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Death in the New Republic: ‘A scathing commentary on contemporary issues’: Maureen Isaacson

Death in the New RepublicMeet Nossel, the NIA pariah turned super-sleuth

BY MAUREEN ISAACSON in the Sunday Independent – July 22

At the helm of David Dison’s controversial debut novel, Death in the New Republic [published by Jacana], is “the once great” Nossel, a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) agent who falls foul of the law for cooking up hoax e-mails to trap corrupt politicians.

That Nossel, who later became known as Comrade Golfer, committed a crime for the greater good is a reflection of his own over-reaching ambition. Super-naive, he played into the hands of the corrupt. He was big on street smarts but short on sense. Why had he failed to notice that the New Republic had brought about reversals? Fat-catism had replaced altruism. Corruption and venality were the modes du jour.

“Your dissolute life is a product of never heeding the wake-up call,” the ever-introspective Nossel tells himself. Nossel’s tragic flaw, along with his arrogance, was blindness. He simply could not see it coming; the reversals, the revolution eating its children, the newly empowered biting the hand that once fed them and depriving their own people. Still, he wants to believe that the 90-year history of the struggle is “too rich to be usurped by a bunch of opportunists”. But his crime is an indictment of the untenable greed that had begun to corrode the New Republic.

“Oh the fucking slavish trendoids of Johannesburg. The new corporatists have what they have always wanted and boy could they ram it down your throat!”

Nossel’s internal voice provides a scathing commentary on contemporary issues. It’s often harsh, alternately self-pitying and amusing with a clanging ring of authenticity, and I wonder if this is Dison talking about himself. So I’ve invited him for a drink at Johannesburg’s Melrose Arch. A lawyer of considerable skill, Dison averts obvious questions about the coincidence of
autobiography and fiction. Not given to filling in the dots, Dison says that Death is a work of fiction; he does not want to speak about his own life and he neatly defers my questions to Nossel.

Nossel read backwards is lesson and he is apparently using his downfall and his pariah status as an opportunity to do a whole lot of soul-searching. He had taken on a case for a devious bunch whom he calls Pollo and the gang; it involved 6 000 ex-political prisoners who were “being ripped off by selfish black billionaires”. The case reminded him of his civil rights work during the struggle – it was he who identified the body of Neil Aggett, the trade unionist and doctor who was the Ché Guevara of his generation and who died in jail in 1982. And he got plain carried away.

Playing Robin Hood to the former Robben Islanders, a master of the universe, his modus operandi ran away with him. He’d had a bad transition and an attitude to match;he was skating close to the edge. He was on the verge of busting the fat cats when he himself was bust. Hung out to dry by the NIA, by colleagues, by so-called friends, he sank like a stone.

As he was suspended, trashed, he was crowned with disgrace and something that looked like humility. But he has gained insight: he has realised that his brand of missionary zeal had less to do with the equality that was his mantra than he believed. It was about the one-upmanship
that comes from rescuing others from their victimhood.

Flagellating himself, Nossel tells Nossel he should have been a Paris missionary seeking out “ubuntu man” in Africa. Exile was grim, and the humility of becoming one of the masses was a long time in coming.

But it wasn’t all gloom. The passion of his marriage was rekindled and his children made him laugh. Nossel presents a cynical view – it takes in the sham of the new Aids missionaries, who seek to score political points through the appropriation of the struggles of the poor.

Aside from the role-playing and the political correctness that has run roughshod over the humour that was once played out in publiclife, Nossel finds plenty to be angry about. But while he is about it, he gets stuck into some Aids activism to make up for his shameful refusal in his former life to see that Aids deaths were “threatening to destroy the fabric of the new society”.

Licking his wounds now, he’s moving out of victimhood, edging back into urban life; he comes to as a professional blunderer. Then he stumbles upon the murder of a man called Cleva in the Wilds, a botanical garden so dangerous that nature lovers are obliged to survey its beauty under police guard. Thus begins his life as a detective. The murder takes him out of himself
and leads him on a trail of fine quality Swazi dagga – all the way to London where young British drug barons are making instant fortunes.

This is a complex story, juxtaposing neatly the recognisable and the unexpected; a “golfball fisherman” who lives in a hut in the Wilds, a dodgy cabinet minister who is supposed to be keeping an eye on the ministry of safety and security. But the department’s rank and file is crawling with rubbish, the security forces are stacked with leftovers from the old forces, who now organise crime and run global syndicates. “And in the midst of our exuberance over the negotiated settlement, we forgot to root out the torturers. How could we have been so careless?” This is Nossel’s anguished reflection when he realises that the drug squad employs methods used by the old Special Branch.

And the more things change, the more they don’t. This is not to say that they stay the same, rather that history repeats itself in different ways in this story about shattering reversals. Death is humorous and it is also dark, and it seeks to break new ground. It’s not high lit, its style is rough and ready; it’s an offbeat political crime thriller; it’s a brave book with a great deal to say and not all of it popular.

Through Nossel, Dison introduces the profile of the well-off Jewish liberal who ardently wishes
to make reparation for his privilege. In our interview, Dison says that Nossel’s is the classic liberal petit bourgeois position: the desperate consciousness of the legacy of inequality and the wish to contribute. This vision itself is embarrassing, because the newly enriched do not necessarily wish to be reminded of the past.

Dison describes Death as “a love letter to Johannesburg”, the frontier town to which his own ancestors, like Nossel’s, came from Lithuania in the 1890s. Minority history is an
essential piece of the country’s brickwork, Dison says, and he wanted to restore its place there.

Johannesburg is a central character, and he wants to project it onto the world stage. In Death he has presented an idealised version of the city; focused on its scenic beauty. In reality, it is choking with crime and Inspector Nxumalo, the good cop who knows his beat is, of
course, also an idealisation.

In Death, Dison looks at the failure of the formal judicial system and its failure to deal with corruption. “You can buy the cop you pay all the way to death,” he says.

Dison speaks, too, of the failures of the ANC – “which has not been a force of social welfare” and which has let down many of its intellectual members who, unlike the movement’s
top dogs, do not say that they “did not join the struggle to be poor”. Nossel has finally understood that he cannot carry the world.

He has calmed down, thank God, about Nossel and Nossel and Nossel. And I believe that he will reappear in a second book, less introspective,more proactive, and moving into Africa.