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“What I say will not be understood”: Intertextuality as a subversive force in Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter


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1In 1963 the South African government passed The Publications and Entertainment Act which made it possible to ban not only works which were considered blasphemous or obscene but also any work which “brings any section of the inhabitants into ridicule or contempt, is harmful to the relations between any sections of the inhabitants; is prejudicial to the safety of the State, the general welfare or the peace and good order” (Essential Gesture, 61). Under this act almost 9 000 works were banned including, predictably, all those which made any mention of communism and most of the works of Black South African writers in exile. The censorship laws were further tightened by an amendment in 1974, so that by the time Nadine Gordimer’s seventh novel Burger’s Daughter was published in 1979, some 20 000 titles were prohibited in South Africa and the list was being updated weekly.

2Burger’s Daughter, was published in London in June 1979 and the following month banned in South Africa because, according to the Censorship Board, amongst other things:

The book is an outspoken furthering of communism […] [it] creates and fosters a sense of grievance which is most undesirable in a political situation where there are racial situations [sic] […it] doesn’t possess one particularly positive quality – of creation, insight, style, language or composition – which can save it as work of art or as contribution to the public welfare. […] The effect of the book on the public attitude of mind is dangerous in all aspects. (Dugard 15)

3The board justified its position with a number of quotations which it felt were particularly offensive. However, in an unprecedented move, the Director of Publications appealed almost immediately against the ban his own committee had imposed and appointed a panel of literary experts to evaluate the literary merit of the novel. They accused the committee of “bias, prejudice and literary incompetence” (Dugard, 41) but then went on to say that “the book is difficult to read and will therefore not become a popular book” (Dugard, 57), before finally concluding that because of “its limited readership [… and] as a result of its one-sidedness the effect of the book will be counter-productive rather than subversive” (Dugard 39). The ban was consequently lifted in October 1979.

4Throughout the apartheid period, Gordimer regularly published essays and articles condemning censorship. She was fully aware that the Censorship Board could deprive her of her South African readership, her novel The Late Bourgeois World had been banned in the sixties, and she also knew that it was a criminal offence, punishable by a prison sentence, to quote from a banned book or even to publicly name a banned person. Although self-censorship is rarely discussed, in places such as apartheid South Africa it undoubtedly plays a role in the creation of literary works. Gordimer was not trying to write a propaganda text but she was very aware of the ideological role of the writer in South Africa. In her seminal essay “The Essential Gesture” she wrote: “The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it. […] the white writer’s task as ‘cultural worker’ is to raise the consciousness of white people, who, unlike himself, have not woken up” (285-6; 293).

5As the censorship board rightly pointed out, Burger’s Daughter is a complex novel but what they, as “non-literary” readers, failed to appreciate was the role intertextuality could play in writing a subversive book. This paper considers three different ways in which Gordimer uses intertextuality. First, as a means of making a political statement, secondly as a way of questioning English literary hegemony and finally as a means of creating a new way of communicating by incorporating visual art forms into a literary text.

6Within his general term of transtextuality, Genette gives a very precise meaning to the word intertextuality, defining it as “the actual presence of one text within another” (Allen 101). In her defence of Burger’s Daughter, Gordimer deliberately played down the existence of actual political statements within the text, insisting that she was a writer of fiction and not of propaganda. Nevertheless, it was immediately obvious to South African readers that the character of Lionel Burger was based on the Afrikaner activist Bram Fischer who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966 and released only when it was clear he was dying of cancer. Although as he was a banned person it was prohibited to name Bram Fischer or to quote him, it was not an offence to write a novel based on a real-life character. In fact in her defence of Burger’s Daughter Gordimer argued that the Board’s criticism of the remark, “his life sentence was served but the State claimed his body,” was unjustified because “the family of Abram Fischer was refused permission to bury him and his body was claimed by the State” (Dugard 31).

7What Gordimer did not tell the censors, but which many of the novel’s first readers did notice, was that Lionel Burger’s defence speech contains long passages from Bram Fischer’s defence speech. These passages are not differentiated in any way from the surrounding text – there are no quotation marks, no introductory verbs and Fischer is never named. Technically therefore, as far as the Censorship Board was concerned, Gordimer could argue that they were not quotations but in fact Gordimer was taking considerable risks. Max du Preez, the author of a non-fiction work who used a similar technique but whose “quotations” were recognised by the censors, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment (De Lange 84).

