Book review – A literary Molotov cocktail

2013-09-01 14:00

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Niq Mhlongo’s Way Back Home is his third novel, and it takes a more mature and long-term view of the past’s impact on our present.

His two earlier books, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears, focused more strongly on the struggles of the youth in post-apartheid SA, and his early work saw Mhlongo being dubbed kwaito’s answer to local literature.

His writing has received much acclaim, both in South Africa and further afield, and with this book he establishes himself further as one of the great new voices of South African fiction.

In a study weaving dark humour and personal tragedy with a few Kafkaesque turns, Mhlongo takes us into the lives of a new breed of South African personalities: the children of returning exiles whose parents lost their youth in foreign countries and in the trenches during the liberation struggle.

By straddling a plot that takes us back and forth between post-apartheid South Africa and the dark and still relatively unexplored world of life in exile, Mhlongo gives himself space to examine several interesting issues.

This includes the emotive issue of land redistribution and land claims.

But foremost among his concerns are the implications of old loyalties and friendships that were forged in exile on the behaviour of the new governing class.

Social fixtures like the self-righteous tenderpreneur in a 4x4 come to life in the person of the overweight protagonist, Kimathi.

He is named after Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi, a leader of Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army, otherwise known as the Mau Mau. Mhlongo’s Kimathi, who was born in exile in Kenya, is the embodiment of the restless ghosts of South Africa’s past, most of which are yet to be laid to rest.

Many of these ghosts come from what happened in exile and they haunt us now in contemporary South Africa.

Mhlongo spares no irony in his disdain for the ruling elite, who are only too happy to line their own pockets with no sense of obligation to “the masses”.

But the dominating theme is the brutality that occurred in exile.

There’s a remarkable scene at the Amilcar Cabral camp in Angola between comrades Pilate, Idi and Bambata.

Here Mhlongo opens a Pandora’s box full of the horrible things done to men and women by the armed wings of their liberation organisations.

This was almost Stasi-like in its efforts to “re-educate, reorientate, rehabilitate, rededicate (and) redeploy” them after they were found to have fallen foul of the movement.

Torture, betrayal and a diminished regard for notions of human rights in times of war are given a strongly South African flavour here and shine a light

on the uncomfortable fact that there was brutality on both sides of the apartheid war.

The writer also finds an opportunity to explore the dichotomous heritage of Western medicine and traditional healing practices in modern South Africa through a study of his characters’ psychological traumas.

His achievement in doing this, if only briefly, is to shore up their woundedness, which is profound.

One of the book’s best tragicomic moments is an episode involving a prostitute on Joburg’s infamous Oxford Road.

Kimathi finds himself drunk and finally in the company of his sought-after sex worker.

They are caught in an ambush by the police, who arrest them both.

Mhlongo then explores notions of self-interest and the bounds of loyalty in these street-corner sexual transactions.

He further foregrounds the attitudes of the nouveau riche and the institutional power of sadistic police personnel.

His literarycocktail thus offers a truly township twist to this dark tale about dehumanisation.

Mhlongo has never been more relevant for anyone with a thirst for such a self-defining voice in a nation that continues to struggle to articulate itself.

»?Mhlongo will be at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town this week, appearing at six different events

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