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.