Book review – A small, existentialist look at the modern SA

2013-05-05 14:00

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Nthikeng Mohlele’s second book, Small Things, reveals a subtle and, for me, unexpectedly well-developed literary talent the cover did not prepare me for.

Had it not been for a few lavish words of praise from JM Coetzee on that cover, it would have passed me by and gone to the City Press books cupboard, which is where a book can sadly spend a few months in the purgatory of hoping an office staffer, with time on hand, will read one and rattle off a review.

But from the opening paragraph, of a man whose knees “are molten with love”, to the words of the final page, “these whitened bones, charred by the sun”, I found myself gripped by this rare novel with its great cynicism, lyricism and unexpectedly modern South African themes.

An unnamed protagonist spends 18 years imprisoned under apartheid laws, but doesn’t emerge to a life of comfort, instead wandering from one misfortune to the next as a tragicomic figure worthy of some of the most existentially absurd creations of Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky or even Coetzee himself.

Nthikeng explains that “the fact that there is a post-revolution dispensation, a democratic state, does not mean all revolutionaries, who suffered great turmoil and sacrifice, are well and good. I wanted to explore the lingering aftershocks, the psychological craters, never to be fully covered, left by totalitarian governments on citizens.”

His short tale constantly challenges the reader to unravel layer after layer of meaning, to arrive at the age-old question of whether there is any point to any of it at all.

But the bluntness of such a question is tempered by the almost brutally playful attitude of the never-named narrator’s refusal to react “normally” in the face of misfortunes that would drive someone else to despair.

When he is stabbed near Nelson Mandela Bridge, by a “dark figure”, he baffles the police by not showing much interest in whether his assailant will be caught or not – and that’s just one of many such reversals of reader expectation.

After reading this rather sombre story, it is surprising to hear Mohlele say he is “very upbeat” about present-day South Africa, “all its fault lines considered”. “But artists have a duty,” he says, “no matter how meagre, to reflect the totality of a lived social experience, the unpleasant bits included.”

So he’s quick to distance himself from too close an association with the narrator: “The story is told from the point of view of a very damaged and embittered character. And a pinch of salt is in order.”

For me, one of the most striking aspects of the book is how the narrator stubbornly refuses to call in political favours from “fellow comrades” like a “Comrade Q” – even when he has become little more than a beggar on the street, has almost died and has even lost his dog in a scene so ironically and pitifully unfair (having his loyal pet instantly “expropriated” by a white guy on a motorbike) – but still, he will not call in favours and lives for his true passions: music, poetry and an impossible love.

Thus, this is a vivid commentary on how one should be able to find something worth living for, without needing to “be connected” politically.

Mohlele describes his mystery narrator as “an extreme, often key, in attaining selflessness and ethical leadership”, but this man’s nobility of character seems to be something few African leaders seem to have the courage to live up to.

And, in losing their grip on getting “small things” right, the coherency of the big picture can start to unravel.

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