STILL LIFE. By Zoe Wicomb. The New Press. 304 pages. $25.99.
Typical of her richly complex fiction, Zoe Wicomb’s “Still Life” is an intriguingly metatextual novel that addresses some of the silences and omissions of South African history, and the broader relationship of historiography, reputation, writing and memory to power.
Deflecting her own authorial power, Wicomb sets up her new novel within a frame-story involving a reluctant writer struggling to meet a commission to write a biography of the Scottish/South African abolitionist and poet Thomas Pringle. Somewhat intimidated by, but disdainful of, the agent who has commissioned the biography, the unnamed author cedes her research to a group of ghosts, characters drawn from Pringle’s life but also including the time-traveling poet Sir Nicholas Greene from Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando.”
Given this ghostly set of co-narrators it is appropriate that the cover design for Wicomb’s new novel features a blurry reproduction of the subject of the commissioned biography. Thomas Pringle is famous in South Africa, although he lived there for only six years in the 1820s, as one of the men responsible for the Western Cape’s English liberal tradition, notably manifested in principles of press freedom, and as the “father of South African poetry.” His poems and prose descriptions are credited with being the first examples of English literary language to represent local South African flora and fauna and depict the complex and violent frontier of the Cape Colony as white settlers occupied more and more of the land.
In Scotland, however, Pringle is scarcely known as a poet, despite having been an acquaintance both of Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rather, he is known for his abolitionist work as secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, in which capacity he saw into print the ghost-written autobiography of Mary Prince, formerly enslaved in the West Indies.
The blurriness of the cover image, therefore, is all the more appropriate as Wicomb’s novel probes the gaps, omissions and misrepresentations in Pringle’s story, notably in relation to his adopted son Hinza Marossi, whom he brought back to Scotland with him on his return in 1827.
Wicomb plays with the fact that all we know of Hinza comes from one of Pringle’s most famous poems, “The Bechuana Boy,” an account that Pringle himself acknowledged blurred the truth in its considerable “poetic license.” While Pringle claimed to have freed Hinza from literal bondage, Wicomb frees him from Pringle’s literary representation of him by reanimating him, along with Mary Prince, and Sir Nicholas Greene, as one of the characters researching Pringle’s life.
Hinza’s research is of course deeply personal as it leads him to question Pringle’s motives and supposed love for him as an adopted son. His research takes him to contemporary South Africa where he encounters a dreadlocked professor who dismisses Pringle as “no more than a cipher, constructed by liberal English South Africans intent on distinguishing their polite racism from the crass Afrikaner version.”
The professor’s dogmatic skepticism leaves Hinza even more confused about his origins, a confusion that is compounded by his subsequent visit to the Eastern Cape where the historical Hinza had supposedly met Pringle. The tourist lodge he stays at contrasts so starkly with the poverty of the local residents that Hinza gives up his research and concludes that he must “be content with what I do not know.”
On returning to London, however, Hinza tells Mary that he now believes that Pringle “deliberately misled” him and really “acquired (him) by means that he took pains to conceal.” Hinza extrapolates from his own disappointment in Pringle a more thorough disparagement of the supposedly Christian beliefs that underpinned the colonial project in general, declaring them unambiguously “fraudulent to the core.”
Little is truly unambiguous in this multilayered text, though. While Wicomb gives Hinza his own voice and frees him and the black South Africans for which he might be taken to stand from the textual imprisonment of white settler-oriented history, there is another silenced voice in “Still Life” whom Wicomb reanimates but keeps in the margins.
Vytjie is a Khoesan girl/young woman who features in a couple of other Pringle poems. Never having been brought into the family circle in any way, when Vytjie appears in “Still Life” as another researcher-cum-witness who might shed light on Pringle, she maintains a highly skeptical distance, wary not just of Pringle but of white people in general. By referring to Pringle as “baas P” she highlights Pringle’s complicity with the white overlordship of colonial South Africa, and by disparagingly calling Sir Nicholas “Sir Thingummy” and mocking his bushy eyebrows she undercuts English systems of authority and racist notions of physical norms.
Ultimately, “Still Life” ends with one final blurring of the edges. The reluctant author of the frame-story confesses to her agent, the “beautifully shod” Belinda, that she has had to “abandon Pringle, or rather the Pringle characters have abandoned me.”
Over a delicious lunch in a Glasgow restaurant, she thus breaks her contract to deliver a book. If readers are left asking, “So, what have I just read?” that is part of Wicomb’s point, typifying her habitual avoidance of what this brilliant South African writer has called the “camouflage of coherence.”
Reviewer Simon Lewis teaches African literature at the College of Charleston.