A veteran visual artist noted for his linocut and textile work, Mbatha (Within Loving Memory of the Century: An Autobiography, 2006) takes on the novel with a neophyte’s enthusiasm.
Having tackled his autobiography, Mbatha continues to draw inspiration from his life in writing the fictionalized incidents scattered throughout this book. Nominally, this is the story of a man who leaves South Africa in the ’60s during a time of great political and social upheaval, remains an expatriate for many years, then returns to find the country changed. Unfortunately, the through line is elusive. The minimal plot proceeds intermittently, disrupted by lengthier digressions that jerk what limited momentum the story generates to a frustrating halt. The strongest scenes find the protagonist and his compatriots, anxious and hopeful about the nation’s future, reacting to the challenging events that lead, by way of much tribulation, to the inclusive and troubled democracy we know today. Scenes that describe the protagonist’s reminiscences following his return reverberate with the pang of one who has been away from home too long. Somewhere within this immense tome lies a novel of self-discovery, but the relatively thin narrative remains entombed in rambling, unfocused prose that deviates toward such disparate subjects as labor politics, the evolution of feline carnivores, the disposition of artists and paraphrased transcripts of historic South African senate debates. Worse yet, these disorganized, sometimes maddeningly repetitive excursions barely intersect with the plot, leaving the impression that the book’s countless small sections were written separately and put in order arbitrarily. The text, replete with spelling errors, numerous verb-subject disagreements and several other careless grammatical mistakes, reads like it was never proofread, much less edited. With great care a fine story might be extruded from this tortured hodgepodge, but even by the most lenient postmodern definitions of the term, it would be a stretch to call this a novel.
An impenetrable work in need of a good editor.