Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Literary Bite: Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog

This book was exceptionally beautiful but also oof not an easy read on the emotional front. Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog is the kind of book that challenges you, makes you think, and leaves you feeling drained at the end. Which is about what I expected, considering it’s about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s. The frame for the story is the experience of a white South African journalist covering the trials, but it’s focused on the series of vignettes of actual testimonies.

It’s about forgiveness and reconciliation, humanity and evil, and a country trying to build itself through the public exposure of pain and suffering.

And everyone wants to know: Who? Why? The victims ask the hardest of all the questions: How is it possible that the person I loved so much lit no spark of humanity in you? 

It’s arranged loosely chronologically by themes: Before the Commission, First Hearings, Politics, Reactions, and Unwinding. The most interesting parts to me were the actual testimonies – I think there’s a bit of voyeurism going on because reading someone else’s pain is painful but also captivating. And I also was really struck by some of the identity issues Antjie addressed and how a country as a whole can unify and forgive and rebuild after something as horrific as apartheid.

A myth is a unit of imagination that makes it possible for a human being to accommodate two worlds. It reconciles the contradictions of these two worlds in a workable fashion and holds open the way between them. 

I was less into the section on politics, as I felt that sometimes she went into too much detail. Though I think it was written assuming of basic knowledge of the events and people covered – knowledge I don’t really have. Had I been familiar with the politicians and leaders, those parts would probably have been more interesting.

The writing is really beautiful though (I took pictures to save a number of quotes on my morning bus rides – i.e., “The texts grow next to one another in the vapor of freshly mowed language”), and she has clearly thought long and hard about these difficult issues. This isn’t a book to offer solutions, just to depict how one woman, and at the same time the whole country, is processing the Truth and Reconciliation experience.

I definitely recommend Country of My Skull; however I suggest you read it concurrently with something lighter because this isn’t casual reading. It’s not dense – the prose reads very well and flows quickly and effortlessly – it’s just heavy subjects, difficult thoughts.

The word “reconciliation,” on the other hand, is my daily bread. Compromise, accommodate, provide, make space for. Understand. Tolerate. Emphasize. Endure…Without it, no relationship, no work, no progress, is possible. Yes. Piece by piece we die into reconciliation.