13-14 September 2012, University of York
Sam Durrant is Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Literature at the University of Leeds. His first book, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J.M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris and Toni Morrison was published in 2004, and his second book, Postapartheid Literature: Mourning and the Invention of Community, is to be completed (hold thumbs!) in December 2012.
Strategies of Displacement in David’s Story or The Circulation of Grief as Radical Humour
With the conference’s translocal theme in mind, this paper sets out to locate Wicomb’s seminal novel both in relation to postapartheid literature and in terms of its indebtedness to Laurence Sterne’s 18th Century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
Wicomb’s novel has trouble grieving. David, like the soldier-protagonists of other postapartheid novels, finds it almost impossible to share his grief with others, in particular his grief concerning the fate of Dulcie, his female comrade/lover. However, David’s prototypically masculine tale of short-circuited grief nevertheless circulates within a network of women’s voices and stories: his female amanuensis transcribes David’s circumfession in order to piece together the ‘snippets of Dulcie’ (80) that are the signs of her bodily mut(e)ilation. This reconstruction of Dulcie’s body/story opens up the possibility of a shared grieving that is more explicitly explored in such post-TRC narratives as Mother to Mother, Bloodlines, and The Cry of Winnie Mandela. While these latter novels would seem to foreground the capacity of women to perform a shared mourning work (Ndebele’s protagonists explicitly form ‘ibandla labafazi bomlindelo … a gathering of women in mourning’), Wicomb’s narrative both exposes and traverses this apparent gender gap between mourning and melancholia, between the sharing and the withholding of grief.
This traversal is made possible by a structure of displacement that is the sign both of David’s wounding and of Wicomb’s debt to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a novel that is itself structured by multiple woundings and displacements, centering around male anxieties of impotence. David’s anxieties about his own manhood are generated by his failure to prevent, and possible implication in, Dulcie’s torture. However, this gendered anxiety about the woman as comrade, an anxiety that historically led to abuses that the TRC was unable to document, is displaced by David into an anxiety about race and the place of ‘coloured’ (or more specifically Griqua) people in the liberation struggle. Dorothy Driver has already noted both the central function of displacement in the novel and the way in which a fragment of Sterne’s novel satirising the Elizabethan theory of the humours is inherited by a Griqua patriarch as prophecy. What I want to pursue here is the way in which displacement functions as a law of indirect reference or generative refusal by which grief is simultaneously disavowed and shared, short-circuited and circulated, even, and most strangely, as humour.