Christopher Hope Biography
Christopher Hope comments:
Nationality: South African. Born: Christopher David Tully Hope in Johannesburg, 1944; moved to Europe in 1975. Education: Christian Brothers College, Pretoria, 1952-60; University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1963-65, B.A. 1965, M.A. in English 1970; University of Natal, Durban, 1968-69, B.A. (honours) 1969. Military Service: Served in the South African Navy, 1962. Career: English teacher, Halesowen Secondary Modern School, 1972; editor, Bolt, Durban, 1972-73; writer-in-residence, Gordonstoun School, Elgin, Morayshire, 1978. Lives in London. Awards: English Academy of Southern Africa Pringle award, 1974; Cholmondeley award, for poetry, 1978; David Higham prize, 1981; Natal University Petrie Arts award, 1981; Silver Pen award, 1982; Arts Council bursary, 1982; Whitbread award, 1985; CNA award, 1989. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers Coleridge and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
A Separate Development. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1980; London, Routledge, and New York, Scribner, 1981.
Kruger's Alp. London, Heinemann, 1984; New York, Viking, 1985.
The Hottentot Room. London, Heinemann, 1986; New York, FarrarStraus, 1987.
My Chocolate Redeemer. London, Heinemann, 1989.
Serenity House. London, Macmillan, 1992.
Darkest England. New York, W.W. Norton, 1996.
Me, the Moon, and Elvis Presley. London, Macmillan, 1997.
Private Parts and Other Tales. Johannesburg, Bateleur Press, 1981;London, Routledge, 1982; as Learning to Fly, London, Minerva, 1990.
Black Swan (novella). London, Hutchinson, and New York, Harper, 1987.
The Love Songs of Nathan J. Swirsky. London, Macmillan, 1993.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Carnation Butterfly," in London Magazine, April-May 1985.
"Strydom's Leper," in Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa, edited by Sarah Lefanu and Stephen Hayward. London, Lawrence and Wishart, and New York, Pantheon, 1990.
Box on the Ear, 1987; Better Halves, 1988.
Ducktails, 1976; Bye-Bye Booysens, 1979; An Entirely New Concept in Packaging, 1983.
Whitewashes, with Mike Kirkwood. Privately printed, 1971.
Cape Drives. London, London Magazine Editions, 1974.
In the Country of the Black Pig and Other Poems. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, and London, London Magazine Editions, 1981.
Englishmen. London, Heinemann, 1985.
The King, the Cat, and the Fiddle (for children), with YehudiMenuhin. Tonbridge, Kent, Benn, and New York, Holt Rinehart, 1983.
The Dragon Wore Pink (for children). London, A. and C. Black, andNew York, Atheneum, 1985.
White Boy Running: A Book about South Africa. London, Secker andWarburg, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1988.
Moscow! Moscow! London, Heinemann, 1990.
Signs of the Heart, London, Picador, 2000.
Editor, Life Class: Thoughts, Exercises, Reflections of an Itinerant Violinist, by Yehudi Menuhin. London, Heinemann, 1986.
Writing has always seemed to me to be a rather mischievous occupation. I write not to change the world but to undermine it, since the models on offer seem pretty dull most of the time. Much of life is odd and disorganized. Many people who pretend to be sure about things are either ingenuous or wicked. They are also often charlatans. One wants to record their utterances as a warning to others.
I was lucky enough to grow up in South Africa, a place where the lethal folly of what everyone assured me was "normal" life outstripped even the most audacious imaginations. For a writer, this was wonderful training. It taught me about the sheer inventiveness of life. And it gave me a subject—the triumph of power and the terminal comedy provided by those who wield it.
* * *
Christopher Hope is a leading example of an important new group of white South African writers who have broken free of the traditional mold of liberal realism in South African fiction. These writers have cast off the predictable and often sterile tones of superior intellectual humanism or impassioned but helpless outrage against apartheid. Seen against the seriousness and moral sanctimony of the liberal idiom, Hope's writing is positively liberating. His vision is black, wicked, and surreal, and his satire and humor have a measure of viciousness that seems peculiarly appropriate to South Africa. In the case of two of his novels, A Separate Development, winner of the 1981 David Higham Prize for Fiction, and Kruger's Alp, winner of the 1985 Whitbread Prize for Fiction, one feels that here is a writer who has found a language of fiction that matches the system for ruthlessness, power, subtlety, and the ability to knock down targets.