8Bram Fischer is not the only person whose words Gordimer incorporates in this way. Stephen Clingman has noted extracts from Marx, Lenin, and Steve Biko but argues that Joe Slovo’s essay “South Africa- no middle road” provided most of the political statements in the novel. The absence of any textual markers for all these “quotations” raises the problem of the reader’s capacity to identify the hypotext or inter-text, to return to Genette’s terms. So complex are the references that Clingman calls them “quotational gymnastics.” To give two examples “a statement by Marx, given in a footnote in Slovo’s essay, appears in unattributed quotation marks as a central sentiment in Lionel Burger’s speech from the dock” (Clingman 187). The fictional character Duma Dhladhla quotes Steve Biko “because we cannot be conscious of ourselves and at the same time remain slaves” but Biko himself was in fact quoting Hegel (164). Genette argues that although a text can be read for itself, the meaning of hypertextual works is linked to the reader’s knowledge of the hypotext. I would like to argue that in Gordimer’s case, the aim of the novel is to arouse people’s consciousness and being aware of the origins of the hypotexts is of little importance. When Burger’s Daughter was published, none of the works quoted could be obtained legally within South Africa. The aim of using intertextuality was thus not to stimulate comparison but to disseminate ideas, to encourage people to think and thereby to lead them to question the status quo.

9Intertextuality becomes an even stronger political statement when we consider the longest example of intertextuality in the novel: the text of a pamphlet distributed by the Soweto Students Representative Council. This tract, which reminds blacks of what happened on June 16th 1976 and encourages them to continue the fight, is reproduced in extenso, complete with spelling mistakes. Its presence was picked up by the Censorship Board, although, curiously, when they unbanned the novel they claimed that they did not know whether this was a copy of the prohibited document or not. Gordimer on the other hand, has drawn attention to its status as a genuine document on several occasions:

I reproduced this document because my stylistic integrity as a writer demanded it: it is a necessary part of the book as a whole. I reproduced it because it is sometimes essential, for the total concept of a work of fiction, to incorporate blunt documentary evidence in contrast to the fuller, fictive version of events. […] I reproduced the document exactly as it was […] because I felt it expressed more eloquently and honestly than any pamphlet I could have invented, the spirit of the young people who wrote it (Dugard 30)

10Her gesture becomes all the more politically important when the novel is replaced in its historical context. The Black Consciousness movement refused all collaboration with whites and criticised them for speaking in the place of the blacks. White writers therefore found themselves caught in a double bind. As Michael Chapman puts it, “should they enter the black consciousness they will stand charged with colonial appropriation: should they permit the black figure its silence as Coetzee did in Foe […] white Africans will stand charged with perpetuating the myth of the empty land” (398). In Burger’s Daughter Gordimer solves this problem in a unique way by withdrawing completely and allowing blacks to speak in their own voice.

11Burger’s Daughter also contains examples of what Genette terms metatextuality, that is to say a work which “unites a given text to another, of which it speaks without necessarily citing it (without summoning it), in fact sometimes even without naming it” (Allen 103). Metatextuality is used by Gordimer to solve the problem of how to represent violence. In an article in the New York Times, J.M. Coetzee reflected on the difficulty for the committed novelist of describing the violence of the apartheid state: “For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the State, namely either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them” (13).

12The only direct act of violence described in Burger’s Daughter is not that of white against black but of a black man beating a donkey. Much of the horror of this passage comes not from the brutality of the man and the suffering of the donkey but because Rosa is powerless to intervene: “If somebody’s going to be brought to account, I am accountable for him, to him. […] The man was a black. […] I couldn’t bear to see myself […] as one of those whites who can care more for animals than people” (210). As far as the plot is concerned, this is what finally makes Rosa decide to leave South Africa but it in fact recalls several earlier texts. Louise Yelin offers a parallel reading with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (121-5). She is interested primarily in the elements of race and sex which Gordimer introduces into her novel but I suggest that this passage is also a reworking of another text, evoked several times in Burger’s Daughter, Rosa Luxembourg’s prison letters to Sophie Liebknecht.

13Burger’s Daughter ends with a letter from Rosa which has been cut off in mid-sentence by the prison censor. Her last words contain a reference to the setting sun. I see this not so much as a parallel with her father’s letters, as other critics have suggested, but as an echo of Rosa Luxembourg’s prison letters in which the setting-sun occurs so frequently it can almost be seen as a leitmotif. In her prison letters Rosa Luxembourg appears not as a militant socialist and theoretical writer but as a sensitive, emotive person deeply affected by the natural world:

14Sometimes […] it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here […] than at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post in a street fight or in prison. But my innermost personality belongs more to my tomtits than to my comrades (9).

