“When I was deployed into intelligence,” reflects Barry Gilder, “the cultural side of me got pushed out … writing The List confirmed for me that doing this is what I love.”
Gilder, anti-apartheid folk singer, Umkhonto we Sizwe-trained ANC intelligence officer in exile, former deputy director general of the National Intelligence Agency and more recently retired operations director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) think-tank, is talking about his first novel, published late last year. It’s not his first book: the autobiographical Songs and Secretsappeared in 2012.
We’re discussing whether an ex-spook writing a spy thriller can really call it fiction. Is it, in fact, even a spy thriller? How was the book written? And why is there such interest in the secrets of the past?
The List (Jacana) is set in a dystopian but close South African future (Gilder questions “present” and “future” keenly). A covert band of intelligencers, loyal to the ideals of the struggle, race to close in on the agents left behind to subvert those ideals. There’s a devastating and extremely public assassination on page two.
One of Gilder’s motives for writing is his fierce belief that South Africa isn’t doing half enough creative exploration of its past. “My childhood [he was born in 1950] was filled with novels, films, even comics and so on about the end of fascism. But here … there’s a great deal of non-fiction, but not that kind of body of creative work of all kinds.”
Cheerfully conceding that The List is certainly a book “with spies in it”, Gilder is reluctant to imprison it in the genre shackles of “spy thriller”. For him, and in the context of the lack he describes above, it’s a way of exploring some of the experiences of exile and transition “as we lived it, saw it and felt it”.
Based in reality
The specifics of the book – characters and plot – are fiction. But the texture of that experience comes from somewhere real, adding to the narratives (from Mandla Langa, Mongane Wally Serote and more) that illuminate those lives for readers who didn’t live them.
The stay-behind theme is real, too. “Sellout” and “agent” have become the insults du jour in South Africa. Rival politicians use them to attack one another, uncaring of consequences. The powerful use them to slander popular protest and investigative journalism. As these insults fly, playing the sabotage card sometimes feels simply facile.
But the history of Europe’s post-World War II Operation Gladio suggests we should not dismiss it too fast. The victorious Allies seeded anti-Communist arms caches and resistance cells throughout Western Europe after 1945. Often, the cells comprised former fascists. Later on, those “stay-behinds” carried out murderous false-flag operations to discredit the Left, implicitly and sometimes explicitly encouraged by their Nato and United States handlers.
Gilder’s fiction follows an analogous stay-behind. Recruited during the struggle, rising up through the ANC ranks, he ends up well placed to erode and destroy the gains of liberation. The truth is, we don’t know what or how stay-behind structures were set up in South Africa.
“There are huge gaps in our knowledge,” says Gilder. “In East Germany, they opened the Stasi files. Here, the mass burning of documents made investigating those networks impossible.”
That’s where the title comes from: the plot’s McGuffin is a list of hidden agents allegedly given to Nelson Mandela by the old regime as part of the settlement, and pointing to the key name. While Gilder doesn’t want to typecast The List, the search for the document – even though we know how it ends – is constructed tautly enough to satisfy any thriller fan.
‘Lost in imagination’
Gilder breaks genre shackles most emphatically in how he handles time. He was, he says “quite deliberately” playing with notions of time, shifting between 2020 and 1979, 1984, 1994 and more.
He began the book in 2013, when the idea emerged from freewriting sessions in poet Aditi Rao’s New Delhi writing circle. It was completed in early December 2017, before the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec.
Gilder says he’s not reimagining the present, “because the present is always different – when I was writing it, when it was being edited and published, when somebody reads it today or tomorrow.”
That writing tactic does two things: it creates a different, much longer, arc of plot tension; and it reminds us that time is not limited by linearity; the past lives in and alongside the present.
Gilder describes his writing process as “getting lost in imagination. I construct a scene for my characters, doing whatever, in a lot of detail.” (His peers on the Wits creative writing masters course, who helped midwife the book along with a Johannesburg writers’ circle, sometimes said his details slowed the pace.) “But after that,” he says, “I struggle to actually start writing. I could get into a hot bath, start constructing a paragraph in my head – and sometimes end up in a bath of cold water.”
The power of metaphor
If the context, voice and structure of The List have compelling narrative power, not all the characters make the same impact. The book switches between first and third person and the main protagonists, intelligence agents Jerry and Vladimir, are the people we come to know best. They feel authentic and alive, and caring about their fate draws us into the narrative.
The few female characters, though, are underdeveloped. We never get past the externals, for example, of Jerry’s daughter Nadine. Gilder’s point about the shortage of creative work on the experience of struggle is even truer for all the women who fought, organised and commanded.
Gilder has already begun sketching ideas for another novel, probably set in the same world as The List, but “thematically engaging with a very different set of issues”.
Meanwhile, The List recruits the power of metaphor to enrich our understanding of real, lived experiences. It provokes questions not only about the “official” secrets others may have hidden, but also about the personal ones we have buried.
Former freedom fighters often literally owe their lives to old comrades. It is false to attribute all the resulting loyalties to “skeletons”. Ronnie Kasrils begins his 2017 Zuma memoir, A Simple Man, with an anecdote shining a harsh light on the former president’s politics. He’s had that memory, and those questions, since 1982.