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[whitespace] Durban Dreams

South African exile mourns lost love in 'Empire Settings'

By Patrick Sullivan

THINK OF IT as the world's largest prison--a horrific political edifice of laws and lies and brutality that caged a nation of millions. And when the grim walls of South African apartheid came tumbling down, it was a liberation of biblical proportions, the end of one world and the birth of another.

It's a slice of history that's hard to beat for drama. So it's ironic that Empire Settings, a novel set before and after South Africa's tumultuous transition to freedom, should be so quiet, so reserved in tone.

Ironic, but probably for the best--especially given the book's plot, which involves lost loves, political passions and a family beset by more troubles than Job. In lesser hands, this story might have gone melodramatically awry. But first-time novelist David Schmahmann employs a deftly understated approach to telling the story of a protagonist who strongly resembles the author himself.

Like Schmahmann, Danny Divin is a white South African now living in Massachusetts. Danny has found financial success and is married to a beautiful Latina, but he's haunted by his African past, specifically by a lost love. Long ago, as a teenager, this son of a wealthy Durban merchant and a liberal politician braved apartheid's strict interracial romance laws to conduct a brief but potent affair with Santi, the mixed-race daughter of a Zulu maid.

The two met by chance, as Danny explains: "I was 17 when I first saw her and I had no idea where she came from or where she belonged. She wasn't white but she wasn't black either, rather a coppery brown that seemed to make irrelevant any thought of what she might be and to make who she might be all that seemed of interest."

After Danny worked up the nerve to approach Santi, the two began the only kind of dating possible: late-night meetings in the garden. The result was instant infatuation, as Santi explains: "How can there not be love when you start with forbidden things in the dead of the night right under the noses of all those sleeping people?"

But Danny's father discovered the romance and ordered the boy to break it off. Soon after, financial disaster and the rage of the apartheid regime broke Danny's family like a cheap toy, ending his father's life, shattering his strong-willed mother and imprisoning his politically active sister. The boy fled to a new life in America. But of all Danny's loves, his relationship with Santi--those few stolen moments in the moonlight--seems the only one with meaning.

Forbidden love may be the most frequently used plot device in literary history, employed by authors from William Shakespeare to Arundhati Roy. But while the idea isn't new, Schmahmann brings a compelling specificity to the topic, powerfully conveying the dangers and thrills of love across South Africa's color line.

And while both Danny and Santi possess an almost uncanny purity in their motives, Schmahmann shows other, less lovely possibilities. After all, lust mingled with racism can produce incredible ugliness, as the author demonstrates in a deftly sketched scene of Santi's experience with a train full of white schoolboys: "Show us your tits," one of the boys says. "We'll give you one rand."

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Empire Settings is the author's decision to narrate this tale in the voices of five different characters, including Danny himself, Santi, and Baptie, Danny's family's black maid.

Surely the biggest challenge here is Baptie: How many times have white authors reduced such a person to an ugly caricature? Too many to count, even if one had the stomach for the task. And if one feels Schmahmann doesn't quite do justice to Baptie, doesn't quite capture the ambiguities of her remarkable life, he does far better than most.

While the voices and perspectives differ, the tone of Empire Settings is one of constant, quiet nostalgia. Schmahmann's characters endure pain, loss and heartbreak, but even their worst experiences are wrapped in a soft blanket of distance that makes their suffering all the more poignant. And while none of them mourns the end of apartheid, they all suffer an exile's ache for a time and place lost beyond all recall.


Empire Settings by David Schmahmann; White Pine Press; 327 pages; $21.95 cloth.

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From the November 28-December 5, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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