Hope, who had been living in voluntary exile in London since 1976, recently moved to a remote village in rural France. Signs of the Heart is a non-fiction account of life in the village over the past few years of his residence there. It is populated with the types of characters his readers expect to find in his fiction. Two additional non-fiction works, White Boy Running, winner of the 1988 CNA Literary Award in South Africa, and Moscow! Moscow!, clarify his sentiments and political understandings about the new democratic South African government from his international perspective.
He also published several volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories, Private Parts. In the stories, as in the novels, Hope's unusual blend of familiar reality and bizarre, surreal inventiveness is apparent. Increasingly in his fiction, Hope has created a special space for himself halfway between the real and the bizarre while establishing newly capacious and flexible fictional conventions.
Like Herman Charles Bosman and Tom Sharpe before him, Hope demonstrates how endlessly funny South African life is when seen from a great and merciless distance. In A Separate Development the notions of mixed blood and miscegenation, so tragically dealt with by such South African heavyweights as Sarah Gertrude Millin and Alan Paton, become a mainspring for blackish and farce-filled comedy. The young first-person narrator, Harry Moto, thrives on irony and absurdity, having grown up as a white South African and then being forced to take refuge as a "black" denizen of Johannesburg. Moto scrambles the categories: his darkish skin and somewhat frizzy hair suggest certain irregularities in his ancestry, and through no fault of his own, he becomes a comic victim. In Harry, Hope achieves what has always remained impossible for South African writers in their more serious efforts, which is to combine or unify black and white experience. By discarding the heavy mantle of serious liberalism, Hope permits his character, Harry, who has grown up spending idle hours around swimming pools and ruminating about sex, to finally go "black."
Because of Harry's hue of skin, his sexual liaison with a wealthy white girl is humiliatingly close to sexual impropriety. Harry faces absolute disapproval from his parents, who see in him tangible evidence of their deep psychological fears about mixed blood. Harry disappears to become a black, working first as a runner for an Indian clothing merchant, and later as a "living proof" assistant to a man who sells skin-lightening creams to infinitely deluded blacks. He ends up as the invisible "boy" collecting trays from cars at a roadhouse, and finally as a detainee writing his story to stay alive.
If A Separate Development is an unusually deft first novel, then Kruger's Alp is a truly remarkable effort for a second novel. More "serious" in effect, the novel demonstrates literary artifice and fictional inventiveness of masterful proportions. Hope combines modern political mystery with historical myth, revelatory allegorical structure with acid-strength satire. This amalgam is based on a wide vision of present and past South African experience, in which social and historical myth is reformulated and given new meaning. As in Bunyan's Puritan allegory, A Pilgrim's Progress, the story begins with a dream of revelation leading to a physical journey of discovery to a mythic destination. Hope's main protagonist, Blanchaille (white-bait), is obsessed with the notion of escaping acute anxiety due to being part of a "despised sub-group within a detested minority [waiting] for the long-expected wrath to fall on them and destroy them." Blanchaille's anxiety is fueled by the news that a former friend of his, a top fiscal official, has been murdered, apparently by his own government for political reasons.
As boys, Blanchaille and the murdered official, Tony Ferreira, both served under a prophesying and idiosyncratic Irish priest, Father Lynch. Lynch preaches the truth about a great hoard of gold gone missing. The president of the Transvaal republic during the Boer War, Paul Kruger, is reputed to have taken the gold away with him into exile in Switzerland. As interpreted in this novel, Kruger is supposed to have established a "shining city," like the "celestial city" in The Pilgrim's Progress, for white South Africans seeking an ultimate haven after lifetimes of trekking. Ferreira is killed because he uncovers massive irregular spending on huge projects to buy world opinion (the situation is closely modeled on the Information Scandal that rocked South Africa in the late 1970s). Blanchaille undertakes an allegorical journey of revelation to Kruger's "white location in the sky" in Switzerland, traveling even deeper into the heart of the mythic secrets of white South African existence.
