Thirteen Cents by K Sello Duiker #6_2015

Thirteen Cents

Thirteen Cents is a shock to the system; a punch to the solar plexus; a very grim read but brilliantly executed. It is written from the perspective of a homeless, twelve year old boy Azure, pronounced  Ah-zoo-ray, as he tells us, who has to think of himself as a man. It is set in a Cape Town that is very different from the one many readers know. This book was published in 2000 and I have been asking myself why I have not read it before, especially as it is highly acclaimed and I knew this. After the first few pages, I realised why I had avoided it for so long. I have an aversion to novels where taking drugs is a strong element; not sure why, but I do not like reading about people in drug induced states. I know I should not limit myself this way but, after all, I read for enjoyment as well as for illumination. Azure also hates drug-taking though he likes zol.

The feat of having written this book is quite amazing; K Sello Duiker gets right into the head of Azure, or Blue, as he is later dubbed. It is written in the present tense, which gives it an immediacy, and simultaneously describes his movements and his thoughts, the questions he asks himself and his commentary on his life and situation. His thoughts jump around apparently randomly in a stream-of-consciousness way but without the obscurity sometimes encountered with the use of this narrative device. Azure has an unimaginably tough life; the things he has to do simply to eat are horrific but, worse than this, are the gangsters with whom he has to interact and who rule over him. Despite his tough, aggressive exterior he is also naïve in some ways, trusting some people that are not at all trustworthy.

He has to go to great lengths merely to get a pair of shoes; he tries many different avenues only to be thwarted at almost every turn. Yet he narrates his obstacles in such a matter-of-fact way that it reinforces the heart-breaking hardship of his situation. He says “grown-ups are strange people” as if adults are a completely different race that is beyond his comprehension. In this regard no doubt we can all agree with him.

The sex and violence are extremely graphic so this novel is certainly not for the faint-hearted nevertheless it is worth overcoming this barrier to get to know this boy, Azure. He crawled under my skin with his alternating innocence and cynicism. He has to endure dealing with people who are irrational, violent and treat him in the most extreme and cruel way. Imprisoning him, starving him, assaulting him. And for no very good reason other than that they can and to exercise their own power or exorcise their own demons. He becomes nothing but a message to others. It is truly awful. I find myself cringing with every blow.  He retreats into his mind to survive. In one incident he is locked out and left on a roof of a building for three days with nothing to do but watch the “men pigeons …always trying to screw the women pigeons”. He hates pigeons and believes they are rats with wings so when the seagulls arrive and “terrorise the pigeons”, he is delighted. He relates to the seagulls and finds them beautiful because “they always wash at sea with cold water”. As he does. Passages like these simultaneously show his ignorance and his wisdom while his mind and imagination help him carry on.

Later he journeys up Table Mountain in a mad frenzy to escape Gerald, the psychopathic gangster who re-named him and made him fear for his life, every second of the day. He keeps staring directly into the sun “with open eyes and feel[s] energy going through…[him]”. He experiences dreams and delusions interspersed with real moments. It is powerfully portrayed.

The blurb on the back cover tells the reader that “K. Sello Duiker was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa, and went on to study journalism at Rhodes University before moving to Cape Town. His varied experiences while living there form the basis of Thirteen Cents.” I cannot help wondering how he experienced the life of street children as the brief bio here gives the impression that not only was he very well educated but also that he grew up elsewhere. However he did it, it is certainly a masterful interpretation. I will never again look at the young boy walking past me with broken shoes and grubby clothes without wondering how he came by those shoes and where he manages to wash himself.

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Ancient Rites by Diale Tlholwe #5_2015

ancient rites

Ancient Rites is an absolute gem. I discovered it just the other day at Bargain Books. When I saw the book, I remembered I had put it on my TBR list ages ago (probably around 2008 when it was published), after reading a glowing review but had never come across it in a book shop. It is said to be a detective novel which it certainly is not. If a novel has a character that is a detective and a murder is committed then, lo and behold, it’s a detective novel. The writers chosen to comment on the book in the flyleaf are crime novelists such as Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and Mike Nicol. Perhaps the idea is that, as crime novels sell well, this is a good way to market the book. This is quite misleading as Ancient Rites is more than this; it’s about relationships and their undercurrents, it’s about the hybridisation of cultures, it’s about vocation and healing, and how to find meaning in our mixed-up world. One could even argue that it is a feminist novel as it subverts the usual male domination one expects to find in a community such as this.

