‘Absolution,’ a Novel by Patrick Flanery
By ALEXANDRA FULLER
Published: April 27, 2012
Not shy of stepping straight into demanding terrain, Patrick Flanery sets his first novel, “Absolution,” in post-apartheid South Africa, where the horrific injustices of the past leak unavoidably forward. The end of apartheid may have put an end to state-sanctioned violence, but it signaled the beginning of an epidemic of a more personal kind of violence — a reactive, frustrated, untargeted revenge.
Andrew van der Vlies
Hundreds of thousands of blacks were imprisoned during the apartheid years for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Afterward, as Flanery lays out, whites began living under a kind of voluntary house arrest for much the same reason. Here he astutely observes the obsessive security measures taken by one white man in contemporary South Africa: “There aren’t any outer doors in this section of the house and motion-sensing beams operate all along the perimeter fence, at the doors, and at each exterior corner of the building. . . . And the stairwell off the kitchen, which ends at the back door, is also alarmed. The dogs stay upstairs.”
In this way “Absolution” is unavoidably reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” which is also set in post-apartheid South Africa and contains as its central action a vicious break-in to the home of the protagonist’s daughter. “Disgrace,” however, was an emotionally austere work of almost abrasive simplicity. Flanery’s novel is not.
At its most basic, the plot of “Absolution” is this: Sam Leroux is a writer and academic, returning from New York to his native South Africa to interview the irascible, aging author Clare Wald. “I would’ve chosen my own biographer, but I don’t know anyone who would agree to undertake the task. I’m a terror,” she warns Sam at the outset. But Sam should come with a warning of his own: it’s almost immediately clear he has a secret he’s keeping from Clare, which nonetheless somehow involves her. “She is who she is. I’m here for something else,” he tells us, creepily.
Flanery unfolds the story of their connection piecemeal, from several points of view: Clare’s, Sam’s, Sam’s as a child, and via a fictional autobiography written by Clare. Flanery is strongest when exploring the ways in which apartheid affected, and still affects, his characters. Both Clare and Sam, we gradually learn, have blood on their hands, or believe they do. “Accidents were always happening,” Sam thinks of his past. “He had come from a country of accidents. He tried to understand what this meant. It seemed to mean that no one was ever responsible for anything if only you could tell the truth and most of all if you could say you were sorry. But he had not told the truth and he was not sorry.”
In places the book suffers from descriptive hyperactivity, particularly in Sam’s observations of Clare. This was perhaps a deliberate effort on Flanery’s part to give Sam a distinct voice, but a little goes a long way: “There’s a flicker of gray tongue,” Sam says of Clare on the first page. A page later we read, “There’s a lick of a smirk on one side of the mouth.” A few lines on, “There’s a hint of the girlishness I saw in Amsterdam.” Forty pages later, “Her eyes flicker briefly up to mine,” and then: “a little cough again, clearing the throat, and a surprising, girlish toss of the hair.” But this is a quibble. Flanery has talent to spare, and he’s a talent to keep an eye on. My bet is he’ll be back. And he’ll be even better next time.