The Polish reportage writer's new book is a South African tale set at the end of apartheid. The whole country is changing, as the system of racial segregation is slowly being left behind. Yet in one town a very determined man attempts to preserve the old order.
Wojciech Jagielski is best known for such reportages as Towers of Stone, which describes the Chechen conflict, and Praying for Rain, a portrait of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Burning Grass is also a book entirely based on facts however this time the author introduced changes to his journalistic style of writing and created a work, which is closer to being a non-fiction novel than a reportage. He tells the story of the South African town of Ventersdorp. As Jagielski himself says of his book,
Ventersdorp is a small town. It has two thousand white inhabitants and maybe a dozen black ones. The settlement belongs to the whites, the locals have a small-town mentality. They don’t like strangers, they don’t like to be talked or written about. It is a special town thanks to one of its former residents, Eugene Terre’Blanche, who contested the abolition of apartheid and proclaimed himself leader of the Boers. Venterdorp became his area of influence. Even after his death people were afraid to talk about their lives and their town. I was never considered a trustworthy person.
Eugene Terre’Blanche is the central character of the book. He was a radical politician, who started his career in the late sixties and eventually became well-known for his racist and right-wing views. He founded a political party, which represented the interests of extremist Boers. Many of the Afrikaans speaking citizens of South Africa were unhappy with the democratic changes introduced by the last Boer president Frederik de Klerk. After all they were beneficiaries of the apartheid system, which granted them political control over the country, whereas democracy in the Republic of South Africa effectively implied the rules of the blacks. Eugene Terre’Blanche, as a racist and white-power ideologist, threatened the president with civil war. He proved to be a man of his word when he assembled street fighting squads. The restitution of an independent Boer state was among his political postulates. However the public gradually grew disillusioned with his radical ways, especially when the story of his admiration for Hitler surfaced. As a result he was left without any substantial following and became no more than a political curiosity. After the fiasco of his nationwide plans he returned to his hometown of Ventersdorp where he acted as a self-appointed chieftain. It was his greatest ambition to preserve the old order at least in that settlement, as if the political breakthrough never took place. In the end he was beaten to death by black labourers, allegedly over a wage dispute. His killing became the most important political murder of South Africa since the assassination of Chris Hani.
The character of Terre’Blanche in Wojciech Jagielski’s book is complicated and multi-aspectual. As much as he is a dangerous racist and extremist he is also a tragic figure. He failed on his most important mission of preserving apartheid and became a grotesque caricature of the influential politician he once was. His end is more than bitter. Paradoxically the readers may feel a certain kind of compassion for him. One might notice that by giving such a portrayal Jagielski follows in the footsteps of the greatest prose-writers, who had the skill to create complex, ambiguous characters. The town of Ventersdorp itself is also described in a literary style. Literary expert Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute finds that
Jagielski has the ability to wait for the right moment, he isn’t afraid of leaving out "empty spaces", when he builds an atmosphere. This means that he describes grasslands or the laziness of a town using metaphors. He may for instance say that a town turns its back strollers, that it won’t shake their hands, that it will refuse contacting them and he is very suggestive by doing so. He employs details very skillfully, which makes the readers feel enrooted in the novel and gives them a sense that the story isn’t an abstraction. We can almost smell the beer, the sweaty men, the labourers, the burnt grass. His writing is suggestive, vivid and film-like.
Ventersdorp putsall of the political conflicts of South Africa under a microscope. Usually when we think of the tensions in that country, we have in mind the struggle for power between the whites and the blacks. This of course is shown by Jagielski, although not in the way most of the readers would expect. The blacks aren’t hyper-enthusiastic about the changes. Their situation suddenly becomes complicated and they are in a sense clueless as to how to act in the new conditions. But the Boers of Ventersdorp despise their English-speaking neighbours no less than they do the local black population. This animosity dates back to the Anglo-Boer wars from the nineteenth century and has had a great impact on the shaping of the South African society. So apart from the obvious conflict between the black and white people we witness also the animosities between the Afrikaners and the descendants of English colonists. "The book is surprising, it has suspense and intensity. We also get a bonus of knowledge about the world. This book has cognitive values apart from purely literary ones", remarks Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało.
Wojciech Jagielski is an acute observer and master of the literary craft. He uses the life and history of the folk of the South African town to construct an allegory of the social and political effects of revolution. Although hopes were high at the beginning of the abolishment of apartheid, many felt disappointed with the practical effects this process had on everyday life. Jagielski explains,
Revolution often corrupts its leaders, because they can’t handle power - it’s to challenging for them. It is easier to destroy than to build. South Africa: it was a place, where revolutionary changes took place, but the revolution never actually happened. And that’s another disappointment, because people awaited this peaceful transition. But unfortunately the changes were slow and their effects almost invisible.
With this book Jagielski confirms his leading position in the field of non-fiction literature in Poland. The writer always said that Ryszard Kapuściński was his master and he truly may be considered a successor to him. Just as his great counterpart he uses details and a deep understanding of the portrayed affairs to give a clear and compelling vision of the world he describes. Also the purely literary values of this work are undisputable. The author is very conscious of the language he uses, of the medium itself. The book has the qualities of a reportage, but at the same time Jagielski’s writing employs means usually attributed to belles-lettres or poetry. This original style is one of the reasons, for which Burning Grass is more than just a reportage.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2012.