The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga #37_2015

the reactive

Lindanathi, known as Nathi, is tormented by guilt at the death of his 9–months- younger brother, Luthando; technically half-brother as a result of their father ‘throwing them into different wombs one year after the other”. He died during the Xhosa initiation ceremony; Nathi had sent him ahead and promised to follow him. He broke this promise and stayed in Cape Town. He now regards himself as a murderer and this has a profound effect on his life.

Eight years later, he is hanging out with two friends, Ruan and Cecilia, in Cape Town. They spend most of the time drinking, drugging and philosophising while selling his ARVs to keep them going. It is clear that he is HIV-Positive, still a death sentence in the early 2000s. It is more difficult to figure out how he became a reactive and why; this is revealed as the narrative progresses. A reactive is a positive result after an HIV test but in this novel it has greater significance.

The description of the trifling details of their existence enhances the sense that they are drifting, cynical, disengaged with life. All three are misfits, outsiders and their bond is cemented through this. Cecilia, or Cissie, works at a daycare centre while Ruan works for his uncle in a clerical position.  It is difficult to be drawn to these characters; they are so wrapped up in themselves and their drugging. Yet this should not deter the reader as the writer describes their lives and their personas with consummate skill. The protagonist’s voice is consistently that of one who is jaded and cynical, who cannot be bothered to be impressed by the obvious.

Nathi had been a student at “the university in Rondebosch, just up the road from the main strip”; this casual reference subverts the idea that UCT is one of the most prestigious universities in South Africa. He dropped out after Luthando’s death and went to the technikon where he received “his science diploma and his sickness”. One morning, Nathi receives a text message from Bhut’ Vuyo, a man who had been married to Sis’ Funeka, Luthando’s mother. He had not heard from him for eight years. Bhut’ Vuyo is reminding him of his promise. This pricks his conscience and he knows he must respond. He tries to push it away and continues with his dissolute life. Thoughts of events that occurred in his childhood in eMthatha intrude and he remembers how he called Luthando “poor for the first time in their lives”. Luthando had pinched his nose and said “everything else about him was white” so he might as well have a pinched nose. It is only now that Nathi comprehends the significance of these things.

While he is wrestling with this, Ruan receives an email from a man who offers to buy all their stock; they accept the money with some trepidation, as they are not sure if it is a trap. The man summonses them to meet him at Champs, a pool bar in Mowbray. (Some of the appeal of this novel is that everywhere they go is familiar, if you know Cape Town). They arrive at the bar and a bouncer confronts them; it is nerve-wracking and suspenseful as they are out of their depth. What will happen?

Nathi observes everything as he moves around Cape Town, with or without Cissie and Ruan. It is these observations that bring the ordinary to life, whether it is the encounters with people on the street or in the taxi or musings on the long ago use of Greenmarket square as a slave market or his own emotions; the simple descriptions create a vivid picture. The style of writing is what elevates the novel from just another story about disenchanted twenty-somethings into living, breathing people.

Describing the weather, he notices that “the sun feels noncommittal in its bond to our planet today, spilling out light as grey as bath water;

While in a taxi, he notices “…a Golden Arrow bus grunts towards Atlantis;…”

and listens to, “…a girl with red-tinted hair, wearing a green gym tunic, takes the seat in front of me. I hear the music thumping into her skull from her headphones, a kwaito artist, famous for being a minor and beating a drug case”.

The digressions into dreams, the obscure thought processes of the three friends, the strange man they meet and Nathi’s obsession with the death of his brother all jostle up against the other to force a confrontation with the past that must happen for the future to be lived. A novel that offers no easy answers and provides much on which to muse; a read that some may regard as difficult but it is worth the effort.

 

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