This intriguing work of historical fiction elucidates the extent to which today’s troubles within the ANC (known as the Movement in the novel) is rooted in the struggle era; particularly the seventies and eighties. It is a complex political thriller with a large cast of characters and different groups made up of strange bedfellows, each with their own agendas. The different physical and emotional experiences of exiles vs ‘inxiles’ add another dimension to the narrative.
I have very little knowledge of the details of the armed struggle that took place beyond our borders. I know even less of the shady dealings, human rights abuses as well as abuses of power that occurred. Although I had heard mention of these things, perhaps I turned a blind eye as, like many others, I did not want to interfere with my possibly romantic notions of the struggle. Therefore, this fictionalised account, rooted in the facts, is fascinating as well as heart-breaking. Some of the characters are perhaps loosely based on an amalgam of real people but I will not recognize them; maybe some readers will. According to Mandla Langa, one of the main characters, Nerissa Rodrigues, is inspired by Phyllis Naidoo and is a tribute to her.
The story begins with Nerissa penning a letter to the President to inform him of the ‘treatment of people incarcerated’ in the camps in Angola and also to tell him the story of the ‘young men and women who left home to fight the regime’ that have now returned. There is a group of guerillas who are tasked with a mission to return to South Africa with two trunks of ‘material assets’ that they must guard carefully. One of the trunks virtually becomes a character in the story as there are many different factions that are desperate to get their hands on it, all for different reasons. It is believed that the trunk might have evidence of the ‘big mamba eating the eggs’, in other words, the sell-out who had compromised the senior structures of the Movement.
The different groups in the novel consist of this group transporting the trunk, the members of the Movement in Durban who are tasked with escorting them and hiding them, the military leadership of the Movement (who are in an unholy alliance with Colonel Jan Stander of the Security Branch) as well as a group of askaris, some of whom are also muddying the waters. This is quite confusing for the reader as it is difficult to figure out who is who; the confusion is even greater because many of the men have aliases. Sometimes their real names are used and sometimes the aliases are used. As the different strands come together and the action climaxes, all is made clear. I enjoyed this complexity and trying to figure it all out; it is worth a little hard work. Furthermore, this very confusion experienced by the reader in some way represents the confusion in the land at the time.
This novel is also so much more than a political thriller as it examines the different types of people who were embroiled in the armed struggle. There are some who sacrifice others and collaborate with the enemy while portraying themselves as heroes; others are turned into askaris by falling prey to blackmail; others are idealistic and hold the expressed values of the Movement very dear and yet others are psychopaths and mercenaries who are drawn to the killing and violence that is tacitly sanctioned, although they care little for the cause itself.
The time span of the novel moves between December 1989 (when Walter Sisulu and others had already been released and rumours of Mandela’s imminent release were rife) back to the early 70s when many of the characters were first politicized. There are incidents in 1977 when the trunk first comes to light and the askaris are captured, then the action moves to 1985 when Nerissa, who cultivates the persona of a ‘scatty Indian auntie’, is tasked with investigating the abuse of prisoners in the camp known as Section 37.
The psychological insights into what motivates different characters; the emotions and thought processes experienced by people in their different roles make this novel special. It is not simply a story of the events of those times, it is also about people’s lives; their loves, their passions, their weaknesses and their strengths. The characters are well- drawn with descriptions that bring them to life, for example, Laura, wife to Muzi Thabethe, leader of the ‘inxiles’ is
mystified by people who called her beautiful. She saw her eyes as too wide apart, eyebrows too bushy for a woman, nose flattish and lips too thick. To compound the perceived imperfection was a protruding upper left incisor, which caused her to cover the corner of her mouth whenever she smiled.
Descriptions such as these bring characters to life. Various characters have interesting discussions as they worry over the effect Mandela’s release will have on the country and whether or not it will plunge the Movement into confusion. Georgina, Nerissa’s partner, believes there is a ‘self-correcting gene in the DNA’ of the movement but Nerissa is not as hopeful. Throughout there is this element of dramatic irony because the reader knows the present situation but the characters do not.
Adding to the mystery, there are 7 passages, in italics, interspersed through the text referred to as Logs. This reminded me of the Interludes in Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, although they serve a different purpose. There are two unnamed characters in these passages who are embroiled in a passionate love affair with an undercurrent of abuse and clear evil intentions. It is not clear who they are but all is revealed in the end.
The Textures of Shadows is a political thriller which tears the scab off romantic notions of the armed struggle without debasing those who believed in the ideals and values of the party. The use of language and literary devices embroil the reader in the world of the novel. This makes its a fascinating read, not to be missed.