Americans have both enough distance and optimism to believe that cataclysmic change in other parts of the world is a glorious thing, as long...

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“Bitter Fruit”

by Achmat Dangor

Black Cat, 281 pp., $13

Americans have both enough distance and optimism to believe that cataclysmic change in other parts of the world is a glorious thing, as long as that change tilts toward an economic and political system like our own. “Bitter Fruit,” Achmat Dangor’s novel about the post-apartheid era in South Africa, looks at one such transition up close and comes to a far less cheery conclusion.

Dangor’s novel, his second and a finalist for Britain’s Man Booker Prize, gives us a well-drawn and sobering portrait of a family caught up in South Africa’s struggle to move forward. As someone who worked to defeat apartheid and then participated in the slow process of rebuilding after the African National Congress came to power, Dangor, now a Geneva resident, brings a first-hand perspective to his subject. He suggests that for all that has been accomplished at the national level, at the personal the healing may have barely begun.

At the center of the novel is Silas Ali, a former political activist who has joined the new government as a lawyer and liaison to its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Silas lives with his wife, Lydia, a nurse, and their grown son, Mikey, in a township near Johannesburg. His job with the agency that grants amnesty to those who committed crimes under the old system puts him in an odd position: Even though he’s working to wipe away the crimes of the past, he and his wife remain traumatized by one that happened to them.

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The source of Silas and Lydia’s deep sorrow is revealed in the novel’s first pages. Under apartheid, as a consequence of Silas’ involvement with the ANC, a police officer raped Lydia while her husband was being taken into custody. Twenty years later, on a routine trip to the grocery store, Silas unexpectedly encounters the man, who fails to recognize him.

Returning home, Silas tells Lydia, who flares with anger and bitterness. “If you were a real man, you would have killed him on the spot, right there in the mall,” she declares. She deliberately cuts herself on broken glass and is rushed to the hospital.

Clearly, there is much unfinished business between Silas and Lydia, while her assailant has continued on with his life, free as a breeze. This could be the “bitter fruit” to which the title refers. Or perhaps it is the legacy of pain that ripples through the book.

“Bitter Fruit” is divided into three parts — Memory, Confession and Retribution — which rather clearly suggests what direction the book will go, but by whom and to whom remains the mystery. One thing that soon becomes clear, however, is that Mikey, the psychologically conflicted son, will play some part. Mikey has both internalized his parents’ pain while envying their generation’s sense of purpose.

” ‘The struggle’ sowed the seeds of bright hopes and burning ideals,” he notes, while his own age group is characterized by “an ordinariness, but also a vanity fed by sly and self-seductive glimpses in the mirrors of their personal histories.”

Inheritance, whether biological or political, is a major theme here, and the question of race is always a part of it. It flows through the characters’ inner thoughts but seldom surfaces in the dialogue. As the novel tells us, South Africa has become “a nation superficially well, as convention demanded.”

It’s hardly incidental that, under the old regime, Silas, Lydia and Mikey would have been classified as “coloured,” or mixed race. Metaphorically and literally, Silas and Lydia not only exist somewhere between the white and black of the bloodline test that once divided their country, but also between stasis and progress. It’s as if the shock of what they have gone through has numbed rather than liberated them.

Less allegorical than “Disgrace,” J.M. Coetzee’s splendid novel about South Africa’s attempt to come to terms with its apartheid past, “Bitter Fruit” is a fine novel that cuts to the bone, showing how easy it is to prescribe tidy solutions and how hard it is to live them.

Ellen Heltzel is a Portland book critic and writer who also writes, with Margo Hammond, The Book Babes columns for Good Housekeeping Magazine, the Poynter Institute and The Book Standard.