A potent memoir

2011-06-01 00:00

THE void of Zakes Mda’s title is a theme that runs through this potent memoir. It is the space between the outsider and the rest, but it can also be the space between memory and reality, hope and actuality, wanting and having.

And another important void that permeates this book is the void between the author and his father, A. P.  Mda. The elder Mda was a friend of Nelson Mandela, then one of the founders of the Pan Africanist Congress.

He was a respected lawyer in his exile in Lesotho, but he was a strict and forbidding father who inspired fear and respect rather than affection in his eldest son. Although the father is now dead, and the son has forged his own, highly successful life, the unfinished business is still palpable.

Mda is one of this country’s foremost writers, with Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness, T he Madonna of ­Excelsior and Black Diamond among his successful novels. But before that, he made his name as a playwright of the struggle. You might have thought that, post-1994, he would have been a darling of the local literati and of the new elite. But, as his memoir makes plain, he is a complex, outspoken and cantankerous man, and he has made himself unpopular in many quarters. These days, he lives mainly in The United States, although he returns regularly, partly to visit his beloved beekeeping project in the Eastern Cape.

It is visits to the Bee People, sometimes alone and sometimes with his current wife, Gugu, that provide a linking thread running through Mda’s narrative. The style is discursive, incidents on the road reminding Mda of incidents in the past, and slowly a picture emerges of a life. There were the early years of exile and political experiment; the slow search for a means of expression, ranging through art, music, poetry, theatre and fiction; the hard drinking, fast living and failed marriages.

It is the later years, once he has found his voice and, to a degree, come to terms with himself, that I found the most interesting. Autobiography is a strange thing: we all invent and reinvent ourselves in life, but in writing, the scope for invention is that much greater. So Mda’s honesty is disarming.

Any book that covers the period of Mda’s life in Southern Africa is, inevitably, a political book. But it is as a portrait of a man — difficult, spiritual but in no way religious, unwilling to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly — that Sometimes There is a Void is at its most compelling.

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