15Before Rosa Burger can accept prison she must discover this part of her character and she does this by going to the south of France, a place Rosa Luxembourg dreams of returning to with Sophie when she comes out of prison for, in her memory, it is a place where “human beings […] are in perfect accord with the landscape” (4). It is here that her vision of the donkey occurs. It is not an image of suffering but one of peace:

a donkey laden with sacks full of chestnuts; next a great mule, on which sits a woman sideways, her legs hanging straight down, a child in her arms; she is bolt upright, slender as a cypress and makes no movement. Beside her strides a bearded man whose demeanour is calm and confident. Both are silent. You would take your oath that they are the Holy Family (4-5).

16Although the immense contrast between the suffering of the donkey in Burger’s Daughter and the peacefulness of this scene highlights the awfulness of South Africa, a knowledge of Rosa Luxembourg’s fate prevents the reader from having too optimistic a view of the future.

17Despite her continued opposition to apartheid, Gordimer has always claimed to be primarily a writer of fiction and not a political activist:

I prefaced an essay that I wrote by saying ‘Nothing I write here in this essay will be as true as my fiction’ and I believe that with all my heart and mind. I write non-fiction only for political reasons […] but I always feel that the writing is self-conscious […] I’m never happy with it. (Bazin 260)

18It is indeed important not to forget that we are dealing with a novel since Burger’s Daughter is also about the postcolonial search for a specifically South African form of writing and to this end, it reworks a number of key colonial texts.

19The first part of Burger’s Daughter is addressed to Rosa’s former lover who bears the portentous name of Conrad. He cannot understand Rosa’s family and their involvement in collective well-being: “I don’t give a fuck about what’s ‘useful.’ The will is my own. The right to be inconsolable when I feel there’s no ‘we’ only ‘I’” (52). Although he is the first step on Rosa’s path to independence, she eventually realises the limitations of his view of life and as Susan Greenstein puts it: “From an African point of view there is little to choose between this form of self-indulgence and the critique of imperialism in The Heart of Darkness, which can be read as an exploration of the European psyche writ large” (235). Along similar lines, Louise Yelin argues that when Rosa says she has “lost connection” she is evoking the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End “Only Connect” and since she does indeed fail to connect with Baasie, this rules out a Forsterian empire novel of friendship across the races (119).

20The second part of Burger’s Daughter is set in the south of France and evokes European literature. This part is addressed to Rosa’s father’s first wife who was born Colette Swan with its echoes of the French writers Colette and Proust. Many of the descriptions in this part of the novel bear similarities to these writers’ styles but their work, too, ultimately proves to be unsuited to the South African situation. In this same part, according to Louise Yelin, Rosa’s rejection of the “mother” can be read as a rejection of Anglo-American gynocentric literature (129).

21Surprisingly, the only character in the novel who quotes Shakespeare is the racist Afrikaner Brandt Vermeulen who tells Rosa that if she wants a passport she will have to be “patience on a monument,” a quotation from Twelfth Night (Yelin 125). Brandt also approves of Piaget, and B.F. Skinner. He has reproductions of Kandinsky, Georgia O’Keeffe and Picasso on his walls, although they are hanging behind those of an Afrikaner painter, Pierneef. Symbolically, this suggests that English and European, cultures have already been appropriated by the so-called “enlightened” Afrikaners. A non-racial South Africa must look for its cultural values elsewhere. However, finding a new voice means questioning the very existence of language, finding a way of making “the old phrases crack [so that] meaning shakes out wet and new” (Burger’s Daughter 346).

22Right from the beginning, the novel calls into question the ability of the written word to convey the truth by employing a wide variety of narrative voices. The first pages are devoted to a description of the same event by different people: a passenger on a bus, an omniscient narrator whose voice later becomes identified with the South African secret service, Rosa’s headmistress, another visitor outside the prison gates and, finally, Rosa herself. “My version and theirs. And if this were being written down, both would seem equally concocted when read over” (16), Rosa comments. By continually changing the point of view, the novel questions whether in fact a written document can bear witness to the real world. Richard Martin points out that “The effect of this multiple reflection is not to give a deeper or more accurate understanding of the event […] but rather to de-centre the event itself, to expose the role of ideology, interpretation, of narrative devices, of history itself in our understanding” (11). This becomes particularly troubling once it becomes apparent that it is the surveillance voice which comes the closest to traditional literary narrative, since it is the only voice to recount action sequentially.

