A Q&A with Absolution author, Patrick Flanery

Author Patrick Flanery shares his ideas on the main themes he set out to address in the work, the questions that interest him most as a novelist, what students might gain from reading the novel and why he believes that fiction that paints the world as a safe place is deeply dishonest.

English Experience: What prompted you to write the novel?

Patrick Flanery: I was doing research on censorship for my doctoral thesis and began to think about the ways that writers who are subjected to different forms of censorship might find of surviving, or of accommodating themselves to a system that was designed to thwart free expression.

I began writing what would become the book in 2005, and worked on it off and on for a couple of years before putting it aside. I returned to it again in 2009, finished it over the course of several months in 2010, and edited it in the first half of 2011.

EE: What are the main themes you set out to address in the work?

PF: Apart from freedom of expression and censorship, I was conscious of wanting to write a book about memory, about the ways that people with shared experiences remember things differently. I also wanted to write about different forms of terror: political terror, criminal terror, the terror of surveillance, inter-personal terror, the terror that comes from finding oneself powerless; also the terror of realising one’s power over other people. It is a profoundly complex and multifaceted phenomenon, terror: not just an emotion, but a quality, and perhaps, sadly, the presiding spirit of our times.

EE: Why did you choose this subject matter for your first novel?

PF: Although I have not said this elsewhere, this is a novel that in a great many ways was born out of the sense of trauma and terror I felt after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, which produced, for me, a feeling of total disempowerment and vulnerability (I had been working in New York City until mid 2001). I knew that I needed to write a book that would help me understand this experience, but also begin to make sense of the ways in which individuals might be complicit, either naively or by design, in acts of atrocity against others.

EE: How did you decide on the title of the novel?

PF: The title was late in coming. I started off thinking it would be called Complicit, but it had a number of working titles, including The Cast OutDissidence (with its play on ‘dissidents’), and The Invaders (which the publishers thought sounded too much like science fiction), until my editors and I settled on Absolution. As soon as we thought of it, it felt right, like the most appropriate title the novel could possibly have had. ‘Absolution’ becomes, then, both a governing theme and the goal towards which the characters are moving.

EE: Why did you opt to use a complex, multi-layered narrative to tell the story?

PF: I felt as though this was the best way of animating the tensions between the characters’ competing versions of the past. But it also works as a way of reflecting the fact that truth, particularly in the context of the late stages of Apartheid, was itself complex and multi-layered (indeed, that truth is always so).

In part, I was also trying to write into the novel some of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) sought to do: that is, to allow for multiple kinds of truth. The TRC imagined four varieties of truth: forensic (the objective, scientific version of events); narrative (the individual’s subjective version of events); dialogic or discursive (which I understand to be the ‘truth’ that emerges from the interplay between the forensic and narrative forms of truth); and, finally, restorative truth (the version of events that is necessary for resolution, perhaps one might think of this as a kind of ‘therapeutic’ narrative).

EE: Why did you decide to set the novel in contemporary South Africa?

PF: When I was still in the very early stages of writing the book (a book that, in some ways, I did not know was going to be a novel), I began to see that I was dealing with a range of themes and issues (censorship, liberation struggle, terrorism, torture, memory, forgiveness, complicity in past crimes) that might have been pertinent to any number of national or regional situations. Because I started by thinking about government-sponsored censorship and could not find a way of writing the book without this being a part of it, this limited my options for setting. For a while, I thought about setting it in a kind of ‘nowhere’ country, an allegorical place, or even in a near-future America, but I soon began to realise that the landscape I was describing in the early drafts was already the South African one I had come to know intimately from 2003 onwards. Moreover, South Africa experienced institutionalised censorship under Apartheid, and the other themes I was trying to explore seemed to fit most naturally in a South African setting. Once I decided that I was writing a South African story, all the pieces began to fall into place.

EE: What research did you undertake when writing the novel?

PF: I first visited South Africa in 2003, and made many subsequent trips with my South African partner while I was writing the book. Each time I stayed with my in-laws in George, visited friends in Cape Town and Grahamstown, and spent a great deal of time driving through the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces. I visited Johannesburg for the first time in 2010, and much of what I write about Johannesburg in the novel is informed by my experiences there.

I also undertook substantial historical research, reading histories of South Africa, the TRC, and the African National Congress (ANC). I also read countless pages of TRC transcripts from the Human Rights Violations hearings. South African novels were also important because I wanted my own book to be in conversation with what I regard as some of the best South African fiction. Books by J.M. Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislavic, K. Sello Duiker, and Nadine Gordimer were particularly important.

EE: One reviewer describes the way South Africa is portrayed in the novel as ‘brutally unsentimental’ – do you agree with this assessment?

PF: If ‘unsentimental’ means looking as objectively as possible at the reality of a given place (while still being conscious that absolute objectivity is perhaps impossible), then I suppose that this assessment might be thought to be accurate. My second novel, Fallen Land, is about contemporary America, and I hope it would also be regarded as ‘brutally unsentimental’.

Generally, I am suspicious of sentiment, particularly in fiction, because I think it often betrays an attempt by the author to hide the truth, however, that might be construed, or to accept a single ‘version’ of it. For most people life is not sweet and easy, it is not cosy and secure, and fiction that paints the world as a safe place without serious systemic, institutional, and interpersonal problems is, for me, deeply dishonest.

EE: Do you believe that South Africans are still burdened by the past and, if so, in what ways?

