Country of My Skull

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I just finished reading Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog and thought I would share my favourite passages. The book plunges into the intricate workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to show the atrocities committed between 1960 and 1993 during Apartheid. Through testimonies of victims and perpetrators a haunting history is sketched. The book touches on themes of truth, forgiveness, morality, Christianity, racism, pain and memory.

“Identity is memory… Identities forged out of half-remembered things or false memories easily commit transgressions.”

“It will sometimes be necessary to choose between truth and justice. We should choose truth… Truth does not bring back the dead, but releases them from silence.”

“The forgiveness of sins makes a person whole.”

“In the beginning it was seeing. Seeing for ages, filling the head with ash. No air. No tendril. Now to seeing, speaking is added and the eye plunges into the mouth.”

“The academics say pain destroys language and this brings about an immediate reversion to a present linguistic state- and to witness that cry was to witness the destruction of language… was to realize that to remember the past of this country is to be thrown back into the a time before language. And to get that memory, to fix it in words, to capture it with the precise image, is to be present at the birth of language itself. But more practically, this particular memory at last captured in words can no longer haunt you, push you around, bewilder you, because you have taken control of it- you can move it wherever you want to.”

“What kind of hatred makes animals of people?”

“For me, it’s a new beginning… It is not about skin colour, culture, language, but about people. The personal pain puts an end to all stereotypes. Where we connect now has nothing to do with group or colour, we connect with our humanity…”

“To reconstruct your  memory, to beautify it, is an ordinary human trait, says the psychologist.”

“Oral narratives… are driven by remembered core phrases and images that carry the distillation of the entire story. From these cores the action, the characters, the conclusion all unfold. And though the narratives may differ on the information they bear, the core elements stay the same. They overlap.”

“The truth is validated by the majority… Or you bring your own version of the truth to the merciless arena of the past- only in this way does the past become thinkable, the world becomes habitable.”

“It is almost impossible to acknowledge that the central truth around which your life has been built is a lie. At the risk of the disintegration of your self-image, you would rather keep on denying any wrongdoings.”

“Is truth that closely related to identity? It must be. What you believe to be true depends on who you believe yourself to be.”

“Each word is exhaled from the heart, each syllable vibrates with a lifetime of sorrow.”

“Is the individual merely a puppet in the hands of politicians or appointed authorities? Or is the individual, soldier or comrade alike, ultimately responsible for his own actions and deeds? Is the phrase ‘I was only carrying out orders’ a good enough reason for having committed murder?”

“Central to Tutu’s life and thought is his appeal to society to move beyond racial distinctions as determinate of human identity. People should not kill because they are black and white, but they should rejoice in how they are created differently so that new meanings and identities are always possible… I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”

“‘It is difficult to interpret victim hearings,’ he says, ‘because you use the first person all the time. I have no distance when I say “I”… it runs through me with I.”

“Psychologists say that the action of eating, of taking in food is simply enchanting- because it’s the way we can take up the world inside ourselves, how what is around us becomes part of us. We eat the world.”

“My tongue paralysed in a fucking second language.”

“On the board the psychologist draws an iceberg, with its tip sticking out above the water. This tip, he says, is the part of themselves people show to the world- friendship, integrity, compassion, love, honesty and so on. Hidden from the eye are the other things: hatred, dishonesty, anger… But normally within the iceberg there is continuous movement between theses two spaces: as a person you can easily access anger and show it, then you become yourself again. ‘The moment you experience something traumatic, then the ice packs in between these two spaces and you can no longer access anger, hatred, jealousy. Every traumatic experience packs the ice thicker. But your body is not stupid- your body knows. And the cooped-up emotions manifest in physical symptoms.'”

‘The more you empathise with the victim, the more you become the victim; you display the same kinds of symptoms- helplessness, worldlessness, anxiety, desperation. But for some people it is so unbearable being a victim that they become a perpetrator instead. You get rid of the pain by putting it into someone else, you become violent and make someone else your own victim.”

“I am busy with the truth… my truth. Of course, it’s quilted together from hundreds of stories that we’ve experienced or heard about in the past two years. Seen from my perspective, shaped by my state of mind at the time and now also by the audience I’m telling the story to. In every story there is hearsay, there is a grouping together of things that didn’t necessarily happen together, there are assumptions, there are exaggerations to bring home the enormities of situations, there is downplaying to confirm innocence. And all of this together makes up the whole country’s truth. So also lies. And the stories that date from earlier times.”

“Because always, always in anger and frustration men use women’s bodies as a terrain of struggle- as a battleground.”

“It is only when men in prisons are forced by sodomy to behave like women that they realise how it is to live with a constant awareness of your body and how it can be abused and ridiculed.”

“A myth is a unit of imagination which makes it impossible for a human being to accommodate two worlds. It reconciles the contradictions of these two worlds in a workable fashion and holds open the way between them. The two worlds are the inner and the outer world.”

:Every morsel, every molecule is being struck by perfection and imperfection- there is not a single atom that you can pinpoint and say: this is absolute evil and this is absolute good. Good and evil is never absolute. Every good is imperfect in its own way and every evil has an underlying potential to be good.”

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Author: Antjie Krog
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