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Publisher Description

Published in 1972, Karel Schoeman's Promised land was written 22 years before the end of apartheid--when the National Party was still firmly in place, white power unchallenged. Set in a futuristic South Africa where the social order has been reversed, it plunges its reader into an uncertain universe where much remains unsaid. Its greatest strength lies in this position of uncertainty: George returns to his native country looking for answers, and leaves realising he didn't manage to ask the right questions. The novel asks us to identify with a protagonist who often appears passive and impotent, and through him, it explores the fragility of identity, both personal and collective. Its plot is one of indeterminacy, a shifting stage that implicitly calls on the reader to make uncomfortable associations and identify with those in reversed positions. When the novel was adapted to film in 2001, its message was no longer as controversial: the questions that Schoeman asked thirty years before had since become part of a new national project. But while the film delivers a more explicit critique of Afrikaner nationalism, it also neutralises the novel's challenge to the audience. A love story and mystery plot displace the original narrative's emphasis on individual self-reflection, while stark characterisations of backwards, rural Afrikaner racists deflect attention away from subtler forms of prejudice and exclusion, as well as the larger structures that define both race and racism. Seemingly experimental cinematic techniques are employed toward this same end, giving easy closure and little exploration. The novel begins with a question: 'Who are you?' (Schoeman 1978: 1). It is Hattingh who asks first, but others follow. The question animates the entire novel, and it is never resolved. In the paragraphs that follow, George stumbles through several different responses, growing defensive in his uncertainty: 'How was he to explain, then and there, in the middle of the yard?' (ibid.). Although he does not identify easily with the people he meets, the encounters challenge, rather than confirm, the reality of his comfortable life in Switzerland. When Paul asks him about his apartment only a few chapters later, for instance, George's voice falters as he starts to describe the solid facts of his existence back home: 'All the familiar parts of his life sounded strange and insubstantial as he tried to describe them here, on the hay of a dark loft, drumming rain above his head' (ibid.: 23). The disparity between his life and those of the farmers he encounters forces him to confront his position of privilege, and as he meets their expectant eyes, he often loses confidence and grows embarrassed, berates himself for lacking the proper tact. In conversations, he finds he is unable to assuage the unhappiness with which they speak of their lives--unable, also, to steer the discussion toward a more comfortable subject.

July 1
Critical Arts Projects
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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