Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rosa Burger

Rosa Burger, the main character of Nadine Gordimer’s book Burger’s Daughter (1979) is first seen at age 14 outside the prison where her mother has been interned, bringing her a hot water bottle and a quilt. Both her father and mother are white Afrikaner leftists in South Africa during the time of apartheid. They know they will be imprisoned for their beliefs, but continue to do what they can to work toward “the national liberation of the African people, and thus the abolishment of discrimination and extension of political rights to all the peoples of this country,” as her father states in the last speech he is allowed.

Nadine Gordimer
When both of her parents successively die, Rosa is left free, as her friend Conrad says, but wrestling with their legacy. She has work as a physiotherapist, but slips further and further away from the political friends her parents cultivated, seeking a life of her own. But it takes a long time, and she must dig down to understand how conditioned she is to the high-minded political cause which is more important than the individuals who try to perpetuate it.

Her friend Conrad says, “I am the only person alive.” That is the existential truth for him. But for Rosa, it is not. Rosa reminds him of “the bourgeois fate, alternate to Lionel Burger’s: to eat without hunger, mate without desire.” The Burgers embraced communism because at the time it was the only way to get beyond race. Rosa sees that her parents “had a connection with blacks that was completely personal. … The political activities and attitudes of the house came from the inside outwards, and blacks in that house where there was no God felt this embrace before the Cross. At last there was nothing between this skin and that. At last nothing between the white man’s word and his deed.”

Rosa continues moving outward. She wrests a passport from one of the “new Afrikaners” and, though under surveillance, uses it to go to France. She wants to know what it is like somewhere else. Katya, her father’s first wife whom Rosa has never known, welcomes Rosa to her home in a village near Nice. Rosa is taken in to the frivolous community, in which pleasure, food, sunshine, gardens, pets are the only reality. They are thrilled when she meets a man who becomes her lover, a professor down from Paris, Bernard Chabalier. The paintings of Bonnard crystallize the place for her. In them Chabalier points out, it is as if nothing’s happened. Not the growth of fascism, two world wars, the occupation. Katya and her friends live from day to day.

Rosa and Chabalier travel together, he outlines the life she might live with him in Paris. They are very much in love. But in London, Rosa runs into the black man who had lived in her home when they were children, Baasie. He is angry with her, angry that Rosa’s father is extolled while his, who also died in prison, is forgotten. He refuses to see Rosa again. But the talk with Baasie ignites her. She can no longer live in Europe as if nothing was happening. She returns to South Africa and takes a job in a black hospital.

In 1976 during the Soweto riots, the hospital is filled with victims. Rosa sees that it is the children that are now making the demand for human rights, radicalizing their parents. “The children kept on walking toward the police and the guns.” Rosa is detained on October 19, 1977, like hundreds of others, without charges. In the women’s prison she finds ways to communicate with other women she knows, singing and laughing together. Her lawyer expects that she will get out, though will probably be under house arrest.

Nadine Gordimer, who died this year on July 13, did not consider herself as political as the “white hard-core Leftists” working in the atmosphere of apartheid in South Africa. But she was a member of the ANC and aided the revolutionaries. Lionel Burger is somewhat modeled on Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela’s defense attorney. In the 1960’s when Mandela and Fischer were imprisoned, Gordimer considered leaving South Africa, but decided not to. “I wouldn't be accepted as I was here, even in the worst times and even though I'm white,” she said. Staying was a political act.

Perhaps none of us believe we have done enough to end suffering, yet all of our daily choices have political consequences. In this book, I saw the powerful contrast between the community in France in which each person looked out for his or her own material advantage, and the high-minded community in South Africa fostered by Rosa Burger’s family, which worked for human rights.

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