In The Hottentot Room a group of South African exiles find a fellow sufferer in Frau Katie, a German Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany. Frau Katie presides over the Hottentot Room, a London club for South African expatriates. The novel's protagonist, Caleb Looper, is an expatriate who joins the club, but he is a spy for the South African regime, while the regulars of the club are enslaved to illusions about themselves and their former homeland. These illusions, as well as the secret of betrayal in their midst, all find a correlative, or mythical resonance, in Frau Katie's story. But there is self-deception at the heart of her sustaining myth, and a complementary self-deception in all the "Hottentots" who use her story for their own ends. The novel is an intricately patterned fable that says much about the condition of exile.
Hope's next work, Black Swan (a novella), exhibits his satirical and ironic skill at its pared-down best. The story of an idiosyncratic black township boy who wants to be a ballet dancer but is eventually executed exhibits Hope's ability to create fictions that reveal the victory of the cruel over the poignant in South African life.
My Chocolate Redeemer tells the story of a friendship between a French-English girl and the deposed head of a black African state. It is set in France and a fictional African country called Zanj, and relies heavily on principles borrowed from the New Physics about truth being a function of observation. It would appear as though Hope may be trying to move away from South Africa as subject matter, but My Chocolate Redeemer lacks Hope's usual ironic punch, and survives merely as an odd but forgettable novel by an excellent writer. It is followed by the redemptive Serenity House, which was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize, about Old Max, the giant of Serenity House, North London's "Premier Eventide Refuge," who might have been left to die in peace. Old Max's son-in-law Albert, an MP with an interest in the new War Crimes Bill, has other ideas.
Darkest England deals with South African and British racism and hatred shortly after the South African democratization. The story begins with the narration of a UN observer during the first free election in South Africa; nevertheless, it presents the point of view of a Bushman tribe. The tribe challenges modern Britain to uphold a nineteenth-century promise to protect them from the Boer, consequently mounting an expedition in the 1990s to Britain. The bulk of the novel is therefore set in Britain and is written from the perspective of the bushman. After arriving in Britain, he passes through detention centers and immigration procedures. The bushman interprets the harsh treatment he receives as hospitality, even, ironically, as special consideration, because of his faith in the British promise of aid.
Me, the Moon and Elvis Presley begins during 1949 in Karoo, a remote village of Lutherburg. Old Aunt Betsy acquires a little servant girl at a bargain price of six bars of soap. Forty-five years later, when Lutherburg becomes Buckingham, its new deputy-mayor, Mimi de Bruyn, is disturbed by identity problems. In a typical Hope paradox about South Africa, the protagonist is plagued by the past as well as haunted by the future. Mimi suspects she was the lost child sold into semi-slavery, but no one will speak to her of the old days. Mimi also seeks proof that new Buckingham is an improvement over old Lutherburg, when Pascal Le Gros, dressed entirely in white, becomes her love interest. He is a dreamer, disgraced lawyer, and presents a stout lunar image representative of Elvis Presley. Elvis is an apt figurehead for the new Buckingham as the novel moves between past and present while humorously surmising the future.
Christopher Hope states that politically pivotal nations, such as South Africa, Poland, and Russia, have a nostalgia for the future while they overcome the haunting of the past. He is keen to observe how quickly the white populations have adapted to the new policies in South Africa, despite their deepest objections during that time of "racial lunacy." People in the outside world, he points out, approvingly pray that nothing disturbs the optimistic change of governments. He views the change in South Africa from Europe and quotes the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry to describe his forebodings about the future of South Africa's new democracy: "the future is not what it used to be." Those governments that don't change, like North Korea or Cuba, become quaint outposts of an outdated past and political system. Perhaps South Africa was the final cause for outrage by international liberalism, and Hope's sarcastic fictional commentaries may illustrate this "disturbing" state of world calm.
—Leon de Kock,
updated by Hedwig Gorski
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