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A Human Being Died That Night (thoughts)

December 2, 2010

Apparently, this is going to be a week for me to gush about nonfiction! A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a slim book, but no less powerful for it. Gobodo-Madikizela is South African, with a background in psychology, and after the end of apartheid, she participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) set up to try to help society come to terms with its past. While this book includes stories of victims that she heard, as well as in her own past, it’s centered around her interviews with Eugene de Kock, an Afrikaaner counter-insurgency commander during apartheid who came to represent all of the violence of the regime. de Kock has been sentenced to over two hundred years in prison, and so in lieu of a pardon from the government (that he expects but that has yet to arrive), he will spend the rest of life locked up.

Gobodo-Madikizela visited prison to conduct extensive talks with de Kock, and from the book it’s apparent that she went with the intention of trying to understand what makes people do evil deeds. She found a man who had real regret for his past, and this touched her. Gobodo-Madikizela’s writing is incredible; she brings the reader right where she is, fills him with her emotions, and then proceeds to intellectual analyses. Here is the moment when Gobodo-Madikizela, and thus the reader, meets de Kock for the first time:

As he smiled shyly, perhaps politely, rising to greet me, I saw a flicker of boyishness, of uncertainty. At the same time, my mind registered “Prime Evil,” the name that marked him as the surest evidence of all that had happened under apartheid. De Kock had not just given apartheid’s murderous evil a name. He had become that evil. The embodiment of evil stood there politely smiling at me. 

I think what makes this book so powerful, other than the sheer perfection of Gobodo-Madikizela’s writing, is that she humanises de Kock, and looks at the societal context, without ever dismissing his crimes. The following passage struck me deeply:

De Kock’s given role, for example, as apartheid’s crusader indicates right away that he had a future of violence carved out for him by national leaders. Should he have resisted such forces as apartheid’s legalization of violence and the silent support by a society that benefited from the violence? Of course he should have. But could he have? Did he have the conviction to oppose the system he served? Did he have any of the unique resources that only the morally courageous-the few who have the courage to follow their conscience-possess in totalitarian societies? That one is not confronted with the choices de Kock could have or could not have made, that one was not a member of the privileged class in apartheid South Africa are matters of sheer grace. There is wisdom and insight in what Pulitzer Prize-winner Tina Rosenberg says, that we “who interview and write and judge, we are clear-eyed about the system’s evil. …We know how we would have behaved. It is [our] extreme good fortune that we will never face this test.”

The thing is, while this is a book about an evil regime, and the evil things people did in its name, and the evil things people suffered in its name, it is never hopeless. And I think that’s due to Gobodo-Madikizela’s focus on people, who survive, who repent, who have the potential for change. It’s difficult for me to explain what this book did for me; every time I try, it never quite comes out right. I find myself just wanting to share another long quote from Gobodo-Madikizela herself, since she put it all so well. But before I do so, I will try. This is a book that I think everyone should read: it’s as much about what it means to be human as it is about South Africa’s tragedy. I would often hold my breath while reading, I was so caught up with Gobodo-Madikizela and the experiences that she was conveying. I would also often reread a story three or four times, making sure I really felt it, following the example of empathy she creates. And so much of her writing had a powerful effect on me, I ended up typing out two full pages so that I could reread one story as much as I desire. I very rarely resent returning books to the library, but A Human Being Died that Night is one of those books: I wanted to be able to put it on my own shelves, to reread whenever I wish.  I hope that I’ve convinced you to pick this up. Here is a final passage, in which Gobodo-Madikizela explains her motivations for seeking de Kock out, as well as the common reactions of others who found out about her project.

Casting my professional interest in de Kock in terms of romantic motive (“in love with him”) or as something mysterious (“She’s so fascinated by him!”) makes it too easy for my listeners to distance themselves from the reality of interacting with the man. It allows them to dismiss my work as something unnatural, something kinky. It allows them to set it aside-to set me aside-as an exception, something allowable within the space of a soap opera irrationality, something on someone else’s screen. There is a charming madness to it. It closes off the possibility of any serious dialogue on the real subject of my visits to the C section of Pretoria Central Prison: to understand the inner mind of evil, to follow its thought processes, and to expose myself to its human face, stripped of media stereotypes and the easy distance of hatred. Connecting on a human level with a monster therefore comes to be a profoundly frightening prospect, for ultimately, it forces us to confront the potential for evil within ourselves. Compassion toward and hence forgiveness of people who have left a gruesome trail in their wake in effect brings “innocent” victims and wicked men together to share at a single common table of humanity, and that prospect is unpalatable. 

43 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2010 7:24 am

    Great review Eva, added to the huge amazon list – you always make me want to pick up non-fiction, something I rarely get around to doing x

    • December 4, 2010 8:05 am

      Thanks Katrina! I hope you love it as much as I did.

  2. December 2, 2010 7:33 am

    I actually just went to amazon and brought it for just a penny plus postage – bonus!

  3. December 2, 2010 8:11 am

    I’ve already added this one to my library list. Have you ever read We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch? It is a book that made a lasting impression on me. Thanks for a great review.

    • December 4, 2010 8:06 am

      I have! I read it for a college class back in 2004; it made a big impression on me too. In fact, it made me consider becoming a journalist (until I took intro to journalism the next term and realised it wasn’t for me)!

