Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Lewin's Stones Against the Mirror is a milestone

The book 'Stones Against the Mirror' is another in a slew of South African books that look back on the past through the autobiography/memoir lens. The motivation for this kind of book, one takes it, is an author's need for things that happened in the past to be better understood or to ensure the past (or bits that are important to the writer) is not forgotten.  In other cases, the autobiography or memoir – as someone once said – is  a case of the writer saying … “see what I have been through”.

Hugh Lewin was part of an underground resistance movement, the African Resistance Movement. Made up of mostly white activists, they deployed violence to try to prevent the white electorate from sinking into a false complacency. All this was at a time of apartheid repression, a time when black movements and voices were being silenced. The strategy was to launch dynamite attacks on installations, in the process avoiding human injury or death. In 1964, Lewin went to jail for 7 years after Adrian Leftwich gave Lewin's name to the Security Police and after Leftwich and John Lloyd testified against him.

Hugh Lewin wrote his book for particular purposes, not explained but apparent. The reader is left with the clear impression that the book is a part of the same search for healing that is covered in the latter part of the book. Lewin wants to deal with certain deeply felt and unresolved things; he wants to slay some demons.

On the cover, it is noted that the book is about friendship. Actually, the book is better described as being about betrayal, about Lewin's crippling sense that he was betrayed by someone very close to him, about his long interregnum of bitterness, and about his quest for the final 'closure' through making peace with his (former) buddy. Thus the book is in many senses Lewin's own TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Committee) process - a painful process of retelling what took place and exorcising the ghosts.

What is great about the book? First, Stones Against the Mirror is powerful in its interiority and subjectivity. There is the broad canvas of politics (a further filling in of the resistance history); but the spotlight is also trained on personal issues, on interactions and on growth and development of Lewin and his relationships. Under discussion, at times in unflinching ways, are personal trauma, bitterness and the psychological process called healing. Secondly the book adds to the historical record. It covers a period – and a strand of resistance – that is often missed when the commemorations and reflections are done. Thirdly, it contains instances of brutal honesty (critical reflections). For example, he provides exacting reflection about the nature of sabotage activities, how naive and adventurous some aspects of this were and how, when the clampdown began, Lewin had no escape plan to deal with such an eventuality. Fourthly, the book adopts some sharp viewpoints about race and how race functioned in society. Discussing attitudes in boarding school, the outlook of his father, etc., Lewin shows how racist thinking permeated the society. He takes the black consciousness view when he notes how difficult it would be in such a context for someone from the privileged white group to claim no involvement: only deliberate action as opposed to neutrality was needed.

But the book also raised a number of issues at different levels, some of them controversial. (Some of these issues were also alluded to in the discussion at the book launch in Johannesburg on 9 April 2011. In the comment below, I refer to some of these issues.)

Constructing what happened: The book demonstrates the extent that history is a construct. In this sense, writing history is both non non-fiction and the work of the imagination. This book shows how difficult it is to achieve agreement as to 'what happened'. The angles regarding what occurred are many – the security police, the court record, Leftwich's writing (some of it self-serving) and now Hugh Lewin trying to piece it all together so many years later. [Writing about happenings, conversations and reactions so many decades ago is extremely difficult - who can remember exactly what was said and, in all cases, the precise sequence of events? There is a great deal of making up. Normally the process is rendered more credible through corroboration of stories and cross checking of facts. However, in a tale filled with such contestation and conflict such as Lewin's, constructing the story appears to be a far more difficult and charged process].

What is left out: “Stones” is interesting for what is left out or the silences in the book. For example, Lewin does not indicate what his current attitude to John Lloyd is, and why the latter is not included in Lewin’s 'making peace' process. At his book launch, Stephanie Kemp, a struggle stalwart and a former ARM activist, raised this very issue; Lewin responded that it was Lloyd who wanted nothing to do with him.

Forgiving: The book raises the vexed question of 'forgiving' – what is it, who is entitled to it and whether forgiveness can be deployed regardless of the perpetrator’s attitude or active participation in it? Hugh Lewin himself refuses to describe his peace-making interactions with Leftwich and the security policeman Johannes Viktor as being about forgiving them. For him, it is much more about his own process of dealing with nightmares and letting go (of bitterness?, of anger?) and of moving forward. There are contradictions between the TRC mode and the approach he adopted in relation to the two: Lewin makes peace with the two without requiring full explanations in return.

Each reader of this book must answer (for themselves) the question as to whether this book is a full unburdening or whether they judge it as unsatisfactory because of the gaps. It is true, as Claudia Braude raised with him at his book launch, that Lewin is stingy on detail in his description of the meeting with Leftwich? (This meeting is a key focal point of the book). It is also true that the book is silent about his feelings regarding John Lloyd today. While readers always want “all” to be told, Lewin may retort that he has never punted the book as being about ‘truth’ or the whole story, but about friendship.

I have a dual response to Stones Against the Mirror. One part of me, the one that espouses intellectual rigour, asks for more about this process of closure (the how, the why); that same part joins in to highlight gaps, silences and inconsistencies. Another part of me applauds this work as a milestone, and  views the book as a wonderful piece of recollection. It foregrounds a neglected strand of resistance during an important historical period. This second part of me asserts that Lewin should be saluted for having given so much of himself while writing ‘Stones” (that in a book that stands out for highlighting the personal/psychological while also narrating broader political events).

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