23At the end of the second part of the novel, the telephone conversation between Rosa and Baasie shows a breakdown even in verbal communication and an unbreachable rift between black and white. In the third part, Rosa’s own voice gradually disappears, replaced by that of the omniscient narrator, the voice of the South African secret services. For Susan Greenstein, who sees Rosa’s story as the old imperial paradigm first used by Shakespeare in The Tempest, this proves that Gordimer ultimately fails to transcend white domination “because the symbolism of the closing scene, which suggests reconciliation with the father, speaks only of Rosa’s liberation. Burger’s Daughter remains her story, not Baasie’s. Caliban’s voice is still heard only in his oppressor’s language” (237).

24For me, however, this does not mean that Rosa is silent, rather that she is learning to communicate other than by speaking or writing; that she is at last learning to transcend the oppressor’s language by finding a better way of communicating than the old trick of talking in front of prison warders which involved making “family matters” into “metaphors for something else” (Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter 360).

25In prison, men, the symbolic fathers of language and the architects of apartheid, are excluded. The text underlines the idea of a female community by talking about the chief matron as an abbess (354). Although, theoretically, apartheid existed inside the prison, finances did not run to the building of separate jails for women of different races so, although not held in adjacent cells, black and white prisoners are able to communicate by singing. More importantly, prisoners are not allowed “writing materials for any purpose other than letters which were censored” (355), but Rosa is given permission to have drawing materials and is allowed to send home-made Christmas cards to friends. “Words,” the law of the father, have been left at the prison gate and Rosa communicates with pictures. Significantly they are “clumsy still-lifes […] naïve imaginary landscape” (355, my emphasis). Rosa has ‘progressed’ back to early childhood, to before the symbolic order. This becomes an effective way of defeating the censors who understand only words: her pictures “could rouse no suspicions that she might be incorporating plans of the lay-out of the prison” (355); on her Christmas cards “Only the delighted recipients could recognize, unmistakably, despite the lack of skill with which the figures were drawn, Marisa, Rosa, Clare, and an Indian associate of them all; and understand that these women were in close touch with each other” (356). Far from suddenly appearing at the end of the novel the idea of developing a new non-verbal way of communicating is present in the often criticised second part of the book and this incorporation of visual art can be seen as an attempt to continue writing when language has become politically suspect.

26Barthes draws attention to the fact that the word “text” has as its original meaning “a tissue, a woven fabric” (Allen 6). The notion of intertextuality with its connotations of web and weaving has been seen as an opportunity to feminize the symbolics of the act of writing (146). In Burger’s Daughter, however, it takes on a political meaning and the novel can only be fully understood if the reader is aware of the symbolic importance of the series of tapestries “La dame à la licorne” which Rosa’s lover promises to show her in the Musée de Cluny.

27Medieval tapestries were a form of narrative art. François Salet compares them to a comic strip (15) and argues that for those who share their cultural codes, they can be “read” in much the same way as a book. In this respect, they stand opposed to paintings which fail to record the passage of time. As Bernard comments: “In the fifty years between the two paintings, there was the growth of fascism, two wars – the Occupation – And for Bonnard it is as if nothing’s happened. Nothing. […] He could have painted them the same summer, the same day” (286-7).

28The second part of the novel is not “lotus land” as one disappointed European critic, anxious to get back to the “riveting” life in South Africa, put it (Smith, 166). Rather, it is an attempt to understand Rosa’s experiences through a visual medium. Tapestry and needlework reappear continuously as a leitmotiv throughout this part. To give but a few examples, there are “tapestry flowers” (217) and Rosa sees a woman who seems to be “completing a figure that was leading to a tapestry on a museum wall” (288). Elsewhere, the narrator talks of “the strip of sea threaded behind the sandcastle towers” (288), or again “the understanding spun a thread between them” (215). Elements of the different tapestries also appear: “the silk tent of morning sea” (214), “the castle waved bright handkerchiefs of unidentified nations” (219), “fluttering pennants of tiny bats” (260). Rosa sees a woman with “gold tinsel hair” (218), in the tapestry she has “golden hair” (340); the tables outside the bar are “tiny islands” (217) and in the tapestry she is on an “azure island” (340). Katya shows her a “monkey trick” (229) to get up to her bedroom while the monkey in the tapestry is chained up to stop him climbing. The constant references to flowers remind the reader that “La dame à la licorne” is a mille-fleur tapestry.