  4. December 2, 2010 8:47 am

    Sounds like quite a powerful book. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  5. December 2, 2010 8:49 am

    What an incredible review of a fantastic book! Sounds deeply profound and frightening in some sections — I’ve included this on my list for next year! Many thanks!

  6. December 2, 2010 10:14 am

    Wonderful review, Eva! The topic that the book covers is interesting, sensitive and thought-provoking. I sometimes think about such questions – is it good to follow the laws of the land, if they are not consistent with one’s personal moral standards? When does one follow the law and when does one say ‘No’? How can one predict one will be punished in the future, for following the law at present? Or is it all based on good fortune and luck – one has to just live one’s life based on what one thinks is right now and if in the future what one does is deemed illegal, then one learns to take the rough with the smooth – is that how it works? I keep thinking about such questions, and am not able to find any convincing answers. What do you think about them?

  7. December 2, 2010 10:55 am

    Ah, so this is the website that has the great picture of Sherman Alexie! Just wanted to mention that I recently read a very engaging book of interviews with him, Conversations With Sherman Alexie.

    One quote: “I always tell people that the five primary influences in my life are my father, for his nontraditional Indian stories, my grandmother for her traditional Indian stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and The Brady Bunch. That’s who I am.”

    • December 4, 2010 8:06 am

      That quote is great Shelley: thanks for sharing! :)

  8. December 2, 2010 10:57 am

    This is such a beautiful, thoughtful review. The book looks intense and interesting. Neat!

  9. December 2, 2010 11:56 am

    I love the quote about how those who romanticize or “quirkify” her motives dismiss the essential importance of what she’s trying to do. So often people very naturally want to distance themselves from the kind of ugliness that war criminals and human rights violators represent, and so when they hear about someone who voluntarily seeks these people out and tries to understand them, they want to push that away, to deny that that kind of work serves a function. “Better you than me” or “She must be crazy to want to do that,” even “She has this weird obsession with him” – statements like that can be ways of denying that thinking about the human potential for evil is important work, and that it’s an equally natural impulse to the desire to push evil away. Thanks for the thought-provoking review!

    • December 4, 2010 8:07 am

      I loved that quote too for the exact same reasons. And that she’s not afraid to address those tendencies…I think her background in psychology (v, say, international politics or something) really enriches the book.

  10. December 2, 2010 11:57 am

    Ohhhh I definitely want this a lot. It reminds me of Slavenka Drakulic’s They Would Never Hurt a Fly which I reviewed earlier this year (link goes to my review). It was about war criminals from the Balkans on trial in den Hague. Fascinating to think about how these people became the people who committed these crimes and why. Which is why this book is going high on my wish list now!

  11. December 2, 2010 5:06 pm

    wow, sounds fascinating. Read about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in THE FATE OF AFRICA. Sounds like a painful situation, and this book sounds like an important look at human nature.

    • December 4, 2010 8:08 am

      I’ve read two books on the TRC now, and this is definitely the one I’d recommend.

  12. December 2, 2010 5:30 pm

    You’ve convinced me, Eva! This book sounds amazing.

    • December 4, 2010 8:08 am

      Oh good: I hope you can get your hands on a copy!

  13. December 2, 2010 6:06 pm

    This sounds just stunning. I’ve been interested in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation for years. It’s such important work, I think, learning to show compassion toward not just the victims of a horror like Apartheid but toward the perpetrators. And it’s so unnatural to do so. I love that last line you quote:

    “Compassion toward and hence forgiveness of people who have left a gruesome trail in their wake in effect brings ‘innocent’ victims and wicked men together to share at a single common table of humanity, and that prospect is unpalatable. “

    • December 4, 2010 8:22 am

      So true Teresa. I think you’d love this book: do try to get ahold of it!

  14. December 2, 2010 8:54 pm

    Okay – I have once again added this to my list. Looking at the length of my list and how many come from your site I am tempted to ask you to either read a little less or don’t write as well as you do – but I won’t because it is such a highlight to come by and see what you come up with.

    • December 4, 2010 8:23 am

      lol! I’ve taken quite a few blog breaks this year, so if I end up having to take more that will give you a rest. ;) And thank you for the compliments!

  15. December 3, 2010 7:18 am

    whoa, going on my list now too!

  16. December 3, 2010 11:57 am

    Thank you for this review. I know what you mean about it being hard to express exactly how a book affected you and why it is so great. Whether or not you managed to put into words what you were feeling about it, you did succeed in convincing me to add this to my list immediately. It sounds like a powerful book.

  17. December 4, 2010 1:14 pm

    Blimey this sounds incredible! I will be adding this to the (never ending) list of books to buy when I am allowed once more in January 2011!!! Not long to go. It sounds incredible.

  18. December 6, 2010 7:32 am

    Well you’ve convinced me with that last quote. I’m always interested in seeing how people distance themselves from the evil of the past and why.

  19. December 10, 2010 1:18 pm

    This is such an important book because I think we must get to know these people who perpetrate such hateful acts on their fellow human beings or even the ones that stand by the sidelines and pretend they don’t see what is happening. We have to understand what makes these people tick or we will never be able to stop these things from happening again. I will definitely be adding this one to my list.


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