
"God has given South Africa to the Afrikaner. Willing to die, but also willing to murder for this land," she writes. Then, again: "We are so utterly sorry. We are deeply ashamed and gripped with remorse. But hear us, we are from here. We will live it right -- here -- with you, for you."
Her style is eclectic, switching from swathes of terrible testimony to colorful anecdotes, to personal asides.
"The word 'truth' makes me uncomfortable," she confides. "I have never bedded that word in a poem. I prefer the word 'lie.' "
As she witnesses the outpouring of the past, she thinks: "No poetry should come forth from this. May my hand fall off if I write it."
But write it she does because she felt she had to, ending with a poem, an ode to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
because of you
this country no longer lies
between us but within
it breathes becalmed
after being wounded
in its wondrous throat.
Pub Date: 5/11/98