Thursday, August 21, 2014

Way Back Home

In Way Back Home (2013), Niq Mhlongo writes briskly. His style doesn’t seek to linger, and he doesn’t attempt to infuse dense prose in his story. One therefore notices the fast paced and upbeat quality of the book early on, and I would suppose it was intended for the young adult segment (I say this without intending to diminish the quality of the book). It is thus a quick and engaging read, but one which, should one’s preferences tend towards richness of nuances and prose, may not be particularly rewarding.

Way Back Home is a prototype that uses the life of Kimathi Fezile Tito to bring back to the fore the often forgotten atrocities and human rights abuses that occurred in the African National Congress (ANC) camps in exile. Kimathi (as a Kenyan, I am happy to see Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi recognized), by virtue of his past as an ANC comrade and freedom fighter in exile in Tanzania, has gained immense wealth and influence in post-apartheid South Africa. However, his past in exile returns to haunt him, he finds no peace, and his life falls apart.

Mhlongo has written a book that reads as a personal turbulence as well as a conscientious reminder. It makes a strong case, albeit at a personal level (the haunts dogging Kimathi), for accountability for, or at least acknowledgement of, past atrocities within an organization known for fighting against injustices of the apartheid era. It also highlights the challenges of the transition from apartheid in South Africa, such as the attendant corruption and cronyism. But, perhaps, the main underpinning of Way Back Home is a tribute to and recognition of African culture and beliefs, principally the belief in the appeasement of ancestral spirits. It may therefore be a strange read for some; for the fainthearted averse to shadows lurking in the dark, it may get a little scary.

Flashbacks have been used effectively, and bring home the essence of the story powerfully. As a mystery, the story reveals itself rather quickly, aided by the simplicity of its prose. I would say the book is more of a thriller than a mystery; it is a sprint rather than a marathon. It didn’t blow me away, but I definitely would like to read Niq Mhlongo’s more acclaimed offerings, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears. If you want a quick weekend read that doesn’t demand too much, this should do.

Picture Credit: Goodreads

Monday, August 11, 2014

He wants to tell someone

He wants to tell someone. Instead, he’s distracted
by yellow weaverbirds delighting him in his front yard
singing sweet, soothing songs. A speck falls on
a page of a book in hand. He notices not
which world he gets lost in—shifting between a timeless
one to another—wistful and alone. He catches the detail
of a falling leaf, wafting, weightless; the sway of the breeze,
rustling, whistling; the yellow of the sun, shining, reflecting.
He feels odd. Perhaps it’s a character on the page,
or a twist in the plot—maybe in his life too. A swelling feeling,
a stirring within, and goose bumps on skin: such
is the beauty he sees, of a weaverbird nibbling at bread, and
of deep green grass, suggesting a depth—he imagines
of his feeling. A sigh. He sees more than he would like—
a disquiet in the quiet, an unsettling simplicity, a flashback
and a longing for a life past: a reassuring comfort,
a knowing, now taken away;
a large presence, a has been and an always will be,
a father, but now not here.

Picture Credit: Down a dusty lane

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Chairman of Fools

Chairman of Fools (2005) by Zimbabwean author Shimmers Chinodya has a very wobbly start. Coming from the high of the previous book (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries), perhaps a book hangover, I found the thin prose in Chairman of Fools quite off-putting. Despite being a little fast paced, I grew frustrated by the lack of a substantive plot early on, whose effect is that one senses a rambling of sorts.

A little research online explains the book’s lack of plot—it is loosely autobiographical. It reveals the crisis in the life of Farai, a popular and well-known literary writer and academic who has just returned to Zimbabwe from the United States on leave. An alcoholic, he suffers a mental breakdown and is diagnosed with the bipolar syndrome. Upon his admission to a psychiatric facility, he becomes the chairman of the patients there—or the “chairman of fools”. Through his reflections and experiences, we learn that he is troubled by a combination of factors—a creeping lack of confidence in his literary career, an increasingly assertive and independent wife, the deaths of his mother, father and brother in rapid succession, and competing pulls of modernity, Christian faith, and traditionalism.

Chairman of Fools is rich in portraying Zimbabwean society, and uses Farai to provide a microcosm of middle class life in Zimbabwe. A number of themes are infused into this short book—just over 180 pages long—such as loneliness and dislocation in exile; traditional practices (such as a proposed visit to a traditional spiritual healer to “cure” Farai’s mental instability) juxtaposed against Christian faith (which his wife espouses); materialism and consumerism; a slowly unraveling Zimbabwean economy (passing references to the effects of land reform and a weakening currency are made); and the effects of all these on marriage and family.

To this extent I think Chairman of Fools is a worthwhile read, although I would have been much happier if it was stylistically and aesthetically richer. Chinodya is able to reveal the tensions and dilemmas in Farai’s life in a convincing and dramatic way, but is let down by the disjointedness and thinness of plot and prose. I would however still like to read more of Chinodya, especially his award-winning novel, Harvest of Thorns.

Picture credit: Goodreads