29“La dame à la licorne” is composed of six tapestries which are described in detail in the novel only once Rosa has returned to South Africa. The first five tapestries illustrate the five senses and reflect different aspects of Rosa’s life. The description of the first, sight, describes in detail the way the mirror the girl is holding cuts off the unicorn’s horn. In the mirror the unicorn is at once more realistic – it looks like a horse – and less so since it is not a horse. The reflection changes its very nature and reminds the reader of the beginning of the novel: “It’s all concocted. I saw – see – that profile in a hand-held mirror directed towards another mirror” (14). Although Gordimer’s work has been widely popularised as a means of understanding life in South Africa, it is important to bear in mind that a novel is not reality but only a reflection of reality and, as this passage shows, reflections are not to be trusted. Burger’s Daughter gives one version of life under apartheid but it is necessarily incomplete.

30The following four tapestries all recall things which happened during Rosa’s stay in France. Hearing suggests the nightingale’s song, smell the lilac and the red, carnations worn to celebrate the fall of the Portuguese Colonels, taste, the newly discovered pleasure of food, touch, her lover.

31The sixth tapestry is the most significant. For a long time it was believed the lady was choosing a jewel but by comparing these tapestries with others, art historians have concluded that she is in fact relinquishing it :

L’inscription tissée sur le sommet du pavillon ‘a mon seul désir’ mise en relation avec ce geste [renoncement aux bijoux] s’éclaircit en même temps qu’elle donne sa signification à cette scène. Elle est à mettre en rapport avec le liberum arbitrium des philosophes antiques qui y voyaient l’aptitude à vouloir bien faire, disposition qui nous est enlevée par les passions, c’est à dire par la soumission à nos sens (Erland-Brandenburg 63).

32This illustrates perfectly Rosa’s position and explains her decision to go back to South Africa:. “To know and not to act is not to know” as the epigraph to the second part puts it. Rosa cannot live a sensual life and ignore what is happening in her native land. In this respect, it is interesting to note that this last tapestry contains symbols of war – the tent is of the type found on battlefields (Erland-Brandenburg 63). When Rosa returns to South Africa it is to take part in a battle which, unlike her father’s battle, involves not words, but weapons.

33In the novel, the sentences which follow the description of the tapestries raise the question of art for art: “An old and lovely world, gardens and gentle beauties among gentle beasts. Such harmony and sensual peace in the age of the thumbscrew and dungeon” (341). Just as Rosa renounces the sensual pleasures of life in France, so the text turns away from Romanticism. In South Africa, Keats’ words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know”, are no longer sufficient.

34Finally, it is perhaps appropriate in this attempt to create a specifically South African form of intertextuality, that the most important alternative form of communication should be tapestry. According to the West African Dogon tribe, the loom is a symbol of the mouth. The movement of the warp represents the lips, the heddles are the teeth, the shuttle the tongue. Clothing the earth with fibres was the first act of ordering and gave birth to language. So closely are the two associated that the same verb means to speak or to weave.

35According to the South African writer, Christopher Hope:

Words in their written form are not actually very important to anybody and […] the real language of the country is a succession of barks, growls and yells. The true texts or literatures of this country are to be read in gunshots, walls and fences. It is sounds that matter and signs and symbols. (170)

36That said, the very fact that totalitarian regimes will go to such lengths to restrict freedom of speech is an indication of how effective words can be in federating discontent and Gordimer never abandoned the written word. She was, however, aware of the limitations of writing. Not only for practical reasons: the censorship laws, the cost of books in South Africa, the high rate of illiteracy among blacks, all meant that her South African readership was seriously curtailed. But above all, it seems to me, for ideological reasons: words classified people into black and white, were used to write the existence of black people out of history, were forced out of people under torture and turned into stories which could be used against them, their family and their friends. Intertextuality itself could be suspect: invoking Biblical texts was used as a way of justifying apartheid; influent Afrikaners would quote Shakespeare to show they were not as bigoted as the outside world claimed; the creation of a literary tradition had become an ideological pursuit through which Afrikaners sought to promote their own unique identity as White Africans and thereby justify their claim to be the true inhabitants of South Africa. Under such conditions, intertextuality could never become a post-modern game. For Gordimer, it was both a political tool and a cultural weapon, both a way of participating in the struggle against apartheid and in the creation of a distinctly South African voice.

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Susan BARRETT, « “What I say will not be understood”: Intertextuality as a subversive force in Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter », E-rea [En ligne], 2.1 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2004, consulté le 25 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.491

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University of Bordeaux 3
Maître de conférences
Susan Barrett wrote her doctoral thesis on white South African women novelists from 1883-1994. She is currently working on colonial and postcolonial fiction and has published articles on South African and Australian authors.

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