The Persistence of Memory
Tony Eprile’s 2004 novel The Persistence of Memory is out in paperback just in time: What does a story about a South African draftee sent to fight in his country’s classified war against anti-apartheid rebels in Namibia have to say to Americans getting in a little summer vacation? Plenty. The novel raises all kinds of interesting questions about government control over information, the efficacy of war, and the complicity of passive observers. That our own country is involved in its own partially classified and highly politicized continuing war on terror makes Eprile’s book surprisingly relevant.
Paul Sweetbread is a nice Jewish boy with none of the Boer bloodlust of his sometimes cruel schoolmates. If you think you had it rough growing up, imagine a school where a class reading of Lord of the Flies inspires an exuberant real life re-enactment of the “Kill the pig! Drink his blood!” scene, complete with terrorized fat kid. Paul quickly learns that survival means keeping a low profile and hiding his picture-perfect memory—a curse in a country that has a lot to hide. While those around him take solace in selective amnesia, Paul bears the burden of too much knowledge and no will to act.
This passivity is put to the test in the South African Defense Force, where Paul’s limp presence is an affront to macho men such as Capt. Lyddie, who try to provoke him into action. The soldiers wait to engage Angola-based rebels amid desert conditions and arrogant optimism that echo the U.S. campaign in Iraq. While the book shows South African male-hood and apartheid as mutually supportive and self-deluding, Paul’s wry and self-depreciating observations are no antidote. In the end, he must confront his own responsibility and guilt as a member of the system.
This important novel sheds light on a shameful war in which 1.1 million died to little result, and on the complacency of decent people who kept it and apartheid going for so long. Like his compatriots Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, Eprile is interested in exploring the ways in which South Africa’s corruption implicated its citizens. Yet his prose is surprisingly playful and even comic. Some of the most enjoyable moments focus on Miss Tomkins, a chain-smoking British subversive who makes the class clown write over and over, “I would not have survived the Blitz, due to the fact that I lack moral fibre.” As passive partakers in privilege, we all lack moral fiber, Eprile suggests, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get it.