The Persistence of Memory
By Tony Eprile
Norton, 288 pages, $24.95.
‘You know a country is in trouble when its Jews start leaving,” remarks a character in Tony Eprile’s new novel, “The Persistence of Memory.” “We are like the miner’s parakeet, and we are all going… to Australia, Canada, Israel, you name it.” The country in trouble this time is South Africa, whose Jewish population 50 years ago of approximately 120,000 has shrunk lately to approximately 75,000. That isn’t exactly an exodus of post-Kishinev proportions, but neither is it an endorsement of South Africa as a diaspora community with a bright future.
Eprile, a South African writer now living in the United States, doesn’t deal in bright futures. In “The Persistence of Memory” he dedicates himself to scrutinizing the South African past through the consciousness of a single individual, one Paul Sweetbread, a Jewish man whose inner life is washed in the blood of South African history. In that, Eprile calls to mind a literary exile of a century ago, James Joyce, living in cities across Europe and remembering his native Dublin more exuberantly and meticulously the longer he remained away. And there is something in Paul Sweetbread that calls to mind Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, with whom he shares an emotional intricacy, an untidy life, a gift of awareness, a liberal imagination and a Jew’s alienation from a swaggering, aggressive gentile world.
As such, “The Persistence of Memory” extends the line of inquiry that Eprile started 16 years ago in his collection of short stories, “Temporary Sojourner,” 11 taut and acerbic stories about the brutality of apartheid, the ironies of privilege and the psychic dislocations of exile. It is also a stunning bit of writing: Its prose is at once lyrical, haunted and yet sturdy enough to carry a world on its back.
The moment is some time after the fall of apartheid, and Paul is somewhere in his middle years, reciting to us — as well as to a long-suffering therapist — the story of his life, starting as an ungainly, adipose (he is an eater of epic proportions) and self-conscious adolescent, tormented by the blossoming young women around him whose pheromones have been let loose upon his senses. Imagine Kafka’s hunger artist metamorphosed into a pastry artist and confessing to his overseer, “I always wanted you to admire my noshing.” Then, curse such a person with a yearning to forget and a tormenting inability to do so. Paul’s mind teems with impressions; he is a hostage to reminiscence. In his youth, his mother, no stranger to the table herself, had placed him under the care of one Dr. Vishinski, who introduced him to the magic slate as a metaphor for dealing with unruly memory. An advocate of clean slates, this Dr. Vishinski — any reference to Stalin’s chief inquisitor here? — finds in Paul the most resistant of patients.
Though the novel’s course may be set inexorably by the gravitational field of apartheid, the book is often most pleasurable when it veers off course and indulges Paul’s private curse: a meandering, almost Proustian, remembrance of things past. And what riches it digs up, a veritable Kimberley mine of reveries! Ancestors loom large, including Paul’s grandfather, an immigrant from Lithuania who started out as an itinerant peddler, a smous, carrying his wares and a knife sharpener across the veld in search of business: “You can see photographs of his like in the South African Museum: small, broad men in black gabardine, swart, with sharp bony features and aquiline nostrils.” The victory of the pro-fascist Afrikaner National Party in 1948 and the institution of apartheid may have aroused foreboding in Grandfather (“Zis is not for us a celebration”), whose village in Lithuania had been razed by the Nazis, but it brought opportunity, as well. Apartheid needed a bureaucracy of enforcement and forms in triplicate, and it was not long before Grandfather had cornered the market in typewriter leasing and repair. Of Grandmother we know less, except that she had come from Scotland, took pride in speaking no Yiddish and died from the bite of a banana spider.
Paul’s father parlayed a childhood fascination with insects (“goggos”) into a profitable exterminator business. His trucks — emblazoned with the promise of “No more goggos” — could be seen all over Johannesburg. But, like his son, he had a taste for the pastries served up by a domestic named Corinthia, which in time became a taste for Corinthia herself. When, some
months after Corinthia had been sent packing, Father was found poisoned after fumigating the servant’s quarters, Paul understood it to be suicide. His father had found what he needed in a forbidden colored woman — a “bloody kaffir” in his mother’s words, despite her “high Eurasian cheekbones.” In his torment, Paul finds the magic slate no help. “Even when I write [Mom’s phrases] on the slate and snap the wax paper, they persist like the afterglow on a defeated computer screen.”
