SA diplomat turns dramatic past into page turner
Barry Gilder has seen many things in his time, and they form the basis of the riveting events in his new novel, At Fire Hour. Born to Jewish parents in Durban, whose own parents had come to South Africa from Lithuania, he says Jewish history was one of the earliest influences on his perspective of the world.
“I learnt about the persecution of Jews, and I looked around me, and felt like the black population were going through what the Jews had been through,” he says.
This thinking set him on a trajectory that ultimately saw him join the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, train as an intelligence officer in Moscow, and have a long career in intelligence, including as deputy director-general of the South African Secret Service, deputy director-general of the National Intelligence Agency, and South Africa’s co-ordinator for intelligence.
He’s now South Africa’s ambassador to Syria and Lebanon and lives in Damascus. Having been in the role for four years, he has never feared for his safety, he says, not from the civil war that has long raged there, nor because he is a Jew.
His time in exile was one of the defining factors of his life, and it was filled with many contradictions: being outside South Africa but fighting for its future; the close camaraderie between struggle activists but haunting suspicions of infiltration and betrayal; and the tension between making an impact through art, politics, or both.
These are the themes that Gilder brings to his new novel, his third book, which he says explores many of these opposites and in some ways stems from his own experiences. “I even feature as a walk-on character,” he says. However, the novel’s main character, Bheki Makhathini, is a man in his own right – a poet in exile suspected of betraying the ANC. The novel features Makhathini’s poems, making him all the more real, and Gilder says the story explores many themes, including loyalty, dedication to the cause, the role of the artist, and love in times of turmoil.
The hard-hitting and powerful prologue, set during the “twilight zone” of lockdown in 2020, is a breathtaking and riveting opening scene. The narrative then dives into the past, equally powerful and poignant.
Gilder says the novel’s title comes from the poem by South African poet Arthur Nortje: “And let no amnesia/attach at fire hour: for some of us must storm the castles/some define the happening.”
“He’s saying that some must fight, and some must record what happened in our art, but I did both,” he says. This tension in how one can make the biggest impact and if one can play many roles in revolution, are key aspects of the novel. It was only recently that Gilder heard these lines and knew that in them lay the ideal title for his book.
The questions that the book raises are questions Gilder has asked himself his whole life. When he was exiled in London in 1976, he helped lead cultural protests as a musician, travelling throughout Europe to perform anti-apartheid songs. His music gained worldwide recognition and provided hope to those suffering under apartheid. He sang his songs at protests and concerts, and believed in the quote by Victor Jara: “If the guitar is to be a weapon in the struggle, then the person behind it must be a genuine revolutionary.”
He therefore travelled to Angola to start his training in 1979. “I couldn’t claim to be a member of the ANC if I wasn’t willing to put myself in the same danger as the rest of my comrades,” he later said. He wanted to train like a soldier and fight in the “war” against apartheid. He ultimately undertook any job the ANC enlisted him in.
Before going into exile, Gilder played a leading role on the national executive of the National Union of South African Students. After returning to South Africa in 1991, he worked with the Matla Trust, set up by Nelson Mandela to provide voter education, and went into intelligence.
Gilder believes the ANC is still at war, but this time with itself, and that today’s ANC is completely different from the ANC that fought against apartheid.
He says his mother once visited him long after her own father had passed away, and revealed to him that her father had been a communist, deeply involved in the Jewish Bund movement in Europe. “She had never told me that before. I had no idea,” he says. “She was always anxious that I could be in danger, and said that she thought his politics had been passed down to me genetically.” Gilder also remembers his grandfather’s furniture store on Jeppe Street, and the generous, respectful way he treated his many black customers during apartheid. “That definitely had an impact on me.”
He didn’t choose Syria and Lebanon when he took up the role of ambassador, but he quips that when he presented his credentials, they said, “You’re the right man for the job!” He has found the experience challenging but fulfilling, “and Syrian food is wonderful”. There’s also a long Jewish history in Syria, and he has even visited an old synagogue in Aleppo.
His novel formed part of his PhD in creative writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, and he wrote it between diplomatic commitments. It involved some planning, but mostly he just sits down, writes, and sees what happens. Often, he’s surprised by the characters he meets, the things they do, and what happens to them. He plans to continue writing novels. His advice to aspiring writers is to “just write”, as that will eventually open the door to a story you didn’t even know was there.
He hopes the book will appeal to people from all walks of life because it explores history, art, and politics, and is both “a love story and a human story”.