Thabang Maje, the main protagonist, is a burnt out disillusioned teacher who ‘prematurely retired from teaching’ and works for private investigators chasing debt and the like. He is asked to go to Marakong near Mafikeng to investigate the disappearance of a teacher, Mamo. This teacher happens to be someone he knew and loved at university. He is introduced to the primary school and the community as a temporary replacement for the missing educator, his undercover guise. He first meets one of his pupils, Jan-Jan Mothibi, a boy with the ‘delicate features of the Khoesan’ and recognises in him ‘the look of a people who sensed that when humanity finally gathered around the last fire, they may be absent, their tongues long stilled and their last prayers heard’. This sentence cut me to the quick with its evocation of last days couched in lyrical language. There are many examples of this sort of writing that jolt the reader into deep recognition of his meaning. Yet this is counterpointed by extremely funny descriptions of other people and situations.

He is introduced to the other two educators. The drawing of these characters is marvellous; Tlholwe does not simply describe the characters but in a few words manages to contextualise them so the reader almost immediately knows and can visualise the characters; men with their pretensions, their idiosyncrasies and their conceits laid bare; these ‘three African men standing in the cold in a barren school yard on the edge of the new South Africa, trying to look dignified.” His dry, sarcastic wit that describes their actions is both amusing and apt but there is an underlying affection and knowingness in his mockery.

It seems as if Maje does not investigate so much as he is investigated. The Molefe family, to which Mamo belongs, draws him in and he learns a little of the dynamics between two small villages where rumour and superstition have been fuelled to create tension that leads to tragedy.  Furthermore, as well as Mamo being missing, prostitutes have been murdered. Maje visits the nearest town, Bullsdrift, and consults with the police officer, a woman, who makes him question his prejudices towards policewoman, a woman who he recognises is “helplessly watching her community slide towards dissolution”. The female characters in this novel are very strong, though not without flaws, while most of the male characters are insecure in one way or another beneath their blustering masks.

Maje’s investigation becomes an exploration of the people and their various circumstances; his thoughts on everything he sees are a social commentary illuminating the effects of modernity on society. He learns much about himself too, progressing from spending a lot of time “excavating fragments of a bitter-sweet past” to a mental state where he could see his future more positively. It is this that puts the novel into a category other than crime fiction. For some reason, I am reminded of Bessie Head’s, Mara.  Perhaps this is due to the setting being close to Botswana and the people being Batswana with a sprinkling of Khoesan. The writing is rich and lyrical with creative, unusual metaphors.  It is these aspects that transport me to a different world.  I feel a part of it. This is what I love about reading.

 

 

 

Finders Weepers by Penny Lorimer #4_2015

Finders Weepers

Seeing the last three books I read were all rather harrowing in different ways, I decided an escape into the slightly unreal world of crime fiction was required. I found that the escape was short-lived; Finders Weepers may be centred on a crime but typical crime fiction it is not. I found myself caring way too much about the characters than I usually do when reading crime fiction; I usually care more about the outcome and the fact that I can whiz through the book in a relatively mindless way.

This book takes the main protagonist, Nix, into the rural remoteness of the Eastern Cape to find out why the daughter of her mother’s friend is missing. Nix is of mixed Xhosa / German parentage and was raised in the home of the people where her mother was a domestic worker. This device allows the writer to get away with Nix’s diction being closer to that of an English speaker than a Xhosa speaker; it also means that she has her own set of demons to lay to rest as her mother had been very secretive about her life and had divulged nothing to Nix. I really liked the parallel thread of Nix stumbling across her own relatives and how this is woven into the story. It was also a nice touch that she initially used her German name so the various people she interviewed would not know she understood Xhosa. Eavesdropping is always fun. Nix is a likeable character, if a little flippant; when describing the school of which the missing woman, Boniswa, is the new principal, she says, “The missionaries had chosen a beautiful site. Pty about apartheid.”

Although the plot centres on Nix’s search for Boniswa, the current issues in our country around education, teaching, child-headed households and poverty, play a very important part in this novel. In trying to find Boniswa, Nix interviews teachers, the pastor, neighbours and some of the learners. It is through their voices we gain a sense of their lives. The various women are interesting, real characters but there is also balance in that there are some such as Ms Peanut Butter Pheza who are awful. (Love her nickname though). Two of the learners, Lulu and Elias, are also very appealing which makes the eventual outcome quite sad. I will say no more on that score lest I spoil the story for future readers. There is a great diversity of people in this novel of many different backgrounds which reflect the reality of our country and shows that very few people, no matter which language they speak or where they come from, have a single clear identity.

