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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – a review and invitation

I was completely taken by this incredible novel, taken and shaken and wolfed down by it. The powerful, impressionist style of it, like fast-paced sketches where an entire history, feeling, colour, style is suggested by a single economical yet perfect line, like jazz on a Sunday afternoon, the blues below the surface, imbibed in a heat-wave, in racism’s claustrophobic attic. This is an adventure, a fable, an epic poem about one man’s existential crisis in the American Dream of the early 20th century, where everyone can have a piece of that pie in the sky, except if you’re black – but especially because you are black, because you’re still better off than your parents, or grandparents who were slaves, and you’d better do your best to advance yourself and make the most of the opportunities or else you’ll be spitting on their graves.

The brilliance of a writer who can take such a personal, psychological trauma and spin it out, play it out in a number of cauldrons of human ambition and aspiration, boil that poor man, stir him up and add spices to the pot … and leave the nameless protagonist still nameless after the intense adventure. Yes, there is no resolution, no revolution no reward. But instead of leaving one with bitterness and bile, it left this reader satisfied by a story well told.

I’m not alone in my praise for this book: in 1953, the year it was published, it won the US National Book Award, and Time ranks it 19th in the top 100 novels published in the 20th century. Yet I’d never heard about it, which I can understand in South Africa where every vestige of African thought and reflection was hidden from us by apartheid.

Wikipedia says: “”I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights from the electric company Monopolated Light & Power. He says, “My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.” The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since “the truth is the light and light is the truth.” From this underground perspective, the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in American society.”

From then on he’s off like a racehorse, or a steeplechase, in a speech competition at the county hall, which is actually some kind of wrestling competition, spine-curlingly humiliating (I know Microsoft, that isn’t a word, but there isn’t a word that can trace the shape of that combination of humiliation and hope that the author is exploring.) And that’s just the first hell, then he wins, and goes to college, the second hell, he divulges the secrets of the shanty town with its abject and amoral lumpen proletariat to the white patron, shocked and undone he seeks refuge (and brandy) for the white gentleman in the shebeen, and they are swallowed into yet another inferno of contradiction and compromise, and there are several more hells that he’s thrown into, until by the end of the book you’re screaming, stop, stop, stop doing that to that man!

Have a taste of the introduction:
“I am an invisible man.No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan
Poe; nor am l one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.

When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Sound familiar Mzansi? Am I wrong when I say that everyone can identify with this protagonist? We are all invisible to each other? so you’re hooked in and you read and read and you can barely breathe but you can’t stop until its over: rubble and broken glass. Silence.

And you step back and go for a walk. And you wonder how you’ve been betrayed and how you betrayed yourself and you realise that there’s no way out of this particular hell, made bearable only by the luminescence of great minds like Ellison’s.


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 16th, 2013 @09:42 #

    Bump. Terrific writing here.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 17th, 2013 @22:26 #

    Phillippa, please write more reviews. This is wonderful.


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