Shaun Johnson: The Native Commissioner

Quotes on the back cover of the book:

‘A welcome step toward the reconstitution of the South African past.' (JM Coetzee)

‘Stylistically beautiful ... will break many barriers.  A novel of reconciliation through personal testimony.' (Njabulo S Ndebele)

The book won the 2007 Best Book in Africa Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

It is the second book that I have read within the last month that presents the kind of testimony that could have gone before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

The first one was J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron (1990) and now The Native Commissioner.  Both books present a central character who is fraught with guilt, the guilt of being in a system that shapes all their actions and makes it impossible for them to follow their natural instincts to be human and humane.  Both, aware of the duality of their existences, become schizophrenic.  In J. M Coetzee's book, the woman, a middle class suburban type, conjures up a derelict, homeless man as her alter ego and in The Native Commissioner, George Jameson, who is the Native Commissioner, lives in two worlds, the world of the supremacist and the world of the oppressed and becomes both oppressor and oppressed. He achieves recognition in both worlds: for his efficiency in implementing apartheid policy on the one hand and on the other, his expressions of compassion for its victims.  Trying to divorce one existence from the other, he becomes utterly depressed, feels alienated from himself and begins to alienate himself from the members of his family. His youngest son, who is too little to be conscious of the dichotomy of their lives, adores his father unconditionally. Many decades later, this youngest son, Sam Jameson, delves into the puzzle of his father's depression in order to come to an understanding of his unhappy existence.  The result of his investigation is the book.

The Native Commissioner, like Age of Iron, spells out the position of what used to be referred to as the ‘white liberal.'

16 December 2008