We are our omissions. Or, to put it more precisely, we—ultimately and alas—become our omissions. At least, if we are writers of serious fiction, we run that risk. Because literary biography and criticism, already strongly inclined to forensic approaches, are now operating well beyond the familiar territory of the standard authorial shortcomings and sins of commission, out in the horizonless region of the social lacunae discoverable in even the most celebrated oeuvres. No need to belabor the point. Here’s a random sample of such lacunae: Jane Austen (plantation slavery), Joseph Conrad (race), a good part of the nineteenth-century pantheon of American writers (slavery, race), George Eliot (deficiencies in women’s educational access), Henry James (the injustices of the class system), most postwar German writers (the horrors of the Allied bombing campaign).
Contemporary writers, going forward, will prudently wish to become as comprehensive in their acknowledgment of prevailing evils as they can manage. And how can that be a bad thing? But applying the category of omission to fellow writers in real time feels awkward and unfair. I know because I’m about to do that to two novels out of post-apartheid South Africa—two accomplished, vivid, skillfully made novels by Zakes Mda, wherein, it seems to me, a great omission intersects detrimentally, profoundly detrimentally, with Mda’s achievements and objectives in writing these books.
Speaking of unfairness, too much is expected of post-apartheid black literature. The community of serious readers, and bien-pensants everywhere, eagerly await the works that will dramatize truths about the spectacular dismantling of the old regime, about a victory won and consolidated with so much grace and forbearance, about the new society under construction. We want the voices of Gordimer, Brink, Coetzee to be matched, surpassed, by new black voices. So it’s to be expected that the first fruits by writers creating in the new era will be candidates for overpraise driven by the emotion of welcome, or underpraise if they are seen to fall below certain standards. Great events don’t necessarily produce great literature, but we want this one to. It’s useful to keep this in mind in assessing Mda’s work and the great acclaim it has received to date. He has won every major literary prize South Africa has to offer. And, of The Heart of Redness, the front flap copy concludes with, “It is, arguably, the first great novel of the new South Africa….”
Mda’s novels, Ways of Dying (1991) and The Heart of Redness (2000), could be described as fables. The first is set in East London, on the Indian Ocean and Cape Town, more than five hundred miles away, during the early stages of the final transition to black rule. The second is set in the hinterland of the Eastern Cape, after the accession of the African National Congress to government. It isn’t exactly an omission, but it is a disappointment that only one narrow aspect (violent conflict between Zulu migrant workers and Xhosa squatters) of the liberation struggle is reflected in Ways of Dying, and that in The Heart of Redness the liberation struggle is treated as external, something over with, whose only apparent result, at least to the jaundiced eye of the book’s hero, has been to raise an unpleasant, self-serving new elite to power. Both books tell stories of true loves finally found, prosperity and right vocation achieved.
Ways of Dying is the lesser work. Toloki, a cheerful lost soul, a short, fat, ugly, initially malodorous man in exile from his home in the Eastern Cape and living on the streets of an unnamed port city, probably East London, crosses paths with a beautiful woman from his past, Noria, a homegirl now living in a squatter settlement. They are both in their late thirties. Undistracted by the violence surrounding him, he finds, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, love and potential wealth, and experiences a renewal of his long-dormant artistic powers.
Toloki is the rejected and abused son of a blacksmith who, when Toloki was a boy, turned away from his trade of shoeing horses and mending farm implements and began obsessively and unprofitably forging images in iron and brass representing strange beings described to him by the spirits. He was able to create these figurines only when the child Noria was singing wordlessly to him. She was, for most of her childhood, shanghaied by Toloki’s father for this purpose. Toloki, himself artistically talented, won a calendar art competition sponsored by a white-owned milling company, which somehow provoked the brutal beating from his father that drove him into a wandering life.
In the city, mishaps repeatedly thwarted the virtuous, entrepreneurial Toloki, until he had at last invented for himself a profession, one truly novel in southern Africa. Inspired by the frequency of violent death in his world, he set himself up as a professional mourner, someone hired to express grief lavishly at funerals, in which capacity he reencountered his childhood friend Noria as she buried a young son executed by members of what Mda refers to as “the political movement,” meaning the armed youth squads of the African National Congress. They connect, and the story proceeds.
