This is such a haunting title; I wonder if it has another source or if the writer simply thought it described his book. The word gestures, particularly, implies so much. It makes me think of a person groping in the dark, speechless, frustrated and so much more.
Despite the warning in the title, I am shocked at what happens right in the beginning of The Violent Gestures of Life. It thrusts the reader right into life in Qalakabusha, a reform school (or stoutskool) and the appalling treatment meted out to the boys by their caretakers. It is as if they feel justified in their cruelty because the boys are young criminals but this is supposedly a place of rehabilitation not punishment.
The protagonist’s name is Gift, a possibly deliberate name assigned to him by the writer, Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, who has spent time in a correctional institution and is drawing on his own experience. We have so many stories begging to be written in South Africa, especially of people who for centuries have not been able to display their individuality. The more we can read about other’s lives, the less ‘other’ they become. It is also important though that these stories are well written, as a reader relishes language, pace and authenticity; not only story. This novel satisfies all these criteria and engenders strong emotions in the reader as well as an appreciation for the language. I particularly like the shift between life in the reform school and Gift’s reflections on his past, his misdemeanours and his family life. The dialogue too is representative, in turn, of the slang that boys speak amongst themselves and the more formal language with which they address adults. The writer’s turn of phrase is wonderfully evocative such as when Gift is unhappy and a “strong wind of emotions gusts through his chest”; when he is wakeful and tries to sleep but “sleep refuses to be his partner”.
Gift is an intriguing character, highly intelligent, troubled by family issues and resentful of his situation. His parents split because of irreconcilable ideological differences regarding traditional religious practices and Christianity. Consequently, the adults neglect the children’s needs in favour of their own. A fairly common occurrence but add poverty to the mix; add parents having new partners and more children and add all of them being accommodated in two-room houses and everything goes awry. Of course, understanding the causes of Gift’s drift into criminality does not condone his actions but does put a face to delinquency. His struggle when incarcerated in Qalakabusha is to re-habilitate his mind and to be able to take responsibility for his actions.
Sober reflection is very difficult because the boys are treated unfairly and the punishments meted out are excessive. The scene when the caretakers allow police in and they beat the boys is appalling. Gift has a strong sense of fairness and though he knows that keeping silent in the face of unreasonable authority will keep him out of trouble, he also cannot restrain himself from speaking out at times. Fortunately, a teacher recognizes his potential and guides him. Mrs Hadebe calls him in and says, “In my culture, we don’t heap praises on graves,” which means they do not wait for people to die before they praise them. This and the discussions he has with his friends are what help to set him on the right path.
The narrative shifts from Qalakabusha in Mpumalanga to the rural village of Munzhedzi in Limpopo. The interactions between families and neighbours in his home are brought to life as vividly as those between the boys in the reform school. His longing for the simple life he led when he was feeding goats and helping his mother with her crops is poignant. The scattering of words in other South African languages add richness to the text. There is also a glossary, which is useful; even though many words are understood by their context, it is good to be able to check understanding.
The Violent Gestures of Life with its insight into the troubles of a young boy and how family life and circumstances combine to drastically affect his future is a wonderful though disturbing read. It brings to mind Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe and My Father My Monster by Macintosh Polela, both cautionary tales (though the latter is not fictionalised). These stories have a redemptive nature, which give hope on the one hand but concern for those who are not redeemed on the other.
I read a review in which Fred Khumalo wrote that this novel falls in to the category of ‘kwaito fiction’ but despite it being a morality tale or a coming-of-age tale (not too fond of these labels but perhaps they serve a purpose) I found this book to be very different from Young Blood – it is not about gangsters, hijacking and the like; kwaito did not spring to mind.