From the Archive | Strange Pilgrimages

As a novelist and poet, Achmat Dangor, who died earlier this month, captured the complexities of race, writing and activism during and after apartheid.

In 1998, Achmat Dangor received the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for his novel Kafka’s Curse. His 2004 book, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 2015, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the South African Literary Awards. This is a lightly edited excerpt from Achmat Dangor’s collection of short stories Strange Pilgrimages (Picador Africa, 2013).

A Strange Pilgrimage

He hates commemorations. Birthdays, death days, wedding anniversaries, days on which countries are born and homage is paid to the virginal unfurling of a flag (ever wonder why it always droops thereafter, as if unwilling to celebrate its own deflowering?), the adoption of a constitution or the naming of a child. They all have about them an aura of solemnity, imposing on even the most reluctant celebrants a feeling of sacred duty. People have to smile and kiss and sing along, everyone transformed into the kind of mawkish exhibitionists that their normal state of being would find repulsive. “Rite of passage” is the universally accepted phrase to describe the descent into irredeemable sentimentality. 

Yet here he is on this strange pilgrimage to Cape Town, not to visit a place but a memory. Maybe it is because he turns 60 today, and hasn’t yet had any heart problems or other serious ailments, not even an STD! His good health he supposes idly, is the 21st century’s ultimate measure of a life dully lived. 

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But he is also here to get away from the hype in Joburg surrounding the birthday of someone infinitely more famous. Being abstemious enough to skimp on even his most mysterious of indulgences, he took the earliest flight available, economy of course. He contemplates the breakfast before him – the usual stolid fare that defies itemisation, there is an egg there somewhere – until the “when-I-wuz-poor” part of his psyche reminds him that nothing is inedible and he starts eating. Immediately his dead mother’s voice intrudes. 

Do you know if this is halaal? 
Ma, I don’t know. It’s dead enough to be blessed anyway. 

She follows up. 

By the way, if you really want to go on pilgrimage, go to holy Mecca, you iblis! There you are mum, still calling me a devil. And look at how innocuous I turned out to be. 

He realises that he is mumbling a little loudly, glances at his fellow passenger. But the man doesn’t seem to have noticed his mumbling communication with the dead. 

He and his meme have been having these conversations ever since the day she died and he was too far away to attend her funeral. He sits back, contemplates the grey world outside. No sun bleeding into the sky to signal a fragile day struggling to be born. Beyond the wings of this unfabled Buraq not even a cliché stirs into life. This very lack of expectation makes him think back to another such ever impending dawn, on another such commemorative occasion. 

He had woken up on his 40th “birthday”, reciting under his breath, with a kind of resigned horror, lines from a TS Eliot poem: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Lying on his back and trying to absorb the fragile pre-dawn quiet, he tried that day to drive Eliot’s ghost from his mind by muttering aloud lines from a Cavafy poem: “Half past 12. How the time has gone by. Half past 12. How the years have gone by. There, with subliminal beauty, without TS’s cynicism, the sudden realisation that he was growing older. Oh the horror of it all. 

He had jumped out of bed and stood before a mirror, muttering to his own image. 

How much hair am I losing, is this paunch ineradicable, am I going to lose any teeth, is that time-ravaged face really mine?

He was saved by a cliché. A voice from the darkness behind him whispering “Happy birthday”, a woman rising from the bed to kiss him, mustily but sweetly still. Maybe his memory is seducing him again, invoking a typical male fantasy to compensate for what may well have been a dreary, lonely morning. But her voice too comes back. Y’know, it is also Madiba’s birthday. 

Dear Lily, so loyal to the struggle. You measured your days by these iconic milestones. But that was a long time ago, the year Nelson Mandela turned 70. Yes, yes, he shares with the great man, to the very day, a zero. But he must guard against the trickery memory is capable of. How vanity-laden the power of recall becomes with age. 

He needs to set a marker, some event that will keep him honest. His transitions are located around books. Not necessarily books of the time, but books that created a universe he could identify with and into which he could insinuate his fragile sense of identity. He was 17 when he first read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. He was sitting on the wharf at Cape Town harbour, long before it became a glamorous ‘“waterfront”, the day drawing to an end. Yes, he was a struggling artist, working by day as a shipping clerk, grappling at night with the task of giving meaningful life to the ghosts of stories and characters that rose as if from Hades as soon as darkness fell. 

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He sipped a watered-down whiskey, contemplating the suddenly limitless horizon of his destiny. Inside of him, Kazantzakis, the ascetic intellectual fused with Alexis Zorba, worker, peasant, partisan, lover of widows, author consubstantial with his character. Missing was the turbulent Mediterranean Ocean, a squall of driven rain, instead of that hot, still Cape day. And if he was truly lucky, a beautiful widow thrown in. 

You can guess what happened. In South Africa, the fucken inevitable, history being the shithouse that it is. A cop. 

A shadow loomed over him. A white man in a uniform leaned down and demanded: “Hey you bliksem, what the fuck you think you’re doing? You think this is Boesman Christmas?” 

There he was, a person of colour, a cheeky Boesman drinking in public, trying to recreate the harsh world before him in the image of a beloved writer. Maybe he was indeed drunk, his mind steeped in the fermentation of too many books. 

He walked away, not only from the deadly blankness of the cop’s eyes, but from all that European literature he was reading, ready at last for his own words to be beat out on the anvil of black consciousness. What a liberating feeling. Yet, he had entered an age that he should have disliked. It was a dark time of funerals and fierce orations, a time to deny both sense and sensuality. Hey, he remembers now, even Bob Dylan was too white. But it was at least an unambiguous age. The Salman Rushdie era. History artfully reduced to gossip, the hoarse whisper transformed into complex, exaggerated art. Storytelling at its most compelling. In 1981 Midnight’s Children evoked the ire of literary purists. Seven years later The Satanic Verses invited a jihad.

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