KAREN JENNINGS ON DORA TAYLOR’S BELATED BUT NOT OUTDATED POWERFUL NOVEL OF 1950s SOPHIATOWN
Dora Taylor’s Rage of Life: The Cannibalism of a Country
Rage of Life
Forty-six years after completion, Dora Taylor’s Rage of Life, winner of the 2008 South African Posthumous Literary Award, makes its debut in print.
Born in Scotland in 1899, Taylor was orphaned shortly thereafter and suffered several years of abuse and neglect from relatives. However, with the kind assistance of a school teacher, she went on to study English literature at Aberdeen University and became a school teacher herself. In 1926 she joined her husband, Jim Taylor, in South Africa, where he had accepted a post in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town. Believing in a non-racial democracy, Dora Taylor became an active protester against racial discrimination in South Africa. Her promotion of fair treatment for all races eventually forced Taylor into exile in 1963. For the remaining 13 years of her life she mourned not being able to return to South Africa.
Much of Taylor’s non-fiction was published in the ’40s and ’50s in various magazines and journals; however, none of her prose fiction was published during her lifetime. Recently Penguin Books has published three works of Taylor’s fiction posthumously; these include the novels Kathie and Rage of Life, and a collection of short stories entitled Don’t Tread on My Dreams. Sheila Belshaw, Dora Taylor’s daughter, writes in the brief biography included in the Penguin edition of Rage of Life that her mother’s “deep concern, her pity and her empathy for all disadvantaged people, no matter who they were or where in the world they lived, or how they came to be in a state of desperation, was the stimulus for all her writing.”
In Rage of Life that stimulus comes from day-to-day life in 1950s Sophiatown, an urban township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The story is focused through the character of Linda Malindi, with a brief interlude through the eyes of her lover, Simon Manzana. when he returns to his family in the country. Yet it is the voice of the omniscient narrator which is most powerful, for it is a voice that speaks with a hard wisdom of the relentless tragedy, the absence of salvation, and the simple cold facts of township life in South Africa.
The narration follows Linda through the murder of her brother by tsotsis, the disappearance of her father (likely into a farm jail in the country), and her mother’s death through overwork. Alone, without family or friends, Linda’s existence becomes motivated by two certainties: having a man to look after her, and making a living through a life of theft. She is involved with a core group of young thieves, who interchange lovers as individuals go in and out of prison and as resentments grow.
A number of years later, Linda meets Simon Manzana, a recent arrival in Sophiatown from the country, whom she educates in the ways of urban township living. However, guilt-ridden by the starving family he left behind in the Transkei, Simon returns to his home to try to make amends. But what he returns to is no longer his. His wife is with another man, his sister has died, his father resents him, and his child barely knows him. Poverty and hunger proliferate, and he yearns for the rush of urban living. Returning to Sophiatown he reconnects with Linda and life seems to improve. He is assured a substantial amount of money once he becomes fully immersed into the world of crime through Jo Bula’s gang of ruffians, and Linda and Simon have the promise of a long life together. Yet when a jealous fellow gang member takes his resentments out on Simon, leaving him dead in a gutter, Linda swallows any grief she might feel, and turns to the next man who can take care of her. This time it is Jo Bula, the head gangster himself.
Though Rage of Life is somewhat flawed and at times suffers from over-writing, its success lies in the vividly morbid descriptions of life in Sophiatown; a life described in terms of ritualistic cannibalism. Goli, as a modern industrial city, is depicted as having ferocious needs, needs met by the people from the townships, who come to work in the mines, in the factories, in homes, as cleaners, as gardeners. Descriptions of the city are reminiscent of a primeval graveyard straight out of a sci-fi novel:
In the near distance rises the powerful concrete headgear of one of the Reef gold mines, its tall rigging, its spars and girders like a multiple scaffold, or the skeleton of some antediluvian giant, unfleshed in a grim elemental contest. Black smoke from unseen furnaces belches out of a high, narrow chimney. Ant-like figures, pouring out from their stone bunks in the mine compound, hurry to enter the skips that will carry them underground, for the hungry machines beneath the City of Gold must be fed night and day. In the background stands one of the many ashen-pale slag dumps, the gigantic excrement of the gold mines, petrified monsters shrouded in the morning mist.
The hunger of the mines had moved into action in the eighteen eighties with the discovery of diamonds and gold; it had swallowed up man and beast, land and the fruits of the soil, family life and human relationships with satanic impartiality … [Under the] sacred name of free enterprise a species of cannibalism was of necessity practiced at all levels.
The consequence of this large-scale cannibalism is felt in the microcosm of Sophiatown, for while the machines consumed human life, men and women consumed one another in the township jungle. The empty dead body found sprawling in an alleyway in the early morning was swept up with the refuse spilling over the bursting dustbins.
As I say, it is this metaphor of cannibalism which strikes home the most. For initially upon reading this novel one might think, What difference can it make? The ’50s are in the past, apartheid is over. What difference can this book make now, other than offering minor interest as a document of social history? But its relevance – and this is where the deep tragedy of our country comes to the fore – lies in the fact that were one to remove any mention of passbooks and of apartheid itself, this novel could without any difficulty be set in present-day South Africa. Our country is one where corruption thrives, where government officials are involved in criminal practices, and where the rich in the name of free enterprise continue to cannibalise the poor.
Towards the end of Rage of Life, Dora Taylor writes, “The rage of existence left little that was permanently in its place.” But in fact, what her novel has proven is that much is left in place. While the names of those in power and the previously monochromatic colour of the rich may have altered in the past decade or more, what has not changed is their ferocious cannibalism.