Today was a sick day for me. I often brag about my immune system, but something seems to happen near the end of the school year--I start to fray around the edges. On Monday night I felt the warning signs, and on Tuesday morning I woke up with a terrible sore throat. I made it through the school day, but I know when it's time to call for a sub, and it was time. Apparently I'm not alone in this, because it seems the virus has spread among students too.
So today I was home, drowsy, but not so sick that I couldn't read. So I finally finished the last hundred pages of The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein. (Persephone Press)
The World That Was Ours is dedicated to "the men of Rivonia," a group which includes Hilda Bernstein's husband, Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein. The other men of Rivonia are: Nelson Mandela; Walter Sisula; Ahmed Kathrada; Dennis Goldberg; Govan Mbeki; Raymond Mhlaba; Elias Motsoaledi; and Andrew Mlangeni. These men were arrested at a farm in Rivonia, outside of Johannesburg, and charged with organizing sabotage and armed uprising against the South African Government. Of those charged, only Rusty Bernstein was found not guilty of all charges. It didn't matter; as soon as the trial ended, before he could even leave the courtroom, he was rearrested.
That was the South African regime: corrupt, rotten to the core, fascistic. Reading this book is fascinating, because the reader lives the era along with the narrator. This is a personal and a political memoir, and the reader feels the excruciating tension, the maddening irrationality, the injustice, right along with Bernstein. Reading this book from the perspective of 2010, I knew that Mandela would spend 27 years in prison, and that he would be not only vindicated but triumphant. It is difficult to comprehend the courage required to live a life of integrity in South Africa in the 1960's. Bernstein does not criticize the complacent white South Africans who were politically unengaged, she simply shows them for what they were. She also paints a bleak picture of life in a repressive political state.
After Rusty Bernstein was released on bail (he had spent nearly a year in prison) the Bernsteins made the difficult decision to leave South Africa. This meant temporarily leaving their children behind; it also meant a dangerous and uncertain escape route. At times The World That Was Ours is reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank--the South African regime persecuted the majority population for reasons of racial hatred; the entire political structure of the country was based on an ideal of white supremacy. The last part of the book, taken up with the Bernstein's escape, reads like a narrative of the Underground Railroad. The Bernsteins get as far as Lobatsi, just over the South African border, where they are hiding in plain sight, and desperately try to find a way to leave this African town where they are watched and followed at every turn -- and the tension is almost unbearable.
Bernstein finds a beautiful balance between the personal, the political, and the historic in this memoir. She is a gifted writer, who is careful not to be too obtrusive in her discussion of historic events such as the trial; yet she does know when to insert a personal detail at the appropriate moment, as when she describes walking away from her home for the last time, fleeing the South African police and leaving a load of laundry on the rinse cycle. Bernstein also injects carefully observed details of South African life, from the white suburbs, to the townships, to the village woman who helps the Bernsteins in their escape. Here is one wonderfully observed moment in the narrative (the Bernsteins have been desperately trying to get from an isolated village to the town of Lobatsi):
An African and a white man sit together at a table counting out a pile of money. There is a high iron bed with a pink taffeta cover on it, and sitting on the cover, a plump brown hen. Pinned round the wall are religious prints from some Victorian Bible--Nebuchadnezzar on hands and knees, naked but with a long grey beard, eating grass; a chocolate-box Christ, soft and characterless, with a shiny bright halo, his hand raised in blessing over small children; coloured photographs of the royal family.
The African rises as we enter, shakes hands, and introduces himself and the white man, a strange reversal of South African codes which do not permit a black man to speak first before a white. He offers us chairs. We say we have been told that here we might be able to get a lift to Lobatsi.
The white man says, 'I am going to Lobatsi in about twenty minutes. If you don't mind waiting, you may come with me.'
The two men finish counting out the money, put it into paper bags and conclude their discussion. As though to signal the end of their business, the hen cackles and hops off the bed, fluffing and fussing, and leaving a large brown egg on the pink coverlet.
That egg on the pink coverlet is a novelist's detail, as are the Victorian biblical pictures and the men counting the money. That is why The World That Was Ours is not just compelling but engrossing. That is why I so highly recommend it.