The characters in Patrick Flanery’s novel seem unable to believe in the possibility for grace evoked by its title. Absolution follows two white South Africans, Sam Leroux and Clare Wald, as they try to make sense of both their interlocking personal histories and their ties to the violent politics of their nation in the apartheid- and post-apartheid eras. As the novel’s multiple plots unfold, absolution—for crimes both personal and political—is desired but also deferred, an infinitely vanishing point toward which Flanery’s characters move without hope of arrival. Professional story-tellers of different sorts, Clare and Sam nonetheless seem to have lost faith in narrative’s ability to capture the truth. And without truth, the novel suggests, what kind of absolution is possible? The question clearly resonates in the South African context, but it is not always clear whether Flanery wants readers to apply his characters’ dilemmas to modern life more generally.
The novel’s narrative threads are complexly interwoven. Ostensibly, professional causes bring the protagonists together: Clare, a novelist, has reluctantly acceded to have her biography written and has chosen Sam, an expatriate academic living in the US, for the task. Sam’s and Clare’s first-person narratives in the novel’s present are spliced with sections that narrate Sam’s childhood experiences in the third-person and with excerpts from a fictionalized memoir that Clare is about to publish and that, in a further twist, is also entitled Absolution. Quite early in the novel, Flanery lets readers know that Sam and Clare have more than professional ties, but their personal connection comes to light sooner rather than later, serving as a less significant driver of the plot than subsequent, more significant revelations that entangle them further.
In her first-person narrative, Clare is the character more obviously seeking forgiveness. These sections detail her wary interactions with Sam, whose scholarly acumen she regularly insults, but they also trace her pained attempts to understand her daughter Laura, an anti-apartheid militant who went missing years before and is presumed dead. Clare wants to understand her daughter’s actions, which she describes as “both too great and selfless as well as too dishonorable and horrific to be called heroic” (253). Even as she grapples with her inability to prevent her daughter’s turn to violence, Clare seems to envy her clarity of purpose. The sections drawn from Clare’s version of Absolution cast her as the victim of a home invasion—a common occurrence given the tense racial situation of contemporary South Africa but also, in Clare’s version of events, an act of revenge for careless remarks, made decades earlier, that may or may not have led to the murder of her sister and brother-in-law. As Clare meditates on Laura’s inarguable guilt—the “dishonorable and horrific” guerrilla campaign in which she was engaged—she considers her own more questionable culpability as mother, sister, and novelist under apartheid. Unsure how to fix the blame for crimes undertaken on behalf of a greater good, Clare is also anxious because she does not clearly have a crime to which she can confess. “Even if the crime is not a crime as such,” she tells her son, Mark, “I do and can only regard myself as guilty of something like criminal negligence, or if not negligence, then recklessness...” (287). Absolution, these sections suggest, is elusive but also desirable, because it can retroactively invest one’s actions with significance. To seek to be absolved, for Clare at least, is to make a claim that one has done something, that one is not, as she intermittently fears, “[n]othing but a paper tiger in a paper cage” (349).
Sam’s sections heighten the narrative’s suspense by revealing glimpses of his own relationship with Laura, of which Clare is imperfectly aware. They also narrate his awkward reacclimation to life in a country that is less racked by violence than in his childhood but still charged by an atmosphere of constant danger. Sam’s pursuit of Clare is both dogged and diffident, and the narrative provides little clarity—which Sam himself does not seem to possess—about what exactly he wants from her. Dated sections that fill in the gaps in Sam’s childhood help clarify some of the tensions in their relationship, providing details of a further connection between Laura and Sam’s parents, also ANC militants, who died during a botched terrorist operation.
Initially, readers expect Sam to serve as a foil for Clare, whose habitual narcissism and tendency to evade responsibility establish her unreliability as a narrator. But as the novel progresses, Sam’s status as the diviner of the truth erodes, and he ultimately seems, if not disinterested in the truth of the past, mistrustful that the truth can bring any consolation—or absolution. The complexity of the novel’s plot seems designed to amplify the question, on which Flanery repeatedly focuses, of how the stories we tell ourselves are fragile and vulnerable to distortion. Describing her Absolution to Sam, Clare classifies it as “a weird hybrid of essay and fiction and family and national history… both fiction and something that is not quite fiction but less than proper history or memoir” (341). Here, generic hybridity functions, as the novel’s fractured points of view also function, to undermine the ideal of an accurate and full reporting of the past.
