A brilliant central metaphor ties together several gripping stories in this compact epic novel (winner of a recent Commonwealth Fiction prize) from the South African author of Ways of Dying (below).
The western coastal village of Qolorha is where Camugu, a 40ish former resident of Johannesburg, comes after several years of chosen “exile” in America, where he became a “communications specialist.” Communication is precisely what’s lacking in Qolorha past and present, as Camugu discovers when his insistent sex drive thrusts him into various romantic and political rivalries and intrigues. For the village—and, by extension, the “new Africa” itself (upon the point of the death of apartheid)—is defined by a conflict that reaches back nearly 150 years: to the story of the amaXhosa tribe, who were persuaded by a teenaged seer named Nonquawuse to slaughter their cattle as a sacrifice to their gods, after which the amaXhosas’ ancestors would arise from their graves and dispel the British invaders who had subjugated their people. This resonant story (also told in John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing ) of folly and self-destruction hovers over the present-day village, where descendants of “Believers” (who followed the seer’s instructions) and “Unbelievers” (who resisted), led by rival patriarchs Zim and Bhonco, carryon a “war” that provokes them to disagree in every imaginable situation. Mda explores both the comic and the tragic consequences of this contention to marvelous effect, in a fascinating dual narrative that contrasts the story of believer (Zim’s son) Twin’s ill-fated love for Bhonco’s Western-educated, “progressive” daughter Xoliswa with Camugu’s various pursuits of an elusive amaXhosa woman (NomaRussia), “educating” his retrograde homeland, and rediscovering his own “redness” (i.e., his ethnic identity—compromised and lost during his years in America).
A work of extraordinary richness, suffused with genuine mythic power: comparable to the recently discovered fiction of Moses Izegawa and Emmanuel Dongala—and not unworthy of comparison with the masterpieces of Chinua Achebe.