Monday, February 25, 2013

fragile hearts in stony hands

"Just or unjust, alike seem miserable, For oft alike, both come to an evil end." 
--Samson Agonistes

Sometimes, you read passages that take your breath away, your heart grasped by the strange, awful immediacy of the words:

"Do you hate Winnie Mandela?" asks the lawyer.
"No," says Falati.
"Are you saying you love her?"
And the bewildered face is fraught with conflict. "I don't know," she whispers.
--Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull

Country of My Skull is one woman's encounter with her country's search for reconciliation in the wreckage of the post-Apartheid South Africa. It's filled with lines that take your breath away, or make your heart crumble into a thousand tiny pieces.

It's a story filled with people recounting their tragic tales of the day that they were scarred for life, or the day that they lost their manhood, or the day that their families were broken, the days that the life they knew and loved died. The day they encountered a violence that stripped them of their humanity, that treated them worse than dogs, or as one woman cries out, worse than ants.

Parents fail their children; children lose their parents; brothers are transformed into enemies. Stories upon stories of evil upon evil. The avalanche of stories becomes suffocating.
Stories suffocating in lies, evasions, intimidation, and fear.
It's difficult to read. It's difficult to encounter, even in the two-dimensional black and white print of a paper back book an evil that causes so much pain, that is so outside humanity. It's so foreign to humanity, and yet humans can participate in it. We have the awful power to bend ourselves, to make ourselves something so much less than human.

I really do feel this is my country, but I think that no one, no country, no politician, has the right to ask anyone to die for them. They can make claims on my life, I'll make sacrifices in that, but my death is my own.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission  that Antjie is a reporter for, sits, day after day, and listens to the horrendous stories of perpetrators and victims. It gives each person the chance to tell their story. Beautifully woven into this larger story of a country is the story of a single soul. The truth and the reconciliation that Antjie Krog grapples with is not only the stories of torture and sadness, of attacks on the victim's dignity, life, and humanity; she is wrestling with her own reconciliation to her country. Where does she belong--where is her home? How can one belong to or find a home in a country so cruel and so foreign?
She is dealing with that particular brand of heartbreak that arrives when home is no longer home. 

[I look] back to the continent. 
There is a rawness in my chest. It is mine. 
I belong to that continent. 
My gaze, my eyes, are one with the thousands of others that have looked back over the centuries toward Africa. 
Ours. Mine. Yes, I would die for this. 
It slips out, like a smooth holy sound. And I realize that it is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought me to these moments of fierce belonging.
--A. Krog

Love and pain go hand-in-hand.
Even in the midst of suffering, only that which we love can ever really cause us pain.
We call that betrayal. And Dante found it so unpleasant, he assigned it to the deepest circle of hell.
When the world, which we expected and trusted to be good--to be a place where we could make our home--becomes a place where we are no longer safe, where strangers attack us in our beds, that is a betrayal that shatters our souls.
When our neighbors, our brothers, who we trusted to let us live, to respect us, love us, take care of us, live in ubuntu with, sick themselves on us like dogs, then we find that the world we thought we knew lies in a thousand little pieces at our feet.

Incredible, then, that a woman can relearn to love a homeland that betrayed her trust, can piece together a new world from the broken bits of the former.
Miraculous, I think, that human beings can forgive those that hurt them. That trust is so instinctive to human nature that it can slowly triumph through fear.
Unbelievable, almost, that life and love seem to swallow up suffering and outlast pain.

I belong to that blinding black African heart. My throat bloats up in tears--my pen falls to the floor, I blubber behind my hand, my glasses fog up--for one brief, shimmering moment, this country, this country is also truly mine.
--A. Krog

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