Barry Gilder's The List, released in September 2018, might soon be made into a TV series. Picture: SUPPLIED
Barry Gilder's The List, released in September 2018, might soon be made into a TV series. Picture: SUPPLIED

If there is one thing to say for Jacob Zuma, it’s that there is no limit to his shenanigans as a source for entertainment. He is giving satirists a bad time: how can they hope to compete with these constant affirmations that reality is stranger than fiction?

One narrative, the strangest of all, of the sleeper agents waking up 30 years later to visit commissions and court cases upon him will be getting the strongest legs, not because Zuma’s desperate tales are worth investigating, but because a TV series along those lines is already in the making — if the marketing is to be believed.

An outfit called Known Associates Entertainment (was the irony intended in the naming?) optioned the rights to develop Barry Gilder’s novel, The List, into a series, his publisher, Jacana Media, announced in June. The producers have been named as Joel Phiri, Tshepiso Sello, Dan Jawitz and Vanessa Jansen.

The list in the novel refers to a number of sleeper agents who had been planted in the ranks of the ANC by apartheid intelligence operatives who were hedging their future under an inevitable ANC government. It falls upon the hero of the novel, Jeremy Whitehead, as part of a team of sober-minded deep loyalists, to find them. A rogue unit, then, but a sincere one.

Gilder is a former deputy director-general of the National Intelligence Agency and now heads the Mapungubwe Institute. He takes care to state that his story is fictional. In other words, he doesn’t necessarily believe himself. It earned him an MA in creative writing at Wits University and is quite competently written with some dexterous flash-backing.

We follow the characters through set pieces in the spy-thriller genre, the escape across the border, the meetings in London bars, the counterspies observing meetings in London bars, laying into luxury drinks, secret hideouts, double-edged seductions … these are seamlessly integrated and the reveals are spaced at just the right intervals to bring a leisurely measure of suspense to the novel.

There is a little too much attention to dry detail, but it does add to the authenticity since that is what spies have to do — obsessively pay attention to detail. Now that Gilder has cut his teeth, he might chance his arm at a wider range of literary tricks, which it seems he would be well capable of.  

It is also a political novel: Gilder hints at his literary allegiances by quoting the Marxist critic Gyorgy Lukacs, and sections remind one of his term “transcendental homelessness … a nostalgia that feels itself and its desires to be the only true reality”.

One character makes much of what Fredric Jameson called the political unconscious — Gilder’s man suggests that is what spies should be after: a “role in understanding the forces, the dynamics, the dialectics beneath the surface”.

So, then, does this novel have a similar role to play? Gilder’s characters are confronted with “the Signs”. In ordinary life, signs have diversiform potential — they can become metaphors, metonyms or symbols — but in Gilder’s hands they become indexical, they get to stand for one specific thing. The name on the list revealed by some chance encounter with a Paulo Freire article in an ANC magazine is that of a sleeper agent, nothing else.

They rise to the surface, in other words. We have to take them or leave them, but because we have suspended our disbelief, we take them. It is a sleight of hand that may just be a new thriller writer doing finger exercises, or one who is familiarising us with an idea, quite possibly that because there is a threat, there has to be a revolution still happening.

Equally problematic is the assumption that the old intelligence formations have gone underground and are capable of launching operations that can threaten the ANC government. It is true that the author can make his characters do what he wants, as he claims in the afterword. But a political unconsciousness gets dragged to the party anyway, an affirmation of the old order, of evil apartheid formations versus the revolution. 

What we have not addressed will certainly rise up to menace us
Mandla Langa

This is Lukacs’s nostalgia, and Gilder lets transcendental homelessness be the endgame when Whitehead ends up in a London dive, signalling a longing for exile perhaps? The novel is a symptom of deeply conservative thinking, avoidance of contemporary challenges that complement the avoidance of other uses for signs than the indexical. It is an avoidance that is at the heart of ANC thinking and that made a kakistocracy like that of Zuma possible.

Representing apartheid formations as still alive and kicking implies there has been little change since 1994. It implies whites, as the beneficiaries of apartheid, have not been adapting or still harbour ill will against the new dispensation. In some cases that still is true, and denial of racism is a lingering factor in all our lives. 

But while Gilder makes sure his cast of characters is not divisible along the lines of race, religion or gender, by keeping alive the old narrative of apartheid as a vampiric force waiting to be wakened from its grave, he posits an enemy that in the real non-nostalgic SA is greatly diminished. Of course, on a global scale, the forces of ethnonationalism have been on the rise, but the links with SA are tenuous. In SA the only nationalism with significant power is that of the ANC.

In the end, it amounts to a shirking of duty, which is a nice way to say “cop-out”. There are many other potential forces, dynamics, dialectics a spy/author might target: US neocolonialism, Chinese expansionism, global crime consolidations, surveillance capitalism, Russian revanchism … the old guard of spies in SA is just too small-fry.

In the foreword, an approving Mandla Langa writes: “The narrative … alerts us that the fact that what we have not addressed will certainly rise up to menace us”. Can there be a greater menace to SA today than Zuma and Ace Magashule and their impimpi stories?

Then again, the novel was conceived in 2013 and is a debutant’s entry into the world of Englit. Then again, especially among some English speakers, there is a need to keep the apartheid monster alive as it is their alibi against their own colonial complicity in all the ills still making the lives of their mostly black compatriots miserable. In that sense, too, this is a deeply conservative-minded novel — and perhaps the real political unconscious at work?​