Conscription, Jail Time and Life Time

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This 3rd draft of the novel Johannesburg is going really well… even if I do say so myself! The second pass seems to have plugged the vast majority of the weak spots that Marc Pienaar and I detected and I feel it has also addressed the major concerns of the feedback I received from publishers back in South Africa.

There is now pace and flow in the opening 8 chapters that I have now re-read and micro-corrected. The distinct voices of each character are asserting themselves and a bustling, buzzy and slightly annoying busy-ness is emerging in the background. Which is exactly what I wanted.
One of my characters is a 40-something ex UDF member who spent 5 years in jail in South Africa as a Conscientious Objector.  Up until this point he was a quirky and vaguely interesting character but was a bit of a cardboard cut-out overall. I feel he is really springing into life as I go into this 3rd re-write process.

It continues to feel somewhat strange contorting myself into the shoes of lives I have never led… but I have found that inverting, twisting or distorting the life I HAVE led leads to some genuine emotional counterpoints…. The lives we lead in our minds are often richly imagined and I have a chance to express a few of those in this novel. Wilfred might be one of those, although I fear he is more an example of a kind of life that I wish I had the moral fortitude to have lived.

Wilfred’s Past
This is where he made his decision to reject conscription. This is the monument to his resistance, the testimony of his past. Like him, receding into middle age, it is in danger of soon not existing at all. How did five years behind bars help? What flicker did his name make on the political radar? What difference did another ten years of self-imposed exile travelling the world make? About as much as the open space left here. It will soon be filled in, forgotten, written over. History is no friend to its survivors, just to its victors.

The Wilfred he used to be was defined by that one act of resistance and all it meant. That person will soon cease to exist as all traces of his genesis do. No one cares. The now has taken over the landscape. It’s a confusing space. Wilfred sits on the bonnet of his old Merc, itself all but invisible. Average. Popular but unexceptional, no longer the symbol of power and wealth it was 25 years ago. That his act should end up being so effectively meaningless sometimes defies Wilfred’s ability to compute. It’s not like he was expecting some kind of hero’s welcome. It’s not like he wanted a statue or a plaque. But he was expecting meaning. For it to have contributed something. Instead, it has brought more alienation.  Has brought to him to the edge of the suburbs where the old farmlands and open veld begin, teasing him with more emptiness, more to be done just when he wants to cease pushing ahead and rest. “One door closes, another door opens,” he mutters. “Fucking doors!”

After the jail, the travel and more than a decade of freedom, Wilfred is alienated from his peers, his so-called political allies and even his enemies. Simply none of them make any sense. This aspirational materialistic ‘new’ South Africa is not what he went to jail for or believes in. These grabby kids with no sense of history or gratitude for the present are not who he wanted to preserve any kind of moral playing field for. Wilfred was never a firebrand. In his youth he was best described as meek. It was a meek, quiet resistance, not formulated in words, not backed up by rhetoric or hate. It was a resistance doomed to failure. The young inherit the world, not the meek. And this crop of youth doesn’t give a shit about his problems. They are not self-effacing, they have no respect. Sometimes he wonders if prison tattoos might not have been a bad idea after all. Mostly people just don’t believe him when they hear his story. Their eyes cannot agree with what their ears are hearing. Here is the guy that was supposed to have completed national service behind a desk in an office in Pretoria wearing a brown beret. Next to ponytail-sporting, beret-wearing art students, he seems a pale and boring dose of reality. One of the silent, moderate majority who acted out of character. Sometimes he thinks he embarrasses ordinary people. How could he?

From the novel Johannesburg
©David Chislett 2013

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