My Reflections on Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog
Country of My Skull is a 1998 nonfiction book by Antjie Krog primarily about the findings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The book is, in reality, an intersectional, interdisciplinary analysis of the Commission's potential and realized effects on post-Apartheid South Africa.
The book can be understood as having three main elements: First, it is a collection of accounts from the TRC hearings - direct testimony of the terrible human rights violations on all sides of the struggle against Apartheid. Second, it is an exploration and analysis of political and moral philosophy relevant to, inspired by, and grounded in the TRC (see President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Third, it is biographical, in terms of the author being extremely honest, open, and self-analytical about her own position and experience relative to the TRC - racially as a white Afrikaner, professionally as a radio journalist, emotionally as someone grappiling with her nation's bloody past, and personally as her experiences covering the TRC affect her intimate life.
Country of My Skull is written as an amalgamation of journalism, prose, personal narrative, and poetry - all of which Krog has been celebrated for - with the goal of capturing the overwhelming moral, emotional, and historical complexity of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa.
In 2004, a film based on the book, called In My Country starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche was made.(wikipedia)
I just finished Country of Skull. This book is just a rather ‘odd’ book. I don’t think I have ever read a book before this diverse: straight-forward report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s sessions, Krog’s own narrative and analysis embedded throughout the book, first-hand quotes and narratives of the survivors and family members of the victims of the apartheid and poetry. This book is just full of very many voices and unbearable anecdotes in the form of quotes. Honesty, while I was reading County of my Skull, I got to a point where even seeing the quotation marks or the italicized texts. These first hand narratives really made me as a reader (as a person who is voluntarily exposing herself to the experience) shiver and feel overwhelmed. The imagery is brutally real and it is as if the text does not give you any alternative other than imagining what you are reading. (i.e. “They held me…they said, ‘Please don’t go in there…’ I just skipped through their legs and went in…I found Bheki…he was in pieces…he was hanging on pieces…He was all over…pieces of him and brain was scattered all around….that was the end of Bheki” (39)
After I finished the book and thought about my experience as a whole, I started to think she claims authority in the way in which she confronts us with a very diverse image of the TRC. In a way the book is to a certain extent recreation of the dynamics of the TRC: an opportunity for many survivors during which they could speak out and talk and get it all out...but this opportunity was limited…instead of names, victims became a few lines or pages of violent death stories….only a step further than names…still very unsatisfying and even anonymous…
Krog writes, “If the TRC is regarded as an effort to create a forum for victims to bring some form of balance to the political ideal of amnest, then the commission succeeded in a most remarkable way. The experiences of the victims did indeed become part of the national psyche and part of our country’s acknowledged history for very fist time. But in terms of repairing and healing the trauma of the victims, the TRC itself was the first to declare that this was, singularly, its biggest failure” (285)
I read some reviews of the book and it seems like most critiques say that Krog’s book is an attempt to bring out the stories of the survivors in a collection of such and to make them heard by her readers. While I agree with these critiques, I also think that her narrative is somewhat restricted and unsatisfying and that she has done that intentionally. The intention, it seems to me, is to transfer the feeling of sitting through those long, rather judicial and formal and extremely emotional of the TRC. She also succeeds in demonstrating the restrictions that the survivors went through for even telling their horrifying stories. There were too many of them. They had no way to not lose their individual voice and story and to become a collective past experience and voice both in the TRC and in the book.