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Black Hamlet.

by Wulf Sachs, with Introduction by Saul Dubon. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. xi + 340 pp. 13 [pounds sterling] paperback. ISBN 0-8018-5286-2.

This is a reissue of Wulf Sachs's story of his relationship with John Chavafambira, a Manyika nganga who moved from his home in Zimbabwe to settle in Johannesburg in the late 1920s. Its sheer readability and the insight it gives into the conditions of African life led to widespread acclaim when it was first published in 1937. It is no less moving as a personal portrait and social document today. As we tack back and forth from Zimbabwe to South Africa, from kraal to urban slum, the life of John Chavafambira comes alive for us, in all the complexities of the encounter between black and white and of the tragedies of the poor trying to scratch a living in the new urban centres of southern Africa, as segregation becomes steadily more entrenched. This new edition is accompanied by two fine introductory essays, both of which focus on the relationship between the two men. Saul Dubow gives an informative biographical sketch of Sachs and, raising the question of authorship, explores the extent to which Sachs inscribed himself, and his own growing political awareness, in the character of Chavafambira. Jacqueline Rose takes up the same issue, but this time from a more psychoanalytic perspective and explores the many readings which the analogy with the character of Hamlet opens up.

This narrative is very much a story across the lines, of the collaboration of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant and trained psychoanalyst with the Manyikan, heir to a lineage of famous diviners who comes to ply his oracular techniques amid the squalor of slum yards. The relationship resounds with linkages and ambiguities. Both are immigrant doctors with a mutual interest in the other's techniques and knowledge. Both extend to the other a somewhat guarded appreciation of each other's craft with, for example, Chavafambira admitting the efficacy of western medicine only for those diseases which, being the product of urban life, are beyond the provenance of the spirits. But the relationship, given the economic and social circumstances of the time, is not one of equality. Sachs, a Zionist, socialist, intellectual, and founder of psychoanalytic practice in South Africa, became interested in Chavafambira through his desire to show that Freudian psychoanalytic theory was universally applicable.

The books's first purpose is thus exemplary; an exploration of an individual's psychological struggle in the face of the harsh circumstances of his life. The psychoanalytic method, with its intensive probing and method of free association, here yields a richly documented account of Chavafambira's reactions and reflections upon his experiences as he weathers a succession of personal crises and encounters the racial oppression of South Africa in all its banal manifestations. Yet this is no clinical treatise; the skills of the analyst are here welded with those of the novelist. And, we might add, with the skills also of the anthropologist, as Sachs's sessions with Chavafambira move out of his consulting room and into the slum, as he extends his inquiry into the daily conditions of Chavafambira's life; an inquiry which eventually takes him back to Chavafambira's natal kraal.

Indeed, as Dubow makes clear, there is, throughout, a tension between the story of John as a psychological case study and as an African `Everyman', the victim of social injustice. As the story unfolds, the personal increasingly becomes the political; and the man whose `Hamletism', whose inability to act, is attributed at various times to personal inadequacy comes to be understood also in the social context of oppression. Sachs comes to see him not (or perhaps, not only), as a victim of himself, of a battle within, but of his circumstance and the battle that must be fought without. The psychological story is interwoven with the political. This comes out even more powerfully in Sachs's updated version of Black Hamlet which was published under the title of Black Anger in 1947 in which Chavafambira emerges as a politicised `New African'. As Rose comments, one interesting aspect of the book is the way that psychoanalysis is `offered here as a release or advance into freedom'.

This makes the question of whose story this is, raised by Dubow in his introduction, one intriguing aspect of the book. In this reflexive age, one reads it almost as a detective story, eager for clues as to the biographer's personality and social circumstance as much as that of the biographee. While Sachs assures us that this is `John's story, unaltered in its essence', the question of who is transformed and by whom remains with us. In this double story, in John's growing grasp on the problems that beset his life, we see also that of the analyst whose view of John changes from that of `psychoanthropological specimen' to an individual human being; a growing of human sympathy which finds expression in a move away from purely individual analysis to social analysis.

At the end, we are left with the question of who was John Chavafambira? There is collateral evidence that he was a real individual, though not that Chavafambira was his real name. Unfortunately, Sachs's early death left the story of Chavafambira unfinished and we know no more of his fate. This fact remains uncomfortable, inviting us, as the book does throughout, to examine the nature of the relationships we have as researchers with our subjects and informants. Sachs's brave foray into this area gives the book contemporary relevance. But this vivid reconstruction of a life, of an era of history, of a man trying to survive in conditions of extreme insecurity and of another man who tries to make sense of this existence is compelling on many levels.
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Author:Heald, Suzette
Publication:African Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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