The first sentence of Rusty Bell is ‘I wrestled with life and lost’. Nevertheless, the protagonist, Michael is still alive albeit at great cost to his psyche. This tortured individual is too sensitive for the vagaries of life. Once again, Nthikeng Mohlele’s wondrous way with words and deep philosophising on aspects of loving and living turn a simple story into a puzzle as the reader attempts to understand Michael.
We first meet lawyer Michael at the age of 48, still visiting his psychiatrist, Dr. West, twenty years later. He has now beaten all his addictions but one and that is the compulsion to visit a strip club, known as Desirable Horses, a very amusing name, if you think of what rhymes with the first syllable of horses. His introduction to “the universe of female bodies” at a young age was a “traumatic affair”. He attributes his addiction to this “sinister encounter”. The Rusty Bell of the title is his wife and he alludes to a crime she committed that also contributed to his having become a “depraved, empty and unstable wretch”.
I have a sense that Nthikeng Mohlele has an unusual approach to time. It is not mentioned but there are clues that indicate the 48-year-old Michael exists 20 years into the future. He discusses his context with respect to the country, his contemporaries and the younger generation. South Africa is a country, “not so chained to its past, a past that like a distant cousin of the holocaust seems like a bad dream from long ago”. The president is a woman and the older generation are dying off. By the end of this first chapter (oh and I love the fact that the chapters have titles), of vague allusions, his life has disintegrated even further and Michael decides to re-examine his life, “trace its minutest throbs, its surprisingly desolate landscapes, strewn with carcasses of all kinds”. Sentences in this literary language make the novel a joy to read. The poetic hyperbole transports Michael’s reflections into a heroic sort of realm. I savour every word.
The examination of his past starts with campus life where he is first enthralled by Rusty Bell. Another aspect of this novel that is beautiful are the descriptions of physical intimacy and desire. The writer evokes carnal passion without crude graphic scenes but with great tenderness and appreciation of the female body. His description of a perfect kiss that begins with perfectly architecture collarbones is exquisite. In between these beautiful moments, there are also some very witty moments. Michael, who takes himself very seriously, is rather cynical about others. He categorises the students into Campus Tribes such as The Party Animals, Pseudo Poiticians with their stillborn revolutions and many more.
Again, the chronology is a little confusing as it starts in the middle when he had been starving himself for weeks and then reverts to the traumatic incidents that triggered this behavior. These are extremely disturbing as they involve the family of his best friend, Columbus. The refusal to eat is part of an existential crisis in which he struggles to make sense of life. He loses interest in everything and spends a lot of time secluded in his room pondering the minutiae of life, such as “how army ants terrorized sickly praying mantises; the subtle crack of sand granules under soles of our polished shoes”. Every little detail is so clear that the reader can see, smell and hear all these things. He rejects Rusty and writes emails to her suggesting she would be better off without him. It is during this period that, in between deep philosophical meditations, a cat called Clinton K, who regales Michael with his life story, visits him. This reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s, Kafka on the Shore, in which there is also a talking cat. The cat’s story in an oblique way might be a parallel to Michael’s own life.
He also thinks about his parents; in particular, his father, Frank, of whom he says, “his was a life not lived, but leaked away, soundless”. They lived in a one-room shack in Alexandra and Frank was a truck driver who had ambitions to be an air traffic controller. His father finds out about his troubles and has a talk to him which seems instrumental in bringing him back to life
This is a novel with layers of meaning and the reader keeps delving deeper into layers that the writer may never have intended; there are so many connections, levels, insertions and vignettes. Some of the philosophies held by the protagonist are obscure yet thought provoking. The language holds a grandeur that matches the idealism of the over-sensitive Michael. It is lyrical at times and blunt at others. Everything is unexpected; a truly novel, novel.