Denis Hirson, White Scars: On Reading and Rites of Passage (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2006)
As Hirson mentions in his brief Afterword, White Scars started out as the ‘critical and reflective’ component to a Creative Writing Ph.D. and this partly explains the writerly feel of the book. It is a writer reflecting on other writers, a genre with many excellent practitioners (I think of Joseph Brodsky’s essay on Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, Derek Walcott’s reviews of Lowell, Larkin and others). Hirson’s book falls into this tradition: it is literary, reflective, investigative, curious about himself in the world around him, without losing sight of the world as it is around him.
The book is structured in several ways. Firstly, the four parts respectively cover four books that Hirson, at different periods in his life, obsessed about: Bishop Ambrose Reeves’s Shooting at Sharpeville, Breytenbach’s Die Ysterkoei Moet Sweet, Raymond Carver’s In a Marine Light and Georges Perec’s Je me souviens (‘I remember’) – the latter of course partly inspiration for Hirson’s own I Remember King Kong (The Boxer).
Secondly, each part is structured around, includes, or ranges around autobiography, history, the book under discussion, bits of Hirson’s own writing (prose and poetry) that he would have been writing (when he was) at the time under consideration, and a list, with ruminations, of keywords for each section. Despite this, though, the book does not read as a series of fragments. Instead, a third structuring element provides what I would call ‘psychic cohesion’.
This third structure is also, in my mind, the most important rite of the book: Hirson’s journey in search of his father, Baruch Hirson (1921-1999; obituary). The book is initially filled with ambivalence towards his father. As the elder is jailed in the son’s youth, the son naturally feels betrayed and abandoned by his father, yet simultaneously feels proud of the father for the latter’s deep sense of righteousness. And this is the primal scene that structures the book.
Through the years, the son will maintain a difficult relationship with the father until, eventually, some one moment of something – I don’t know what, but something redemptive – is achieved. The father is in a coma, drifting in and out of it. He wakes, asks for water and a hug, and, writes Hirson, ‘I lean forward and bury myself like a young boy in his arms’ (p.101). For me this is the emotional centre of the book. Given all the writerly ruminations that go on in the book – which I read with deep interest, and which is interesting – I cannot help but feel that the book, as I have said, is really about the search for the father. And in that image – so simply put – the son finds the father that had been eluding him.
I should perhaps admit my own desire in finding out more about the relationship between Denis Hirson and his father. It was only a few years after I had met Denis Hirson in the mid-1990s, that I learnt about Baruch Hirson, and then that he was Denis’s father. The Denis Hirson I had earlier met betrayed nothing about his father who had a history in the anti-apartheid struggle of not insignificant prominence, strengthened by his (the father) writing about it. So there was a small curiosity on my part.
White Scars opens up that personal history with all its agonies. The book is interesting for other reasons and in the context of that writerly genre mentioned earlier, but I cannot help but place the father at the centre of the book’s existence.
I have also been sceptical of I Remember King Kong, mainly because of how it was billed in South Africa, but that forms part of a larger discussion on the SALit scene’s obsession with the so-called 1994 watershed in literary culture. Shortly, it portrays most pre-1994 literature as one-dimensional – excepting of course the triumvirate of Brink, Coetzee and Gordimer – and is excitable about promoting the individual, personal stories. With this in itself I have no problem, but it is not as if writers were not doing this in any case pre-1994. A good example is Christopher Van Wyk, whose book, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, is celebrated for its poignancy, its ‘everyday’ quality refusing the burden of politics, a stylistic liberation (as if, post-1994, South Africa has been unburdened by politics, but let’s stick to stylistic issues). My irritation is that some of Van Wyk’s poems from his 1979 book, has exactly the qualities celebrated in Shirley so that, stylistically, it is not exactly a new thing.
I Remember King Kong is also celebrated as part of this post-liberation liberation. Again, no problem with this in itself, but it happens also as part of a dismissal of other styles of writing. So I was a bit disappointed that the newness of the book, its stylistic freshness or stylistic conceit (as reviewers celebrated it) turned out to be new, of course, only to an impoverished reviewing fraternity. Hirson’s use of Perec’s stylistic conceit is not at issue; in fact, the incantation produced by repeating ‘I remember’ is quite widespread. But so the book was framed as yet another milestone on our way from the dread of political literature (forgetting that Perec’s book is a profoundly political book as it seeks refuge in memory in a place (post-war Europe) where, through the destruction of war, humanity seemed on the verge of being obliterated).
I found I Remember King Kong light, poignant, funny, witty – yes, all the good things that reviewers celebrated, but I was also disappointed by its lightness. White Scars has added a certain weight now to I Remember, a meatiness I was looking for. So I am curious: in White Scars, Hirson reaches heights of literariness that I do not find in I Remember, so why not these heights in the latter?