It was in the summer of 1996, just a few days shy of my 12th birthday, when I read my first serious book. I picked up Dambudzo Marechera’s Mindblast or The Definitive Buddy from the bookshelf in our family home because I was curious about the cover, which had a man-sized rabbit in a pinstripe suit.
The book was a collection of plays, poetry and fiction, and I read it until the early hours of the morning. I was never quite the same after that. It was like that moment when a nonbeliever is converted to a new faith and gains a different perspective of the world. For the first time I understood that literature is not just necessary for one’s education, but vital toour wellbeing. Great books, like all great art, teach us something profound about what it means to be human.
This brings me to the epicentre of this reflection: Masande Ntshanga’s elegiac debut novel, The Reactive. Winner of the 2013 Pen International/New Voices Award for his short story Space, Ntshanga has crafted an astoundingly brilliant novel, radiating with understanding and compassion. It fulfils William Faulkner’s injunction that “the poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man; it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail”.
Set in Cape Town in the years before anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) became widely available, The Reactive centres on Lindanathi Mda, a young man haunted by the hand he played in his brother’s death at an initiation school in the Eastern Cape.
“Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I told Luthando where to find them,” he says in the book’s startling opening lines.
A page later Lindanathi describes with tenderness how it happened: “It was raining when the bakkie took him on its back and drove him up the dirt trail. Inside the camp, they put him in line with a set of boys he shared a classroom with. Then they took out their blades. Afterwards, they nursed him for a week, and he kicked and swore at them for another two. They called him the screamer, they told us later, when we gathered together to put him inside the earth. Maybe it was meant with tenderness, I thought, the kind of tenderness men could keep between themselves in the hills.”
Without giving away too much of what happens in the book, Lindanathi escapes to Cape Town and turns his back on his family.
He ends up running a scam selling ARVs and getting high (mostly on glue) with his friends Ruan and Cecelia. This is until he gets a text message from Luthando’s stepfather, which places him at a crossroads – to return to his family or to continue with his self-destructive life.
When I met Ntshanga at an anarchist bookshop in Lower Main Road, Observatory, in Cape Town, he said The Reactive was born partly from paying attention to the suffering of those around him. “It’s a struggle to survive for everyone,” he said.
The manuscript for the novel formed part of his master’s in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, but he had a difficult time writing it at first. He had moved back in with his mother in the Eastern Cape after completing the first year of the MA programme with the intention of producing a draft of the novel, but he found it hard to get going. So much so, it led to a time of deep introspection and soul-searching.
From an early age when he wrote “novels” in his A4 exercise books, Ntshanga had always known he wanted to be a writer. He published his first short story in the now-defunct annual Laugh It Off when he was still only in his teens. But now, standing on the threshold of his dream, the 28-year-old suffered a crisis of confidence.
Once he overcame his doubts, Ntshanga said he “wrote the first section [of the book] in almost one go”. The result is an immaculately written novel about loss, community and redemption.
There is a dark, yearning thread running through much of contemporary South African fiction at the moment. You can sense it in the works of Songeziwe Mahlangu (Penumbra), Niq Mhlongo (Way Back Home), Ishtiyaq Shukri (I See You) and others – a hunger for something redemptive in the midst of so much that is contrary.
Ntshanga and his narrator find their way out of this malaise by sharing in the suffering of others.
I found myself holding back tears when I finished reading the book. There are many moral challenges presented by living in a country like South Africa with glaring material differences between people. Every day, you have to steel your heart against someone else’s suffering. It’s no coincidence that Ntshanga’s protagonist is named Lindanathi. It means “wait with us”. And that may be the most compassionate thing one can do.
by Masande Ntshanga