A Dance in the Sun, by Dan Jacobson
by Robert Gorham Davis
A Dance in the Sun. By Dan Jacobson. Harcourt, Brace. 209 pp. $3.50.
Marxists used to speak of a law of unequal development in political economy which permitted backward countries to leap suddenly ahead, as Russia did, under the influence of ideas and techniques borrowed from more advanced countries. Dan Jacobson’s sensitively written short novel about South Africa suggests that the same kind of thing can happen in fiction. A Dance in the Sun is one of the concentrated fables of individual moral responsibility which have been in vogue among younger writers in the United States since 1939. In America this vogue had certainly something to do with our historic and economic circumstances, with the reaction against Marxism and the social consciousness of the 30’s, and with the political conservatism and centrism fostered in the last decade by a spreading economic prosperity. A Dance in the Sun, on the contrary, comes from and describes an explosive colonial situation of increasing inequality which might seem more appropriately described in such class-conflict, mass-movement fiction as The Octopus, The Grapes of Wrath, or Germinal, or at least in the broadly conceived social novel of the central English tradition.
Jacobson, however, though dealing with racial relations, chooses to put his emphasis on the problems of moral self-knowledge and ability to communicate with others which have interested the most gifted young writers of his generation in this country. A Dance in the Sun, told in the first person, is developed with great economy of means and great simplicity of narrative technique, and observes the classic unities. Two young hitch-hikers, university students on vacation, arrive toward evening at a run-down, pretentious house on the veld. The owners of the house, a strange middle-aged couple named Fletcher, are eager to have the youths stay with them as protection against some ill-defined threat. It has to do with the huge Kaffir, Joseph, who is lurking outside the grounds, and with the expected return that evening of the wife’s younger brother.
The action takes only twenty-four hours, and they are crowded ones. Except for the hot truck ride across the veld, bringing the hitch-hikers by chance to the Fletchers’ tiny village, everything occurs inside or very near the Fletchers’ house. Only six persons are directly involved, and two of them, the students, are such like-minded outsiders that they are really one. It is from their point of view that the story is told.
The emotional intensities are also those of classic drama—kinship feelings of a rather primitive kind. Mrs. Fletcher, very conscious of her Dutch family heritage and of her fallen estate, is passionately devoted to her wayward, taunting brother, but her feeling for him is not more obsessive than that of the Negro Joseph for his missing sister. She is gone, and so is her baby, about whom there is a traditional mystery of parentage. The emotional situations resolve themselves, partly in symbolic destructiveness, and partly in a victory by Joseph which is quite unanticipatable, and which gives the novel, for the distant reader, its distinctively South African and unassessable character.
For though the six persons of the action are all highly individualized, and though their vividly described behavior toward each other is very strange and arbitrary, what is ultimately in question is the treatment of the Negro Joseph and of his sister. Ultimately the whites come to stand for the differing attitudes they express toward what has been done to the Negroes, and yet they are so isolated, since there are no other characters of their kind to test them by, that it is hard to tell how representative they really are. Mr. Fletcher is blackly reactionary in words; he shouts that “all educated Kaffirs should be shot.” But he is a strange, moody man, hard to place, and rather like Tom Buchanan of The Great Gatsby in the violence with which he expresses trite and unreasonable social ideas. “This energy went with an apparent indifference to what he was talking about.”
The two students uneasily analyze their motives in entering into deceptive collusion with Joseph against Fletcher. Joseph’s story of his search for his sister recalls all that they had heard from dark voices in their childhood of the typical lives and sufferings of the submerged mass of the people. Yet they recognize, even in their ambiguous attempts to help, how remote that experience is from their own, and how little in this instance they understand what really motivates Joseph and why he finally imposes on Fletcher the curious relationship which leaves Fletcher at the end of the book capering with frustration, “solitary in the veld, a grotesque little figure.”
In what he wants and imposes is Joseph a typical Kaffir? And if he is so now, how long will men of his sort remain thus? We do not know, and the novel does not tell us. And yet since the drama which is enacted here is so specifically South African in its social and even moral circumstances, we have a right to ask.
A Dance in the Sun helps make us realize how dependent we are on imaginative literature to create a sense of inner sympathy with people of other times and places. Shakespeare and Smollett, Balzac and Tolstoy give us at least the illusion of knowing the Elizabethans and early Georgians, the 19th-century French and Russians much better than we know contemporary Arabs or Indians or Chinese or African Negroes. Certainly we feel more at home with the fictional characters because the literature which describes them is in familiar modes, is part of a unified Western cultural tradition. The characters revealed by this tradition are more “real” and interesting to us than living contemporaries of races and cultures outside Europe, even when we regard with determined good will mass movements of liberation in Asia and Africa, and know in our minds that the world future is being determined elsewhere than in Europe.
Our very limited sense of the character of inner experience in the world outside Europe and America, moreover, comes largely from European and American imaginative writers, helped out by our anthropologists. Since the illusion given in fiction of identification with our fellow humans, of understanding others’ private lives, depends on specific traditional techniques developed within our own culture, we read sympathetically very little African or Asian literature except as it is directed toward us by thoroughly sophisticated and Westernized native writers. And not much of that is available. Mostly when we think of other continents and their people fictionally, we think of writers like Paul Bowles or E. M. Forster or André Malraux, or, earlier, Doughty or Kipling or Lafcadio Hearn. Various as their works are, the collective effect is to dramatize the difficulties really of understanding, really of entering into communion of spirit with individuals of other races and cultures in their own environment.
This is the effect also of Dan Jacobson’s very attractive A Dance in the Sun. It is at once so immediate, so available, so humanly relevant, and yet for all its sympathy it makes seem even more distant and incalculable the Negroes of South Africa who, so vastly outnumbering their desperate white oppressors, will ultimately make that country and its future their own.