This first (1995) novel by the South African playwright and author of The Heart of Redness (above) creates a vivid, bustling image of contemporary Africa in transition from the unusual symbiotic relationship between a bereaved former prostitute and a stoical “professional mourner.”
In a time when government officials and revolutionary “liberators” alike are orchestrating wholesale slaughter of innocent villagers, middle-aged Toloki supports himself as an itinerant paid mourner who grieves publicly at strangers’ funerals. During one unusual Christmas Day burial service, he encounters Noria, once a notoriously wild young girl in their common home village, whose young son has been murdered. They form a strange, sexless union: a premise that, though it provides relatively little in the way of drama, initiates a rhythmic alternation of present-day experiences (rife with political violence and peril) with extended flashbacks to their (briefly) shared and (mostly) separate pasts. We learn a great deal about Toloki’s conflicted relationship with his harsh father Jwara (a blacksmith and would-be artisan) and the manner in which Toloki has sublimated his own artistic gifts, and also about Noria’s difficulties with her aloof majestic mother (“That Mountain Woman”) and the vagrant sexual life to which she was eventually driven. A communal voice (“we live our lives as one”) tells their stories, also layering in colorful related tales involving such striking characters as the wily pragmatic taxicab driver Shadrack, a vainglorious archbishop (whose “war” with the young Toloki is one of several such conflicts that echo the country’s larger one), Nefolovhowe the coffin-maker, and a compassionate “twilight mum” (Madimvhaza) who cares for abandoned children. Their several stories cohere to underscore the insight that has shaped Toloki’s life: “Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living.” The story falters in its final third, and it’s a mess structurally almost from start to finish. But that’s largely irrelevant, in a charming narrative that has the incremental repetitive quality of a folk ballad spun out through successive generations.
Flawed or not, a terrific introduction to a world-class literary talent.