EVERY GREAT POLITICAL yarn has an underbelly and a back story that you will not really be able to find in all its grubby details in the historical or official literature or records. It’s about the back-stabbing insecurities that comes of a system not always fully trusting itself. This is the nub of the complex tale woven around the detritus of apartment, and some thirty years into the postapartheid era, by Barry Gilder in his debut novel The List.
It is 2020 in South Africa and many things have evolved to turn the political status quo into even finer paths of mistrust and secrets than you’d believe. It is in this context that we meet a range of characters who have histories that are not necessarily squeaky clean. Deeply textured with an intense focus on the minutiae of detail, the work is tight, beautiful to read and thoughtful.
And while the story will keep you rattling through the material quicker than you thought possible, it is the careful honing of focus that is this book’s unequivocal highlight. Indeed, as you read it, and as situations reveal themselves to you, it is like the sphincter of a lens sharpening the image, sometimes in a way which truly startles you.
The text vies between the late 1970s in the grim days of impimpis (apartheid-motivated spies) who perpetrate severe damage to the soul of the nation, in their complex array of loyalties, tricks and saying the most appropriate thing in any given context. As you read this book, you may think of Jonathan Ancer’s spy biography, I Spy.
So what happens to the young man who gets flattered in 1979 into taking money, making observations and climbing through the ranks of mistrustworthiness, for someone who is most obviously The Enemy? You will have to read to the breathtaking denouement in this story, which engages with the multiple names that anti-apartheid fighters adopted in their bid to toe the Communist party line and their bid to skirt anonymity.
The reveals in this book leave you a little shattered: Gilder develops his characters with fondness and wisdom, and he’s woven their paths and back stories with deep intelligence that will take you, the reader, by surprise. The picture of rude political shenanigans, secret disloyalties and unmitigated backstabbing is something we’ve become attuned to from simply reading the news, these days, and the novel retains the upper hand in not forcing its comments into pretend, apocryphal history or fake news. Come 2019 or 2020, or even further down the line, this novel will not date. It is conceived of and tied together with threads that reach from the beginning of the text to its end, like an orchestral work.
No stone is level unturned, and no issue undeveloped. You emerge from this reading experience with your heart rate exaggerated, but a sense of privilege that you came along for the ride. Like the work of Peter Harris, Gilder’s The List draws from the writer’s political sensibilities, letting you in to a hush-hush world where spooks are fingered by the leadership, but someone is always watching.
- The List by Barry Gilder is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2018).