During the twilight years of Apartheid, Zoe Wicomb gained attention with her first book, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. The book is a collection of inter-related short stories. In 2013 she was awarded the inaugural Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for her fiction.
“You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town comes from a confident statement by Frieda’s longstanding white boyfriend as she is about to go off to have an abortion in the white part of the city. Frieda Shenton, for her part, does not have a sense of direction, even though she ends up in the clinic and is able to deny that she is coloured in order to have the procedure,” writes Marcia Wright.
A look at my anxious face compelled him to say, “You can’t get lost in Cape Town. There,” and he pointed over his shoulder, “is Table Mountain and there is Devil’s Peak and there Lion’s Head, so how in heaven’s name could you get lost?”
The story recounts the anxiety of the bus ride into town to have the abortion:
I should count out the fare for the conductor. Perhaps not; he is still at the front of the bus. We are now travelling through Rondebosch so that he will be fully occupied with white passengers at the front.
To the desolate moment that concludes the process:
It is 6a.m. Light pricks at the shroud of Table Mountain. The streets are deserted and, relieved, I remember that the next train will pass at precisely 6.22.
In high school, I decided to read more South African literature. Under Apartheid a lot of good books were either banned or “out of print”. In the 1980s, the publisher, David Philip, launched an imprint, Africasouth Paperbacks, which managed to get previously banned books unbanned on the grounds of “literary merit.” It was via this initiative that I could get hold of Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night and other stories in the local library.
The novella which lends its name to the collection is a vivid account of life in Cape Town – specifically District Six – as Apartheid repression intensified. The book was published before La Guma fled into exile and shortly before the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. La Guma addresses the issues of racism, poverty and criminality in an unsparing way.
Here is a memorable passage from the novella: “The pub, like pubs all over the world, was a place for debate and discussion, for the exchange of views and opinions, for argument and for the working out of problems. It was a forum, a parliament, a fountain of wisdom and a cesspool of nonsense, it was a centre for the lost and the despairing, where cowards absorbed dutch courage out of small glasses and leaned against the shiny, scratched and polished mahogany counter for support against the crushing burdens of insignificant lives. Where the disillusioned gained temporary hope, where acts of kindness were considered and murders planned.”
The title is taken from lines in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am thy father’s spirit; Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night.”