This is the moving story of the unforgettable Rosa Burger, a young woman from South Africa cast in the mold of a revolutionary tradition. Rosa tries to uphold her heritage handed on by martyred parents while still carving out a sense of self. Although it is wholly of today, Burger’s Daughter can be compared to those 19th century Russian classics that make a certain time and place come alive, and yet stand as universal celebrations of the human spirit. Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born and lives in South Africa.
It has taken me a while to attempt to process how I feel about this book. It was difficult to get through because of the nature of the book. For starters, I know relatively little of what was going on in South Africa during apartheid and the anti-apartheid movements. I got the glossed over and sugar-coated versions in school. I knew of Nelson Mandela, even back in school, and what he was known for, but I couldn’t grasp it. It was real in that I knew it to be nonfiction but it didn’t really exist in my mind. As an American, so far away from South African, I just didn’t get it.
While I will never understand the full impact of everything involved with apartheid, getting rid of it and getting past it, reading this book began to paint a picture I wasn’t familiar with. I was lost for most of the beginning because the topic was so for it’s time and place and they were still in the thick of it that I don’t think it occurred to the author that it might be necessary one day. Still, I wish there was some sort of forward that was added for modern readers who aren’t as familiar with the time that the story begins.
Another confusing thing in the beginning was the way it switched from the third person to the first person in some chapters, with the first person being Rosa’s internal monologue talking to different people. It was mostly an old lover in the beginning but some others are added at the end.
The story itself isn’t about apartheid or ending it, so much as this girl trying to live in that time and with her own heritage. Rosa is the daughter of a prominent white Communist who actively advocated for apartheid to end and for the Africans to be complete citizens in their own country. He is believed to be based on Bram Fischer. What makes the book magical in its own way isn’t so much the story itself but all the little observations of Rosa when she is in the first person. She occupies a strange place in the history of South Africa where she sees things about the status of the places that other’s within the story don’t see.
More importantly, it’s the way Gordimer says things, whether it is the way Rosa sees things or the arguments of people around her. Here is a piece of a conversation that I just don’t really know what to do with:
It’s not peace at any price, it’s peace for each at his price. White liberalism will sacrifice the long odds on attaining social justice and settle for letting blacks into the exploiting class. The ‘enlightened’ government crowd will sacrifice the long odds on maintaining complete white supremacy and settle for propping up a black middle class whose class interests run counter to a black revolution.
It’s just one piece of a larger conversation about whether or not the black who were invited to box with the whites at the Olympics and what it means for everyone. Is it progress that they are being invited? Is it a stall tactic for the whites who are in power to not have a full on revolution? And then what does it all mean when you take a second and look back on your own country’s history? It sent me in circles for days thinking about how things work in the US and whether or not this person was on to something and what it would mean for everyone if it really worked this way. Passages like this happened several times in the book.
Rosa was a great character, not necessarily because she is likable but because she isn’t always likable. A character shouldn’t always have to be likable. Sometimes they are going to do disagreeable things, just as people do, if they are to be true to life characters. Her world and her problems were interesting and foreign to me and it was completely understandable to me for her to feel every way she felt, even when it resulted in her doing things I didn’t think were a good idea.
The most relatable thing about the book, especially right now with the way so many people are feeling in the wake of the US’s own recent political upheaval, was the way Rosa doesn’t like her lot in life as one the “named” from birth. She has no chance for a normal life because of who her parents were but she also doesn’t appear to want what a normal white girl there were have because of how her parents raised her. She spends most of the book in a place of hopelessness about how apartheid will never end. I can imagine that given the time it took, many people felt that way.
Altogether, it was a great book to read, it just wasn’t fun or enjoyable. It was thought-provoking, it was difficult, it was heart-breaking, it rocked my world every few chapters, and it was a touch inspirational here and there. That said, it’s not for everyone but anyone interested in world history should give it a try. Or anyone else interested in Reading all the Nobel Women, which I totally recommend because they are incredible women.
I borrowed my copy from the library but if you want to buy it, click on the cover to go to BookLikes where they have several sites listed where it’s available.