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Out of South Africa



Published October 12, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

What would it be like to have a perfect memory -- to be incapable of filtering one's past through a haze of nostalgia? Worse, what would it be like to have a perfect memory and live in a country whose culture and institutions are based on a past that never was?

That's the premise of Bennington author Tony Eprile's dazzlingly complex novel The Persistence of Memory, which appeared in paperback last July. (On its hardcover run, it was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and received the Koret Jewish Book Award.) The novel's hero, Paul Sweetbread, is an urban, Jewish South African who comes of age in the 1980s, during the last throes of apartheid. He's gifted and cursed with a perfect memory, which makes it impossible for him to banish such painful images as his father's suicide.

It also makes him politically dangerous. In a country where schoolteachers try to convince children that white settlers never interbred with the African natives, Paul looks at the history books and sees otherwise. Unable to "learn the national dysmnesia, the art of rose-colored recall," he soon realizes that only by forgetting can he become "a good son, a good South African." The novel reaches its climax when Paul's photographic memory makes him the most credible witness to an act of atrocity -- one that's based in fact.

The Persistence of Memory reads like an autobiographical novel, surrounding us with the intimate sensory details of Paul's childhood in a way reminiscent of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. But Eprile, who left South Africa when he was in his teens and came to the U.S. in 1970, isn't Paul. Where Paul's comfortable middle-class family isn't politically aligned, Eprile's was. His father edited the first multiracial newspaper in South Africa, and the family once hosted Nelson Mandela when he was a fugitive from the police.

Writing the book, "I had to find ways to explain things I knew a lot about without getting over-didactic," Eprile says. He dates the novel's genesis to 1990, when events in South Africa made him feel "as if reality was running ahead of my imagination." (The country officially ended apartheid that year and held its first democratic elections in 1994.) Returning from a visit to South Africa, Eprile read A.R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist, a nonfiction account of a man tormented by photographic memories. Thus Paul Sweetbread was born. "Having a character with a perfect memory allowed me to have a lot of fun with the book, exposing the absurdities of the cultural mythology that apartheid created," Eprile says. "He can ask questions that are uncomfortable without his necessarily having a political stance to jump from."

How did Eprile create Paul's childhood in such detail? "A lot of it comes from an early interest in nature and being a naturalist," he says. "That attention to detail that naturalists engage in, I was interested in applying to fiction." Though the book is "definitely not" autobiographical, Eprile acknowledges that "people who know me well have noticed certain patterns of thought that are mine" -- such as Paul's habit of digressing. Paul's capacious, often rarefied vocabulary is Eprile's too, he says -- "I've had it as both a compliment and a complaint that people need to use the dictionary when they read the book."

One aspect of his protagonist's experience that Eprile had to research was the "hidden war" in which Paul participates as a conscripted soldier. It's a chapter of history with which few Americans are familiar. In 1974, as the U.S. emerged from Vietnam, South Africa became embroiled in a "Nam" of its own -- Namibia, where it fought an extension of the Cold War against Soviet-backed Angolan liberation fighters with support from the C.I.A. U.N. intervention ended the conflict in 1989, but not all the young South Africans were ready to lay down their weapons. "They were told they were fighting Communism for survival and the future of the free world," says Eprile, who talked to ex-soldiers as a journalist in the '90s. "Then there's an agreement out of nowhere that we're ending it. It made them ask, what was the point to start with?" The book describes a massacre of disbanded African soldiers; Eprile says it's based on several that took place during "nine days of ferocious fighting when the war was really over."

"One of the points I was trying to get across," Eprile says, "is what [war] does to the people who fight. The public should be aware of what price those soldiers paid, for our indifference or our nationalism. Some of the young men of my generation were severely damaged by that war, and it hasn't been acknowledged."

"It was very chilling to revise the novel and see the build-up toward the invasion of Iraq," Eprile continues. "There are similarities. South Africans were promised that [the war] was going to be over in two weeks." He notes that a large number of former South African defense force soldiers from the Namibia campaign have been employed in Iraq by security firms such as Blackwell.

The Persistence of Memory is riddled with paradoxes, which Eprile describes as his literary stock in trade. Paul's dead father loved insects, yet made his fortune as an exterminator. One of the novel's deepest insights is voiced by one of its most brutal characters -- Paul's commanding officer, the ruthless and charismatic Major Lyddie.

In such a world of twists and turns, is it possible to know the truth? When Paul appears before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held nonjudicial hearings in the early 1990s to unearth the dirty secrets of the apartheid era, the advocate for the opposition casts doubt on his crystal-clear memory of wartime events. "Nobody has cornered the market on truth," the lawyer declares, in an Orwellian moment. "You believe your propaganda and I'll believe mine."

That cynicism resonates in today's America, where a surprising majority of people claims to see small difference between news reporting and partisan propaganda. As Eprile shows, "reality-based" views were rare in apartheid-era South Africa. (As part of his army service, Paul learns to film carefully edited "documentaries" about the occupation.) But Eprile's novel suggests that to deny the possibility of knowing the truth is to dodge personal engagement and responsibility. "I think that truth rises out of perspective, but it isn't as relative as cultural relativists want to make out," Eprile says. "If it's all relative, you don't have to take responsibility for your actions."

Eprile came to Vermont eight years ago to teach at Bennington; his wife's family also lives in the area. Although his novel is a vivid evocation of the arid landscape of Africa, he's taken well to colder climes, and says he appreciates Vermonters for their combination of "goodheartedness and a skeptical frame of mind." One of Eprile's ongoing literary projects is a novel about Rudyard Kipling's four years in Dummerston, where he wrote The Jungle Book -- an odd episode in the life of the most famous chronicler of the British Empire. "It raises issues of exile and the attractions Vermont holds for people from other countries," Eprile says.

While he's writing that, maybe more Vermonters will check out Persistence -- a sly, personable novel that ultimately packs a big punch, making the history of a country halfway across the world seem both real and close to home.

Crowded venues testified to the success of last month's Burlington Literary Festival. But there are plenty more opportunities to see local authors in person. Archer Mayor, one of Vermont's favorite mystery writers, will be at Kingdom Books in St. Johnsbury on October 17 at 4 pm. The visit coincides with the publication of Mayor's newest Joe Gunther novel, St. Albans Fire. Instead of reading, Mayor will "mostly talk -- about how he got the plot ideas for this one, where the research took place, how he feels about his characters," says Kingdom Books co-owner Beth Kanell. "It's always a great conversation when he's here."

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