The South African context puts added pressure on the situation: Flanery alludes to and provides fictionalized excerpts from reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), that entity charged with suturing the past’s wounds via their narration. If the TRC’s work was premised on the assumption that a full account of past horrors could serve as an adequate alternative to the more exacting pursuit of justice, Absolution questions the ability of story to be so faithful to history as to provide liberation from its claims and costs. At the same time, Flanery’s characters exhibit no post-modern playfulness about the truth. Rather, Absolution depicts individuals for whom the truth’s inaccessibility causes an anguish that registers as a flattening of self, an inability to grant either desire or despair the authority to anchor identity.
At the center of the characters’ lives—and at the center of Absolution itself—is therefore a kind of nullity. Absent a robust sense of truth, notions of responsibility are leached of meaning, leaving absolution an absent presence. Hearing his mother’s confession of her past errors, Mark declines to dignify them with the status of crimes: “You have overplayed your role in history, Mother,” he tells her, “and I suggest you do nothing else but get over it” (349). Sam gets at the crux of the problem when he articulates how his life has been shadowed by a notion of accidental harm:
Accidents were always happening. He had come from a country of accidents. He tried to understand what this meant. It seemed to mean that no one was ever responsible for anything if only you could tell the truth and most of all if you could say you were sorry. But he had not told the truth and he was not sorry.
Sam’s focus on the accidental echoes Clare’s description of her own actions as “careless.” For these characters, the links between causes and effects are not only uncertain but ultimately inaccessible. Framed by a theologically resonant concept, the struggles of these characters play out in a resolutely secular world. Sam and Clare cannot imagine making sense of all that has gone wrong in their lives by making an appeal beyond the contingencies of history. The accidental is that for which no one can be blamed, for which absolution is beside the point.
At points, Flanery seems to want to distinguish Sam from this economy of the accidental. Sam, after all, “had not told the truth and he was not sorry.” One way to understand Sam’s flatness as a character is to see him as unwilling to forge an identity, as Clare does, by glamorizing mistakes as crimes. But Sam proves as unable as the other characters to pinpoint tragedy’s causes by applying to the past a richer moral vocabulary. If absolution’s grace seems inexplicable to these characters, so is the notion of evil. Violence past and present pervades the novel like a smog, its causes beyond pinpointing. Despite his exposure of the fiction of the accidental, Sam tries to mitigate the horror of his parents’ violent death for his American wife by explaining that “You have to understand it in context. It was an accident. It wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did” (277). Without a more nuanced way of understanding the damage people can do to one another, Sam is as unable as anyone else to resolve the past’s ambiguities, or to extend or accept absolution. The question of how things went so wrong for him, for his parents, and for Laura—and hence the possibility that those wrongs can be repaired—must go unaddressed.
At the level of plot, this means that the novel’s climaxes, moments when scraps of truth finally emerge, are curiously understated. Readers may well find themselves frustrated as the characters seem unable to acknowledge the stakes of the truths they learn—an inability that ultimately feels like an evasion, on the novel’s part, of defining absolution in this starkly-lit, Godless world. Flanery has set up his characters’ interlocking problems cleverly, but Absolution ends by refusing to grant the truth, as it has come to be understood, any purchase on the characters’ outlook. “I am prepared for the biography, when it finally appears, to bear no resemblance to the drafts he shows me,” Clare muses in conclusion. “I hope that will not be so, but as much as I have—almost despite myself—come to love him and believe all that he tells me… I do not trust him, and never shall” (386). Unabsolved, ungraced, untrusting, Absolution’s characters end up much as they began: alone with their own ambiguous versions of the truth. It is not always clear whether Flanery wants readers to see their predicament as unique to the South African context or part of secular culture more generally; the novel’s setting gives him a fertile ground for raising questions about the road from truth to reconciliation, but its lingering ambiguities mean that readers may not understand how precisely to get from there to here.
Joanne Myers is Assistant Professor of English at Gettysburg College.