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Dora Taylor

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Rage of Life by Dora Taylor
(Edited by Sheila Belshaw)
Penguin SA

As in her other recently published works – the novel Kathie and the short story collection Don’t Tread on my Dreams – Dora Taylor again exhibits in Rage of Life her uncanny ability to enter into the lives of her characters. Although in political exile from 1963 to her death in 1976, Dora Taylor never lost her deep love of South Africa or her disgust with the appalling inequities of the apartheid regime.

Her commitment to justice so eloquently expressed in her writings has at last received recognition both in the belated publication of her fiction and, most deservedly, in the decision to bestow on her the South African Posthumous Literary Award.

Rage of Life centres on the story of Linda Malindi, born and bred in Sophiatown, orphaned and homeless at sixteen, who must learn to fend for herself. With a vividness hard to match Taylor describes the grasping, pitiless world of ‘that urban township, that seething pot of humanity, that compost heap flung outside the city confines, and left to stew with the hot stinking manure of poverty and vice, violent, full of death, yet heaving with the ferment of an irrepressible vitality’.

As Linda struggles to survive in this hostile environment her story becomes emblematic of apartheid’s deprivations in general. Like those around her, Linda has only a rudimentary education and knows nothing of the traditions or moral values of her forebears. She snatches what joy she can from life and becomes a habitué of Angels One, a throbbing shebeen run by the formidable yet intrinsically humane Ma-jaze.

Here, under Ma-jaze’s all-seeing eye, the ‘rage of life’ itself takes place as the patrons play out their rivalries, greed, violence and desperate need for pleasure and escape. This mixed troupe has one important thing in common which is their contempt for the law of the white man. As Taylor so wisely shows, the injustices of apartheid can lead only to moral degradation whose effects are still with us today:

Where there had been one vast social dishonesty, one huge theft,
of which he [the black man] was the victim, individual dishonesty seemed the sanest response. Since the laws had outlawed him from society, he answered in kind with his own brand of lawlessness.

When Simon Manzana leaves his parched homeland to find work in the city the contrast between traditional mores and the moral vacuum of Sophiatown is powerfully dramatised in his love affair with Linda. While he is torn between his newfound passion and loyalty to the family he has left behind, Linda regards his scruples and sense of duty with utter incomprehension.

Simon’s journey back to his village starkly reveals another destructive aspect of apartheid. He travels through an ‘ashen’ landscape, denuded of vegetation – and symbolically of hope – to find his family pitifully diminished. Land and cattle have been taken from them by what his father calls ‘wolves’ who ‘devour’ the peasantry’s livelihood.

Throughout this novel one is kept constantly aware of the intrusive, not to say lethal, pressure brought to bear on all the characters by the apartheid system. Whether in the country or in town, whether in the choice of occupation or in private life, in fact in every aspect of existence from birth to death the apartheid laws impinged and controlled. That Taylor was able to integrate this truth into a fast-moving and absorbing work of literature is a fine achievement indeed.

Shirley Kossick
(First published in the Cape Times – 20 March 2009)


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