Wednesday 21 February 2018

In search of radical forgiveness

Non-fiction: We Are Not Such Things, Justine Van Der Leun, Fourth Estate, pbk, 544 pages, €23.70

Shocking: Amy Biehl was stoned and stabbed to death.
Shocking: Amy Biehl was stoned and stabbed to death.
Peter and Linda Biehl, parents of Amy Biehl, who supported her killer's appeal for early release from jail.
We Are Not Such Things by Justine Van Der Leun

Eilis O'Hanlon

American writer's epic journey fails to provide any real insight into a brutal murder at the end of apartheid in South Africa.

This is a long book, more than 500 pages in total, but at its heart is a simple story about a crime committed in the dying days of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Amy Biehl was a white American Fulbright scholar and activist who was in the country to research the rights of disadvantaged women and children. On the night of August 25, 1993, she was stoned and stabbed to death by a group of men in a township near Cape Town after giving two students a lift to their home in the area.

The mob had spent the day attacking vehicles with white drivers and "her dirty blonde hair" was a "bullseye".

South Africa was sliding into anarchy at the time, but Amy's death was no less shocking for that. Nelson Mandela, soon to become the country's first black president, called her killers "animals", and four of them were sentenced to 18 years in prison for her murder.

Within a few short years, however, all four were released after applying for an amnesty at the Truth and Reconcilation Commission, arguing that their acts were political in motive. Unusually, their appeal was supported by Amy's bereaved parents, who later set up a charity in their daughter's name, even embracing and employing two of the men who'd killed her. It was, they believed, what Amy would have wanted.

Justine Van Der Leun, an American writer who has lived in South Africa, set out to tell this story, initially intending it to be a testament to the redemptive power of forgiveness in the face of tragedy, but this plan "fell ill early on and perished about a year in". As a local journalist pointedly put it: "There's no such thing as a true story here."

Soon she isn't even sure that the accepted facts about Amy's horrible death are correct. Eyewitness accounts contradict one another and she finds links to another murder committed in the locality on the same day.

When she tracks down Easy Nofemala, one of the men convicted of Amy's killing, he even insists that he was not to blame, though it's not until page 350 that he finally explains why he took the rap.

Van Der Leun wasn't the first to ask for his version of events. Easy told another journalist from the start that he was innocent, but she "didn't even listen to me". After that, he just gave people what they wanted to hear. "I didn't see any point that I should tell them the truth… I was just telling them the story that they know."

This is all intriguing stuff, though perhaps not as groundbreaking as the author imagines. Easy and the other three jailed men may not have struck the actual fatal blow, but they were unquestionably part of a mob that butchered an innocent woman.

It's also something of a stretch to accept that their crimes were political in the sense defined by the Truth and Reconcilation Commission.

Rhoda, the friend who explicitly warned the idealistic American not to venture into the township, certainly doesn't believe so. "The kids who were convicted of killing Amy were common criminals," she tells the author. "They weren't politically motivated, they were bloodthirsty."

Amy herself had been appalled by the sexism and misogyny that was rife within the African National Congress and Van Der Leun finds plenty of other examples of it in the new South Africa.

"I will never know for certain who killed Amy Biehl," she's eventually forced to concede - but by that stage the author has gone native, falling half in love with the conveniently slippery, post-apartheid notion of the impossibility of objective truth, and the only real conclusion to which the book comes is that "she represented the oppressor, and her white face was all that was wrong with the country, and she was killed".

But it's taken an awful long time to get there, and was the journey really worth enduring for what amounts to little more than this platitude? It's not the only one either. We Are Not Such Things is peppered with far too many repetitive, pseudo-profound sentences in the same vein: "I knew Easy, I reminded myself. But then I started to wonder: do we really know anybody at all?" This isn't insight. It's typing.

There's far too much of Justine Van Der Leun as well. Where she goes. How she gets there. What she eats. Who she meets. What they wear. ("He was wearing a pressed teal and navy striped button-down shirt tucked into gray trousers," goes one particularly insipid description).

It's as if the author gradually lost the ability to select from the maelstrom of detail - and if she couldn't do it, then the reader surely hasn't a hope either.

It took her four years to research and write this book, and it reads at times as if every fact or interview she conducted during that time has ended up being shoehorned into its pages. The resulting volume is generous in the way that it gives everyone a voice and no doubt contains much of interest to students of South African political history, but the bagginess dilutes the emotional core of the story.

That it has been compared in some quarters to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is particularly fanciful. It shares some of the novelistic flavour of that classic of true crime writing, but it's nowhere near as taut, or unsettling, or psychologically perceptive.

There's also one strikingly curious feature in the way that the book has been published.

It's called We Are Not Such Things because that's what Easy told the judge when he and the other men were accused of being, as Nelson Mandela described them, "animals". As the title appears on the cover, only the words "We Are Such Things" are immediately apparent. The crucial qualification "Not" is smaller, thinner, easy to miss.

The cover effectively subverts the book's theme of "radical forgiveness", further cementing the suspicion that no one involved in this project really knew what it was about.

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