PF: As an outsider, even one with strong family and intellectual ties to the country, I am cautious about answering this question. In a way, I think all countries, all nations, are burdened by their particular pasts. America is burdened by its history of slavery and racism; Britain is burdened by its history of empire and its ongoing class system; Germany by the Holocaust; France by its partial complicity in the Holocaust and by the aftermath of its own empire (especially its violent handling of the independence movement in Algeria); Spain by the dictatorship of Franco; Ireland by its ongoing division … one could go on and on. The past, and its legacy is inescapable. The question is: how does a nation, how do its people, deal with the weight of history? How do they redress past wrongs? These are some of the questions that most interest me as a novelist: how we live through the burden of history, and how history inflects (and sometimes infects) everything we do in our given present…

The past, and its legacy is inescapable. The question is: how does a nation, how do a people, deal with the weight of history? How do they redress past wrongs? These are some of the questions that most interest me as a novelist: how we live through the burden of history, and how history inflects (and sometimes infects) everything we do in our given present.

EE: How do you imagine South African students will respond to Absolution?

PF: I hope they will see aspects of their world depicted in ways that are recognisable. But I hope, too, that they will find their world slightly de-familiarised, which is to say that I hope Absolution might also help them see their own lives in subtly different ways.

I suspect, and hope, that their experiences of growing up in democratic South Africa-of being part of the ‘born-free’ generation-will be distinct in important ways from the kind of life that Sam had growing up under Apartheid.

This is not just a novel about Apartheid or the past; it is also very much a novel about South Africa in the present. Also, of course, it is a novel about the human condition more generally, about the present in which we find ourselves: under surveillance, locked in our homes, fearing the unknown, and suspecting those who are unlike us.

EE: What advice would you give students to help them understand the work?

PF: Assume nothing. Read attentively, but also read sceptically, which is to say, do not assume that the truth is ever being spoken by a character. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

EE: Could you describe the inspiration behind the complex character of Clare Wald?

PF: Clare is not based on any one person; my writing does not work in that way. Usually a character draws traits from various people I have known or encountered. Sometimes that process of amalgamation is conscious, sometimes it functions at a much deeper level.

I had various writers in mind as possible models for Clare, and in particular the British novelist Muriel Spark, who had a difficult relationship with her son, a contentious one with her biographer, and a close relationship with her female assistant. In terms of personality, though, Clare is a blend of my maternal grandmother and several teachers I had over the years (it is not coincidental that Clare has been a teacher in the past, and her relationship with Sam is as much one of mentorship as anything else).

Clare’s psychology, the way she thinks, is more often than not my own, and in this respect she is the more autobiographical of the two main characters, even though Clare and I share little to nothing in the way of common life events or experiences.

EE: There are several strong female characters in Absolution. Was this important to you?

PF: Yes, on two levels. First, as a male writer, creating strong and believable female characters is a challenge I take seriously. I am not and will never be a writer only or even chiefly interested in men. Second, for the purposes of this book in particular, it was important to me that the role of women (perhaps especially exceptional women like Clare and Laura) in a masculinist society, one which has historically sought to limit the roles of women to the domestic, be depicted in its full variety, to demonstrate the entire spectrum of female subjectivity (meaning identity), all the ways in which women have lived and worked and loved in South Africa from the years of Apartheid through to the present. I don’t claim to have achieved this, but I hope I have shown that women may be not only wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters, but that within and alongside those roles they may also be fighters (of various kinds), professionals, and so forth, in the same way that men are. I am a feminist; I wish more men were. I hope that my work reflects this.

EE: The novel contains harrowing scenes depicting torture methods employed by the state. To what extent are these portrayals factually based?

PF: It is important to be aware of the fact that the primary torture scene, near the end of the novel’s first part, is Clare’s nightmare vision of what might have happened to her daughter. It is, in fact, entirely imagined, and Clare knows it is imagined. That is not to say that torture of extremely brutal (and brutally creative) character did not take place under Apartheid, though this particular one is a work of the imagination. Clare tries to imagine the worst possible end for her daughter, and the idea of Laura caged on a beach is what her mind conjures. She knows it is a nightmare, but also knows that the full history of Apartheid atrocities has not necessarily been brought to light.

EE: What reactions to the novel from readers have surprised you the most?

PF: Among the most moving-and most disturbing-were the experiences of an elderly couple in Camps Bay whom I’ve come to know since publishing the book. Their daughter was involved in the liberation struggle and for years they were unaware that she was living only minutes away from them, just as Clare is unaware in the novel that Laura is living so close to her. This same couple had also suffered a break-in, as Clare does, that left them feeling profoundly shaken (they were held hostage for some time), even though they came out of it physically unharmed. In these two respects, in particular, they felt that Absolution resonated with their experiences of living through the long years of Apartheid, the transition, and experiencing some of the more distressing realities of life in the country today.

EE: What aspects of South African culture have had the strongest impact on you?

PF: I wouldn’t know where to begin. The literature of the country has, obviously, been of huge importance for me, but so have countless other aspects of the culture that stem from everyday life: language, food, music, a way of being in the world. As I write this, though, I am conscious of the ways in which there is not a single South African culture, but many overlapping and sometimes contiguous cultures that have some shared aspects. I feel at home here in a way that is analogous to my feeling in America; I certainly feel more at home in South Africa than I do in Britain. South African culture (or cultures) makes sense and is familiar to me at a very visceral level. In terms of places, the Western Cape feels most familiar, most like home. This has something to do, I think, with the ways in which Afrikaans culture in particular is very like the frontier cultures of my childhood in the American Midwest, while, at the same time, the landscape often reminds me of California, where both sets of my grandparents settled. Despite these familiarities, every time I come back to the country I learn something or notice something new about it.

EE: Finally, are there any particular works or authors you would recommend to students who are keen to explore the issues you raise in Absolution further?

PF: This is an incomplete list, but the following are books that I think of as important inter-texts for Absolution: Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story; J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron and In the Heart of the Country; Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun; K. Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents; Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull; and Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat, which is arguably the greatest and most important post-Apartheid novel yet written.