The text is also interspersed with letters from the missing Boniswa to Dr Pauline Wilson. At first, I found these letters annoying as they seemed a little wooden and also spelled out so many things in South Africa that most of us know. Then I realised that Dr Pauline Wilson is American and so Boniswa had a reason for stating the obvious. Probably for overseas readers, this would be helpful in contextualising certain incidents in the novel. Though I did think that sometimes, certain myths that circulate were propagated. For example, the reason given for Boniswa struggling to find a cleaner to work at the school is that people live on government grants so they are happy to get by on that. That is ridiculous as the government grant is a mere pittance and anyone eligible for it would need and, most likely, want, to augment their income.

The dialogue brings the characters to life and I enjoyed the smattering of Xhosa which was usually followed by the English translation; this worked well and did not make it stilted. There were times when some of the characters went on a long diatribe about an issue which did not work as well; it was as if the writer’s opinions were showing. Despite that, Finders Weepers is a good read with enough suspense and scary moments to keep you turning the page and hoping against hope that Bonsiwa is found.

Do Not Go Gentle by Futhi Ntshingila #3_2015

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Do Not Go Gentle by Futhi Ntshingila is a gut- wrenching novel. It tells the story of Zola and Mvelo, a mother and daughter with no resources struggling to survive in Mkhumbane township. I had no idea that this place I know as Cato Manor has a Zulu name. (I drove past it this morning and smiled to think I had just learnt something new about a place near which I have lived for years).

Mvelo is raped by a pastor. The language used to describe the horror of rape is so apt. Without any graphic detail which could possibly sensationalise the act, the writer focuses on the effects. The rapist “plunged hurriedly and brutally tearing her world and her illusions to pieces”. Those words rip into me and I feel the pain of this fourteen year old girl with the sole responsibility of nursing her mother, “the one that is sick with the three letters”. She wants to hide it from her mother but Zola knows “that something terrible and ferocious had touched her daughter’s soul”.

The way FN writes about Zola, both when she is alive and afterwards at her funeral gives a face and a personality to the anonymity of AIDS. We get to know her as a rounded human being who has touched many lives in her own way, who has loved and been loved, been rejected and hurt, who has beliefs and idiosyncrasies that are unique to her. For example, she is terrified about being buried in a coffin and begs her daughter to ensure that she is buried in a blanket. Apart from really enjoying getting to know these characters, I also think reading a book like this gives the reader a different perspective and can help in breaking down the typical prejudices that exist towards people such as shack dwellers and aids sufferers.

After Zola’s funeral, the narrative goes back to when Zola was at school and all that transpired in her life. Sipho is a major player both in her life and too many other womens’ lives. Noncebo, one of these women, is another fascinating, strong-willed character who often thinks very differently from those around her and is not afraid to speak her mind. There are many strong women in this book; women in dire straits who nevertheless display great courage and strength of character.

Possibly some of the characters are a little preachy, as if the writer is using a character to put across views she holds. I do not mind this because I like to know different ways of looking at things that are counter to the dominant narrative. For example, Nonceba lectures Sipho about wanting to send Mvelo to a private school as she believes it would be better for her to go to a township school. She says, “why pay thousands of rands for fees, transport, endless field trips and even salaries for private tutors when you can fix a school here”.

Perhaps too, some of the coincidences and revelations are a little too convenient though, after such a harrowing narrative, a little redemption does not go amiss. Despite this, the characters are convincing and I became immersed in their lives. There is a different sort of authenticity at play when the writer knows the community of which she writes.

A book worth reading.

The Thunder That Roars by Imran Garda #2_2015

The Thunder That Roars

I really enjoyed this book. It tells the story of Yusuf Carrim, a young South African man from a Muslim background, who is a journalist living in New York. He finds out that Sam, a Zimbabwean man who has worked for his family as a gardener since Yusuf was a child, is missing after having travelled to Libya. He feels drawn to return to South Africa to help find him. In the very first chapter, I was reminded of Fugard’s ‘Master Harold and the Boys’; maybe it was partly because of the name Sam as well as the almost fatherly role this man adopts with the 9 year old Yusuf. Although, Yusuf is nowhere near as dreadful as Hally was to his Sam, betrayal is a theme that runs through the story.

