You choose: uncertainty in South Africa or free fall in America. Those are the options according to Danny Divin, the self-exiled white South African in David Schmahmann's "Empire Settings." In the end, free fall feels the most like home to him. Before he makes that choice, though, Danny weaves himself a safety net out of strands from the past and present, from loves lost and found. The question at the novel's close is whether the net will hold.
Danny's image of himself, on the one hand, and his Afrikaner birthright, on the other, play tug of war throughout this first novel. (Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa, and now practices law in Boston.) The pull is strongest when Danny falls in love in his late teens with a black South African, a love that is not only unwise but illegal. At one point, Danny reassures Santi, "Everyone will try to make [our love] impossible ... but it is not natural that love is impossible." Never mind impossible, back then their love was precisely "not natural."
Danny leaves for the US soon after his father discovers the couple and all but severs ties between them. Santi stays behind in the uncharted territory of post-apartheid South Africa. Never once, however, does she remove the heart-shaped necklace Danny gave her. When she and Danny meet again, decades later, she explains: "Even to this day ... I do not take it off. For you, but not only for you. For all the things that go to make up dreams, for the moments in my life when I thought that happiness had no boundary."
On one level, Danny and Santi's love is the story of South Africa, bound by past and present. For, in Danny's case, at least, their love is not only a past love, but love of a past long gone. The orderly, "everyone knew where they belonged" South Africa that Danny once knew no longer exists. Likewise, the family relationships that used to anchor him have either died or become deadening. The home he grew up in has been bulldozed. And the love of his life is a vivid memory. Slippery moorings at best.
That's why Danny ultimately sets sail for the present. His moral barometer helps him do this. "Even in a sea of ambiguity, when all bets are off, all reference points gone, there is still a right and a wrong," he realizes. His decision to honor that timeless truth frees him to face the future.
But the line between dreams and reality is not so straight and narrow as the one between right and wrong. Danny and Santi's love was never immoral, but it was also never realistic. The question remains whether or not it could be.
In its focus on South Africa, "Empire Settings" affirms Santi's assessment: "This country has made us all pay a terrible price for freedom." Black and white alike pay it every time they subdue the past for the sake of the present. The trick, Schmahmann suggests, is to subdue memory without wholly forsaking it. Far beyond borders of race and place, that is precisely the challenge we all face in conquering the inner empires of our hopes and dreams and hearts.
Danny has a lot to learn as he turns impetuously to greet tomorrow. Santi knows better than to confront it cavalierly. Together, they teach us volumes about hello and good-bye, holding on and letting go.
Trudy Palmer taught African American literature at Tufts University.