#NovNov: Bessie Head – The Cardinals

A change from all the German-language novellas I have been reading this month. Bessie Head was born in South Africa but had to go into exile in 1964 in Botswana, where she died in 1986 at the far too young age of 49. The novella The Cardinals (115 pages) was written while she was trying to work as a journalist in South Africa in 1960-62, but was never published in her lifetime. Understandable, since it deals with illicit mixed-race relationships, which were considered a punishable crime in South Africa until 1985, but very much frowned upon for a few years after the law was repealed.

Bessie Head herself was the result of just such an illegal unions between a black man and a white woman, therefore never recognised by her family and shunted from one foster home to another during her childhood. This forms the biographical detail for the main character in The Cardinals, Miriam, who is soon nicknamed ‘Mouse’ by her colleagues at the newspaper African Beat. Just like a mouse, she is small, quiet, shy, they barely know she is there, but the name could equally imply drabness as well as a slightly pejorative affection. Mouse is very hesitant about her writing, which she learnt to do almost against all odds. She shows ‘no mean ability’ and soon improves upon the stories that her charismatic older colleague Johnny writes, but she is not the pushy, talkative investigative reporter type. She also seems afraid to open herself up through her writing, to allow her lived experience to seep through.

Writing reveals quite a lot about the writer. This bit here proves to me that you are very much alive inside. What makes you conceal this aliveness behind a mask of death?

The answer is perhaps that this is a frequent response to trauma, to lock your emotions away so that you cannot be hurt again. Mouse seems almost touchingly naive at times, at other times world-weary and cynical, but the reality of newsroom sexism, reports of racial oppression and manipulation of news certainly mature her very quickly.

She is attracted to the bossy and debonair Johnny, whose initial pity for her transforms into a desire to protect her as well as genuine love. He convinces her to move in with him, so that he can help her achieve her full potential as a writer – although it turns out he is not averse to helping her achieve her full potential as a woman too. What neither of them know, however, is that Johnny is in fact her father. The story ends before we find out if the relationship is consummated, or if they ever find out about the taboo they are about to break, but we are made to feel a lot of sympathy for the unwitting protagonists. Readers are left wondering why the author chose to show such a major taboo in a positive light.

The answer is probably because the author is testing our tolerance, while drawing parallels between the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the incest taboo. If you too were raised in a country where sexual relationships between whites and non-whites were considered disgusting, filthy, impossible, even before they became illegal, where the children of such unions were considered the lowest of the low, if not completely invisible… would you not consider this miscegenation to be as subversive as incest?

The other theme of the novella is the emergence of a writer, both in terms of craft, but also finding the right subject matter, those things that you are best placed to write about. Johnny is an infuriating know-it-all at times, and Mouse struggles to accept his tough medicine and advice to her as a writer and a person. Yet you cannot help but feel that the author thinks many of his principles are sound, even though he conveys them too forcefully at times.

A human life is limited so it has to identify itself with a small corner of this earth. Only then is it able to shape its destiny and present its contribution. This need of a country is basic and instinctive in every living being. I don’t care to admit it but historians may say we were a conquered race. Anyway, we were made to feel like the underdog. You cannot feel like the underdog and at the same time feel you belong to a country. It is the duty of the conqueror to abuse you, and treat you like an outcast and alien, and to impose false standards on you. Maybe we can help throw some of those imposed standards overboard. It is a great responsibility to be a writer at this time.

Writing, the author seems to suggest, is about giving voice to the countless people living a zombie-like existence – far too many hours spent on back-breaking, monotonous labour, living in crushing poverty, nothing to look forward to except an often violent death. In such a brutal existence, we have to grab what fleeting joys we can, as the final paragraph indicates:

Just don’t delude yourself you’re safe. Anything can happen. Life is a treacherous quicksand with no guarantee of safety anywhere. We can only try to grab what happiness we can before we are swept off into oblivion.

Yet, although I understood these sentiments, I was somewhat disappointed with this early work of Head’s. This is very much an apprenticeship work, full of clunky expressions. I also struggled with the characters’ motivations. I found Johnny rude to the point of being aggressive, Mouse far too passive and bland (living up to her nickname), the dialogue often too stilted and the reactions of the newspaper colleagues too over the top. Bessie Head went on to write far more subtly and poetically, but as a historical curiosity, one of the few pieces of fiction she wrote while still in South Africa, and as an example of her evolving craft, it remains nevertheless an interesting work.