In trying to find Sam, Yusuf stumbles upon family secrets that will shake his sense of identity and lead him to dangerous places both physically and emotionally. It is a story of our times in a global sense touching on many of the upheavals of the 21st century such as the Arab Spring, displaced people and refugee centres. It is also a story that is deeply rooted in our apartheid past and the devastating effect it had and is still having on people’s lives. The propensity for instant gratification that the media satisfies, whether through talk shows or Twitter, is another thread that situates the novel firmly in the 21st century

One of the aspects I enjoyed about The Thunder That Roars is the way it gives a voice to those that remain marginalised twenty years of democracy later. The dominant narrative about so many things in South Africa still seems to be from a white perspective, whether this be Zimbabwean politics or affirmative action. The writer’s depiction of the racist attitude of the man sitting next to him on the flight to Bulawayo is perfectly executed, I hear people talking this way about Zimbabwe often. This is counter-pointed by Sam’s uncle, Skuzukuduma, taking Yusuf on a tour of Bulawayo and giving him a running commentary criticising all facets of society, especially the remaining white ‘settlers’ and the MDM politicians. We need these voices to be heard.

There are three strong male characters whom Yusuf encounters during his search in different contexts; Skuzukuduma, Professor Odinka and Idris, the Somalian refugee. Each one assists him, teaches him and offers him difficult truths to digest. They are all fascinating, quirky characters that add richness to the narrative. .

Yusuf as a character is very appealing; he lies, he womanises, he judges others (like his father) without recognising where his behaviour is similar yet he goes to the ends of the earth in his attempt to find Sam. He wants to do the right thing but he struggles to overcome his own moral weakness. Most of the women he chooses are trophy girlfriends except for two women who see through him and give him short shrift. It is refreshing to encounter a character that is so human instead of the fairly typical all-good or all-bad characters that so often litter novels.

Many of the reasons I enjoyed this book are also personal. It is partly set in Yeoville, Johannesburg where I grew up so I can imagine the very streets where the action takes place. The characters are so familiar too; I recognise them. Such as Pedro, the workshop manager, who is still called ‘baas’ and still calls Sam’s friend, Phineas, ‘kaffir’. As Skuzukuduma says, ‘The more things change the more they seem to stay the same.’ And the ending, while no fairytale, is apt.

Really a great read with a fast pace, authentic and thought-provoking too. More please, Mr Garda.

Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu #1_2015

Penumbra 1I began reading this book without an inkling of what to expect. I had not read other’s opinions of it and the blurb on the back cover was not at all illuminating as it merely held an extract. Part One held me entranced as it depicts a young man in the throes of a disturbing mental episode that makes him feel panicky, claustrophobic and paranoid as he lurches through the day, assigning symbolic meaning to every person or thing that crosses his path so that the whole world seems to conspire against him. Even the meaning of the names of those he encounters take on significance

The writing is interesting; I particularly like the way the writer describes the physical sensations in the body; his “brain shakes…wind blows in ..[his] bowels” and “flies cluster in…[his] chest” as his panic grows. I find these metaphors evocative and visceral. I still did not know where the book was going but was enjoying the ride.

After this promising beginning. I was disappointed in Part Two. It describes the period before this episode when he is working as a graduate intern for a company where he is not given much to do and is probably only there to make up the numbers. He tries to find another job but the interviewees detect his underlying apathy. He buys a cigarette on the street. “I inhale the smoke and blow out the arrogance of the wealthy.” I enjoy these flashes of insight and good writing but this is not enough to redeem the novel.

All that seems to happen is the relating of one long litany of jols as the protagonist careens from one to another with his friends; drinking too much, becoming involved with a petty criminal, who introduces them to cocaine and champagne, topped by a sprinkling of sexual exploits with prostitutes. For a moment, it was reminiscent of Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe and I wondered if the world of crime was going to suck Mangaliso and his friends into its cycle of destruction. However, this aspect was not developed. None of the characters were developed either; they just seemed like a bunch of rootless youngsters that had fallen into a pit of addiction to booze, drugs and sex. Mangaliso appears to realise  this and, in trying to distance himself from them, turns to religion. This aspect of the novel is interesting because it is more symptomatic of his paranoia than of a genuine calling. Every encounter has spiritual undertones; even a man he meets in a nightclub. “His dark eyes peer through me. It’s as if he’s stealing bits of my soul.”

Part Three describes events directly after his breakdown and is more of the same with his paranoia and distrust of his friends increasing. it ends in the middle of nowhere. I still have not figured out what the over-riding thrust of this book is meant to be. I do not mind the lack of plot so much as the lack of focus. The depiction of Mangaliso’s mental turmoil is excellent but there is little context or understanding of its provenance. The same applies to all the characters in the book where elements are introduced that seem to go nowhere. Should they not then have been left out? I was surprised to learn that this novel had been shortlisted for the Sunday times Fiction prize; I have read quite a few excellent novels that have not even made the longlist (still, who on earth knows how these prizes work). Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, this novel is worth reading for its glimpses of talent and exposure to its shadow world.