“The Persistence of Memory” is a traditional Bildungsroman, the sort of coming-of-age story that was the staple of 19th-century fiction. But because it is a national drama and not just a personal one, this troubled young hero grows up to be a soldier rather than an artist, thus integrating his experience and his trauma with the moral contradictions of South Africa and allowing him access to representative South African institutions, the military and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In the army, Paul remains true to form as a soldier of misfortune and a field marshal of ineptitude: “Zeno’s Paradox in the flesh.” Sent to the frontier of South Africa and Namibia, which the soldiers referred to ironically as “the Nam,” he remains more a man of the casserole than a man of the gun and is brutally harassed by his officers, though he buys a degree of indulgence by becoming the camp chef and dishing up gourmet fare to his fellow troops. Dates are a bit unclear in the book, but it appears that Paul is at the front — a sun-baked wasteland named Camp Gemsbok — in the late 1980s, when South Africa was conducting a secret war in Namibia against the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) and allied Soviet bloc soldiers, mainly East Germans and Cubans. Eprile appends to the book an afterword about the complicated array of forces at play in a savage war that few knew about. “As a proxy war between the Soviet bloc and the U.S., it deserves to be better known and understood in the United States. All told, around a million-and-a-half people died in a conflict that was kept largely hidden from the pubic, and countless others bear emotional and physical scars from these events.” Fighting in Namibia and Angola took a horrific toll on the native peoples of both countries as well as on mercenary soldiers, such that Angola has been called Cuba’s Vietnam.
A book with a dual focus like “The Persistence of Memory,” which proposes to link the individual consciousness to the national, faces a formidable problem: to show the two to be joined at the root, the institutions of nationhood producing the personal spirit and coming-of-age assuming the moral burdens of nationality. I’m not convinced that Eprile has totally succeeded at that, even though he sends his Paul Sweetbread into a war zone as a soldier-photographer and later brings him in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a witness. There is something universal about Paul’s troubles: the age-old torments of the cosseted and bookish Jewish boy in the homeland of the Goths. He is not quite an Isaac Babel either, looking on in admiration at the Cossacks with whom he travels and basking in their acceptance of him.
Paul does have his Babelian moments to be sure, especially in his relation to his commanding officer, Captain Lyddie, a muscular, gray-eyed Adonis who is alternately his tormentor and his Dutch uncle, initiating him into military life with a crazy mixture of lessons and blows. Lyddie “is a perfect specimen of South African manhood: tall, muscular, with well-shaped thoroughbred muscles that come from good genetic material and an active outdoor life…. He is the glass of fashion and the mold of form.” And, of course, an efficient killer, as well. Yet despite his bruising inauguration into South African manhood by Lyddie, Paul remains a man apart, alienated from the war and its warriors: the tragic endomorph, the pacifist Jew.
Thus, while the story hurtles forward into battle and the massacre of surrendering SWAPO soldiers, and from there to Paul’s testimony against Lyddie, the book’s most striking moments arise out of Paul’s inward nature: the dreamy boy-man whose imagination is ever at the mercy of the return of the repressed. Shortly after his father’s suicide, Paul is sitting in his home, eating a piece of lemon custard pie (his madeleine?) and observing a large yellow mantis perched on a lamp nearby, waiting for prey. “Well, it sounds stupid now, but it could have been him. It had the same angular face and elongated limbs, the same skeptical expression, though Dad always wore glasses.” The mantis strikes a beetle and begins to eat. “The mantis turns back in my direction, raises the blurring, protesting snack to its mouth in a friendly toast, and begins to feed with a loud rustling. I break off more pie and watch him eat. Crumbs drop onto my lap; a detached brown wing spirals downward. Why, Dad? Why did you do it? I want to ask, but self-consciousness stops me.”
“The Persistence of Memory” makes a singular contribution to the Jewish literature of memory, for it is the memory not of oppression, but of moral ambiguity, of being on the white side of a system of racial contempt and exclusion and finding opportunity in a police state. It is, if you like, one man’s personal Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As both a documentary and a work of imagination that is dramatic and disturbing in both registers, “The Persistence of Memory” deserves serious reading.