Thirty years after his death, the name of South Africa’s Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips.

By , The Root

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Editor’s note: The spelling of the ethnic term “Coloured,” used within the context of South African history and culture, reflects the writer’s preference.

October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s great novelists, arguably the greatest Africa—let alone South Africa—has ever produced, a man who was not only a prodigiously talented writer but also a valiant hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Alex La Guma (1925-1985) is today, sadly, a forgotten colossus, but in the 1960s and ’70s, he was indubitably the black Dickens, with his fiction containing the sweep and moral power of his acclaimed Victorian predecessor. An astonishing creative artist as well as an ardent freedom fighter, he was the author of five masterful novels—A Walk in the Night (1962), And a Threefold Cord (1964), The Stone Country (1967), In the Fog of the Seasons’ End (1972) and Time of the Butcherbird (1979).

With his genius for creating vivid characters amid the brutality of apartheid, his compassion for the poor and the oppressed, his masterful storytelling technique and his unforgettably sensuous, beautifully ornate prose style, La Guma has seldom been bettered in any age or on any continent. Thirty years after his death, the name Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips…

When his debut novella, A Walk in the Night, was published in 1962, a new star of black South African writing came into view with astonishing alacrity. A remarkably assured first work, written while he was under house arrest for anti-apartheid activism, it articulated many of the themes that would come to dominate La Guma’s writing: fierce opposition to apartheid, a lyrical celebration of the working-class Coloured community, a potent use of nature as a mirror for the psychology of his protagonists, and the use of literature as a tool for liberty, equality and human dignity, all distinctively couched in seductively ornate prose and heavily infused with a Dickensian realism.

Hewn from the miasma of poverty and oppression that was the enclave of District 6, A Walk in the Night unrepentantly celebrates the lives, hopes and fragile dreams of the down-and-outs, prostitutes and gangsters who inhabited this tawdry, bohemian slum. It is the story of Michael Adonis, a young Coloured man who, after being sacked from his factory job following a confrontation with his racist Afrikaner boss, embarks upon a nocturnal odyssey of crime and murder amid the neighborhood’s squalid, insalubrious tenement blocks. The horrors of racism, patricide and the pain of rootlessness all play their part in the novel’s terse, bleak greatness…

 

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