Adventures of a professional mourner

2008-10-02 08:05

Toloki, the professional mourner, made his first appearance in Zakes Mda's debut novel, Ways of Dying (1995). In Cion, he returns, this time as the narrator-protagonist, claiming that his creator (Mda), who has “delusions of Godness”, has transported him from South Africa and converted him into an itinerant professional mourner, currently in south-eastern Ohio. Professional mourning in South Africa has become boring, as deaths tend to be less violent and varied than in former times, and people are largely dying from the same undisclosed cause. In addition, Toloki is disappointed to discover that he has not invented professional mourning. It is a practice associated with many ancient cultures and is even alluded to in the Bible. Becoming an itinerant professional mourner, however, might well be innovative and is a convenient redefinition of self.

At the whim of his creator, whom he calls his “sciolist” (one who pretends to be knowledgeable and well-informed), Toloki finds himself in Athens, Ohio, on October 30, 2004. A chance encounter with a Halloween reveller, one Obed Quigley, leads him to spend the following year with Quigley's family in the hamlet of Kilvert. The hamlet's inhabitants claim descent from a mix of Irish immigrants, Red Indians, and mulatto and black ex-slaves - the last-mentioned having fled to these parts from slave-owning states like Virginia, via the Underground Railway, in the 1830s. Kilvertians in general, and the Quigleys in particular, respect the past, recounting the colourful stories of their ancestors and recreating the quilting emblems and patterns evolved by slaves as a means of providing cryptic clues for escape routes and tips for survival.

Mda's narrative moves between its setting in contemporary America - affording comment on Bushian shenanigans, religious fundamentalism and the power of the media - and flashbacks to the 19th century, which examine the roots of the Quigleys and their like.

While the figure of Toloki - with his melodramatic lamentations and ridiculous mourning costume - can hardly be taken seriously, and while he seems even to mock himself, the novel, as a whole, is a tribute to the ancestral dead. In recollecting them, their struggles and triumphs, the individual establishes and understands his/her identity.

Mda makes interesting observations - not least, on the process of creativity itself. However, the novel - peopled with an essentially whacky cast and written in a persistently mocking tone - ultimately fails to excite.

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