Losing the Plot might seem like a book for academics and students of literature only, but I am certain it will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary South African writing. Leon de Kock – academic, translator, poet and novelist – has been a defining presence on the local literary stage for many years. In his latest book, he concentrates on a specific aspect of postapartheid writing: how it “pivots around a continuing problematised notion of transition”. He reads the literary output of the last two decades in the light of the “initial wave of optimism, evident in the early phase of the upbeat transitional ferment,” and the disillusionment which followed.
Desperately, we are all trying to make sense of the reality around us, and most of it is too much to handle. De Kock points out that “the boundaries between right and wrong have blurred”. Readers turn to writers and intellectuals for guidance on how to deal with the confounding state of our lives. We are confronted with such staggering levels of pathological behaviour in the country (and beyond) that it is difficult to know where to search for meaning, and some sense of safety. It is no wonder that “the quest to uncover what’s going on in an obscured public sphere became a consuming obsession for many writers.”
In the seven incisive chapters of Losing the Plot, de Kock outlines general trends in postapartheid writing and focuses on a variety of its proponents such as genre fiction, life writing and creative nonfiction, but not exclusively. He returns to earlier seminal texts such as Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying or Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull and shines a light on more recent ones which are bound to become classics such as Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, or Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope.
Crime writing “may have come to stand in for what used to be seen as political or engaged fiction,” de Kock suggests. Let down by institutions and society, we crave to see justice at work, even if it is only in fiction. Through crime thrillers we identify the good guys and point fingers at evil. This begs the question of how much of what literature is doing post-1994 is actually new? De Kock also considers our haunting past and how the “reality hunger” of the twenty-first century impacts present-day South Africa. He does not shy away from hashtags and the complex issues leading up to their prevalence. The most illuminating section in the book is on the Marikana massacre. There is no denying the woundedness we grapple with, the challenges we are facing as individuals and a society.
What shines through in Losing the Plot, however, is the restorative capacity of storytelling, especially the possibility of the “restitution of dignity via the power of narrative”. One should never underestimate either. The key to both is compassion, nourished by our imaginations. Not all is lost, yet.
Review first published in the Cape Times, 30 December 2016.