Village Scandal, Mountain Spirits

Book cover
She Plays With the Darknessby Zakes MdaPicador. 207p $12

Until recently, South Africa’s fiction has been totally dominated by apartheid. But in 1992 the government of F. W. de Klerk won a mandate for political reforms that led to an official end to apartheid and the creation of a power-sharing multiracial government, and since that time many have wondered how the welcome changes would play themselves out in the arts. The well-known novelists have either receded from view, or adjusted and continued to produce highly nuanced and interesting workJ. M. Coetzee, for example, has gone on to win the Nobel Prize and his second Booker Prize.

A new generation of writers, including K. Sello Duiker, Phaswane Mpe, ZoN Wicomb, Damon Galgut, Aziz Hassim, Sindiwe Magona and, in Zimbabwe, Yvonne Vera, has increasingly drawn the attention of readers. Leading the pack, many would say, would be Zakes Mda, who has won every major South African prize for his work as a novelist and playwright. He is best known for The Heart of Redness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Africa region, and Ways of Dying (Picador, 1995), which won the Olive Schreiner Prize.


In a review of The Heart of Redness for The New York Review of Books, Norman Rush criticized Mda for his paltry representation of AIDS in his novels to date. Since Mda is now a major novelist in the country with the most AIDS cases, this apparent neglect is rather strangeall the more so since he has in fact been involved in AIDS education since 1985 and has produced many stage productions on the subject. He currently divides his time between the United States, where he is professor of creative writing at Ohio University, and South Africa, where he runs a workshop to train H.I.V.-positive people to write. The topic begins to show itself in The Madonna of Excelsior, but it may be that he is trying to retrieve the past before looking too deeply into the future.

Typically, an Mda novel works as a palimpsest. The time before the Afrikaners arrived continues to be reflected in his various characters, who wend their way through contemporary South African politics with one eye on the corruption and malaise, and another on the cave paintings that speak through their possessed bodies. The resulting magical-realism effects blur the distinction between fact and fiction, past and present, human and supernatural. Mda has said that the plot in his stories is the last thing on which he focuses attentionand some would fault him for this, since he seems rather to let things happen than to weave events into an obviously meaningful connection of the dots. He is good at letting the present speak for itself as significant, or not, in its own right, with its past fully as compelling as its future.

She Plays With the Darkness is a semi-allegorical tale set in Lesotho, in which a brother and sister take different routes in their confrontation with modernity. Dikosha eschews marriage and prefers the company of the spirit world, with which she communes by dancing to the songs of a like-minded spirit child named Shana. Radisene, on the other hand, becomes an ambulance chaser who builds an impressive career working insurance scams. Droughts and coups come and go, but the essential unspoken contest between the siblings takes center stage. Dikosha lives in a remote village; her brother, in the city. Off in her cave and communing with the ancient paintings, Dikosha has no need of human food. She rejoices in the unearthly world that is filled with peace, and in which women are seen to be equal to men. But eventually, after tourists and pollution cover the cave paintings and imprison the spirits in the cave walls, Dikosha recognizes that she needs to return to the world of inequality and violence, where she is a lost child. Radisene, as savvy as any mortal in his secular community, finds his life nonetheless controlled by some wheel of fortune over which he has little command. He is out-scammed by Nigerians, losing the fortune he has spent a guilty life acquiring. Like a Greek drama, Mda’s conclusion suggests that if a contemporary South Africa is not going to surrender to its recurring tragedies, it will need both aspects of its personalityits world of spirits and stories and dances, and its world of canniness and energetic construction.

The Madonna of Excelsior is based on a trial held in 1971 in which 19 black women were charged with miscegenation when they gave birth to Coloured children. There is a similar brother-sister relationship at play here, as well, but the real allegory in this novel is represented by the two races that need each other to produce the child that is the new South Africa. Mda ironically underscores this theme with his opening sentences: All these things flow from the sins of our mothers. The land that lies flat on its back for kilometre after relentless kilometre. Popi, the book’s protagonist, is a child of one of these encounters, and it is not until the end of the book that she can recognize herself as beautiful. Before then, she had complained that in the old apartheid days she had not been white enough, and in the new dispensation she was not black enough.

As if to rub our noses in the irony, Mda begins each chapter with a play on colors. The book’s title is drawn from the work of the Rev. Frans Claerhout, who was born in 1919 in Belgium and who has been residing in South Africa since 1946. He is a self-taught painter, whose works are characterized by warm colors, impasto and elongated human forms, and Mda uses him as a mute muse for the mixing of colors that has such consequences in the formation of South Africa and its citizens. Not surprisingly, the novel veers occasionally into a discussion of the impact of European ways of seeing, appreciating, acquiring or fixing in placean aesthetics, if you willon other parts of the globe. In this regard, Mda’s novel calls to mind Orhan Pamuk’s recent My Name Is Red (Knopf, 2001), since both books ponder the role of art and representation in the question of how one might see reality afresh in a time of pressing crisis and apparent dead ends. For Mda, art is a memoir that conveys our yesterdays in the continuing present.

Mda’s novels invite the reader into a strangely atmospheric and surreal world in which actual historical events and, in some cases, actual historical figures, enter the frame of our view and play their part, and time moves along. Whites recede from view as blacks and coloureds assume political influence. We become engaged in the details of the characters’ lives and watch them change and interact and live with the consequences of their choices. Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. One senses that human nature asserts itself regardless of one’s race or historical era. And those who do not remember history are fated to relive it.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has tried to teach the world a similar lesson: The violence and injustices of the past have brought South Africa to its present ambiguous state, but rather than nurture the resentment or the feigned ignorance that would repeat or ignore the past, the nation chooses to embrace its present. In this regard, it is remarkable that Zakes Mda’s novels are strikingly free of bitterness. In each, he chooses a protagonist who is heavily engaged in the past, a source of energy and freedom, a source of meaning and renewal in the face of otherwise insupportable suffering, a past that is mysterious, delightful, horrificand not one’s home.

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