Patrick Flanery is not South African, and neither is his debut novel, Absolution. This is not to say that Flanery does not know South Africa or its politics, history, landscape, or culture, all of which pervade the book. Rather, this novel is more accurately defined as a dialogue with and about the past, whether South Africa’s struggle to come to grips with Apartheid and its aftermath, or our own individual conceptions of who we are, what we’ve done, and all of the hypothetical futures that were sacrificed to get us to the present. As one character puts it, “These are not just problems of place.”
Structured around four different interconnected narratives, two of which unfold explicitly in the past, Absolution is not so much a movement through a narrative as it is a juxtaposition of the four different tracks. The novel begins with Sam Leroux, having returned to his native country after decades abroad, beginning a series of interviews with Clare Wald, a famed and troubled South African writer. Sam, it turns out, is much more than Clare’s biographer: his past, revealed in another strand, intersects with Clare’s life in the form of Laura Wald, Clare’s journalist-turned-violent anti-Apartheid activist daughter. Laura’s story constitutes another narrative, told by Clare in the second person. The fourth and final track consists of excerpts from Clare’s autobiography, which is also, tellingly, entitled Absolution.
Clare is haunted not only by the disappearance, and presumed death, of her daughter, but also by the violent end of her sister, Nora, and her own sense of guilt. To what extent that guilt is warranted–in relation to the two deaths, and also to the manner of her resisting (or possibly assisting) the old regime–is an open question, and the central tension around which the book is organized.
I have seen the novel described elsewhere as a “literary thriller,” a description that strikes me as a reaction to the acts of violence that pervade Absolution. There is murder, assassination, and torture, to be sure, and even animals are not spared the bloodletting. But the word “thriller” implies a sudden, unexpected quality in this violence—the disruption of a more placid status quo—that belies the nature of the world in which Absolution takes place.
One place that violence is made manifest is in the scar that marks Sam’s face. “It had been a part of him for as long as he could remember looking like the person he recognized as himself,” writes Flanery. “To imagine his face without the scar on his left cheek was to imagine someone else’s face, another person and a different identity, a self he might once have been but could now never be. It made him remember the scar on his father’s face, a face so unlike his own that at times it seemed as though scars were the only things that connected the two of them.” Sam cannot imagine himself without the scar, a scar which has no origin, and yet exists, a scar that defines the present Sam, but which lacks definition itself.
In the world that Flanery has built, the physical present possesses no hallowed ground. The past lives on not in monuments or markers or even graves, but in the living, in their memories, and in their actions. When Sam visits Robben Island and sees the cell where Nelson Mandela spent many of the 27 years he was imprisoned, he remarks that “[it] moved me only insofar as it represented the place where so much of one exceptional life had been spent, but it was difficult to feel the trace of any presence there. It is bleak and small and cold. It contains no life or spirit of its own.”
When Clare moves to a wealthy high-security neighborhood after a break-in at her old home, she feels guilty. This guilt is not for abandoning the place where she raised her children, but for casting her lot, if only by association, in with the members of the White aristocracy. The threat of violence that drove her from her old home follows her to the new one. Her new home is a veritable fortress, and yet the threat is not diminished. Her neighbors gain a sense of self-satisfaction, of self-worth, imagining themselves the constant subjects of predation. (That mentality brings to mind the overzealous neighborhood-watchman George Zimmerman.)
Flanery’s triumph in Absolution is not in the writing, which is crisp, precise, and wholly a pleasure to read. It is not in the ambitious structure of the book, or the breadth of its scope. Absolution succeeds because of what it does not do. This is not a novel that seeks to explain Apartheid, or Nazism, or slavery, or Jim Crow. It is a novel about the guilt that we all share, and the absolution that we are all seeking. It is a novel about our collective inability to explain those horrors, our inability to avert them, our inability to accept them, our inability to draw the lines between those events and our own identities. As Clare writes: “You were old enough to know what you thought, to realize when you’d been wrong in the past, to know your ignorance and realize the terror that is unknowing.” Flanery’s challenge to our absolution isn’t in what we remember about the past, but rather what we don’t.