October 28, 2020

Refiguring Breath in the Early Post-Apartheid

Arthur Rose

In Achmat Dangor’s Kafka’s Curse (1997), we find a particularly striking instance of breath transformed. In the build-up to the 1994 election, Oscar Khan, an architect, experiences a profound change in his breathing pattern. Oscar’s changing breath is a sign of his more radical metamorphosis: he is turning into a tree. But it also serves as a starting point for thinking about why breath plays such a prominent role in other Early Post-Apartheid works, like Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf (1994) or Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning (1998). In each case, breath’s overt reflection on intimate relations carries within it a political reconsideration of Apartheid’s effects on those it rendered marginal or unimportant. Importantly, these effects were not constrained by South Africa’s borders, but spilled over these boundaries: spatially, into neighboring Zimbabwe, and temporarily, across the political markers of 1980 and 1994. Insofar as the bodily impact of Apartheid could never really be reconciled by a mere date in time, so too do these breathy fictions remind us that breath, like material politics, transforms at a different rate, and with different effects, to political rhetoric.

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Arthur Rose C

About Arthur Rose

Arthur Rose is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Literary Cynics: Borges, Beckett, Coetzee (Bloomsbury, 2017), and a co-editor of Theories of History (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Reading Breath in Literature (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently completing a survey history of asbestos in modern and contemporary literature for Edinburgh University Press, titled, Asbestos: The Last Modernist Object.