Mda is adept in his use of flashbacks. The courtship-success storyline is intercut with scenes from the past lives of the two main characters, most of them featuring violence, cruelty, hard-heartedness, abandonment, or rejection. In toto, they make up a spectacle of injustice rooted directly, by Mda’s account, in black mores. The white oppressor classes are only twice implicated in these recalled horrors, and in only one of these cases is there no black accomplice. Here’s a partial census of the events that have affected the lives of the main characters: competition between village choirs leads to murder…. A violation of the protocol governing the rank order in which bereaved sons should be shaved preparatory to a funeral leads to the beating death of the family patriarch…. Serial killers murder children for body parts to be used in muti (witchcraft)…. Noria’s father attempts to rape the nanny Noria has hired to care for her first son….
Noria’s husband abandons her and takes their child with him to employ as a prop in a panhandling scheme, but, after work one night, he ties the child to a pole in a culvert and goes off to drink, discovering on his return that the boy has been eaten by wild dogs…. Noria’s second child, five years old, goes to a marshy area near the squatter camp to torture frogs but is taken by ANC youth militants who punish him for his contact with Zulu migrant workers by necklacing him, having the petrol-filled tire set alight by a seven-year-old playmate of the boy…. The same militants who have murdered Noria’s child burn her shack down for good measure…. A dispute over a tin of beef leads to a massacre…. White cops force black taxi drivers to copulate with corpses, just for fun. No reader can miss the degree to which the bulk of this violence is home-grown.
But life, of course, goes on. The spirits come through. Toloki’s dead father appears in the dreams of a rich landsman of Toloki’s, instructing him to collect the hoard of figurines left behind at his death and convey them to Toloki, on pain of having the landsman’s pet fleas die. A mountain of figurines appears in Noria’s yard. They will be valuable to collectors and museums. Toloki and Noria unite. She takes up singing wordlessly again, allowing Toloki to recover his artistic powers, but at a higher level, since he can now sketch human beings, which he had been unable to do as a child. The figurines glow in the dark. The local children laugh. All ends well. There is even a suggestion that in future the tire-burnings will be just for fun, as they are on New Year’s Eve, and not for murder.
You leave Ways of Dying feeling tricked, in a way. Certain things are clearly missing. For example, in the panoply of unnecessary deaths, not one person is a victim of disease. There will be an echo of this oddity in Mda’s next book. But set that aside. Somewhere in this book a U-turn has taken place. What seemed to be a narrative tending toward radical statement, toward a critique of the violent tendencies entrenched in the culture and of the opportunities they opened up for a white state eager to exploit them for its own dying purposes, evaporates. Mda turns away from that suggestion, much as his character Jwara the blacksmith turns away from the world of work and toward fantasy. Mda finally seems to be saying that if violence is in this particular people, then so is the answer and solution to violence, in the form of the people’s gods and ancestors. The spirits will deliver. A reader hesitant to draw this blunt conclusion will console him- or herself by recalling that Mda has chosen a naive narrator, a displaced peasant like Toloki himself, to tell the tale:
Boxing Day. One of those senseless holidays when we do not bury our dead. Like Christmas Day. Instead we go for what we call a joll. All it means is that we engage in an orgy of drinking, raping, and stabbing one another with knives and shooting one another with guns. And we call it a joll.
Noria threatened to give him a thorough hiding. He cried and asked for mercy. Noria decided not to punish him. At least he had not gone there [to the march] with Danisa. She did not want to answer to ‘Malehlohonolo if the children drowned, or if anything terrible happened to them. Things of that nature spoilt friendships.
The reader assumes that these attitudes, the narrator’s, do not represent the author himself, which leads to the related assumption that neither should the militantly nostalgic thesis that offers the Xhosa gods and ancestors as a kind of solution be taken as the author’s personal solution. The Heart of Redness sheds light on this matter.
The Heart of Redness is a more complicated work. It aims higher than Ways of Dying. Both books are metaphors for what has been called “the African predicament.” Ways of Dying, to enhance that reading, employs a genericized setting, without place names, recognizable monuments or buildings or streets. The African National Congress is referred to as “the political movement,” Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as “the tribal chief,” Xhosas as “the southern people.” A government death squad is characterized as including “foreign mercenaries from a destabilized neighboring country.” The Heart of Redness unfolds in recognizable locales—Johannesburg, briefly, and then Qolorha, with the city representing failed modernity, and the rural village balance and social renewal. All the characters in Ways of Dying are peasant types and they may be understood as collectively embodying a paradoxical Xhosa bundle of destructive and redemptive tendencies and potentials, with a bias toward the redemptive. The main characters in The Heart of Redness function as exemplars of distinct, antagonistic positions on the true meaning of progress and the value of ancient ways.