Cries from the beloved country

Maureen Isaacson is assistant editor and books editor of the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg.

Who will mourn the dead now that South African funeral etiquette has gone to the dogs? In apartheid's aftermath, traditional life has been overshadowed and continuing ethnic skirmishes have wrought a shameful loss of compassion. It remains for the homeless Toloki, the protagonist of Zakes Mda's novel "Ways of Dying," to stop foraging in dustbins and to get down to some serious sorrow-selling. Reeking of the hunger that is still the overwhelming reality of the majority, the down-and-out Toloki becomes a Professional Mourner, enterprising enough to charge a fee for his services.

A good dose of wailing is required for the corpses of those caught in the cross-fire and those deliberately burned. The owner of the split skull and dripping brains who ended up on the mortuary floor, he too needs a decent send-off. Toloki comes up with the goods every time and his heavy-eyed act, his black costume and top hat ensure him a monopoly in the market for ersatz mourning.

He prevails in the face of "progress," which, like the twisted notion of "civilization" in "The Heart of Redness" (the two novels were both recently released in the United States), runs roughshod over tradition. Tradition, the "redness" of the title, is always at stake in this novel, which oscillates between the 19th century and the present.

Mda's work is characterized by a crossover of disciplines. An adept Renaissance man who composes music and lyrics and who paints, he brings to his unusual satirical stories a rich sensory experience and playful sense of the dramatic. A prolific and prominent new voice of South African literature, Mda transforms historical events and invents new ones that express his continued concern, as in these two novels, that the liberators do not become the oppressors.

He experiences his freedom of expression as a privilege on a continent where censorship has led to the exile of writers such as the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka and the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Mda's novels have won all of South Africa's major literary awards, and "The Heart of Redness" received the 2001 Commonwealth Writer's Award.

In the novel, modern believers like Camagu, a Xhosa man who returns home after 35 years of exile and who shares many facets of Mda's life, perceive an exquisite balance between natural and spiritual beauty at the heart of redness, contrasting sharply with Kurtz's perceived horror in the heart of early 20th century Congo in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Then, as now, belief was at the core of the conflict that divided the community of the Eastern Cape village Qolorha-by-the-Sea. Redness is exemplified by the traditional use of red ochre by Xhosa women and is integral to Camagu's identity. On returning from the United States with degrees in economic development and communications, he has a deep respect for traditional history and for its continuing role in conservation.

The black empowerment crowd whose mainstay is nepotism and elitism ensures that his exile is continued. They refuse his contribution because he missed the revolution, he "never learned the freedom dance." From the sidelines, he watches with distaste the tourists who patronize little girls performing traditional dances, endearingly out of step.

A sensitive man who believes in the merits of eco-tourism, Camagu is offended by the idea of the booming tourist industry and casino that has been proposed by the so-called Unbelievers in the name of "civilization." Also, the industry will invade the home of the 19th century prophet Nongqawuse. "What is land compared to civilization?" the 19th century British colonial trader John Dalton asked when trying to spread the word for the then-governor, Sir George Grey. This same John Dalton was responsible for cooking the head of one of the villagers in a caldron, a trophy for a British museum.

Nongqawuse's prophecy that the drowning of the community's cattle would drive the English into the ocean and give rise to a new dawn was unrealized and led to famine, but those who still have faith in her prophecy (the present-day Believers such as Camagu) seek inspiration in the purity of her vision. (The cattle were stricken by lung sickness, traced directly to beasts brought into the land by the ever-encroaching British.)

The mutual attraction that flares between Camagu and a woman named Xoliswa Ximiya is brought short by obvious ideological clashes. Xoliswa, who has also recently returned from the land of stars, stripes and McDonald's, has a doctorate and has landed a plum job, principal of the village's secondary school. She has built not one but two houses for her father, Bhonko Ximiya, current patriarch to the Unbelievers. Xoliswa, who considers the past "shameful," is all for putting on the glitz of Dolly Parton and Eddie Murphy at Qolorha, while Camagu later finds ecstasy in Nongqawuse's valley, where the range of bird life is unparalleled and the traditional split-tone singing of a Xhosa woman rouses him to orgasm.

What a contrast Xoliswa's snobbery provides with the present-day John Dalton, a descendant of the historical figure. This Dalton, who has never left the country, speaks Xhosa more fluently than Camagu, is deeply committed to the future of the people and welcomes Camagu. Camagu feels that a white man who resides in the heart of redness suggests reconciliation, a breakdown of the constraints of belief, an introduction of respect.

The theme of reconciliation is continued in "The Bells of Amersfoort," the most recent of Mda's 30 plays. "Bells" was produced last year in Johannesburg and Amsterdam, and, like "The Heart of Redness," it examines the corrosion of values. In "Bells," the protagonist, a revolutionary exiled to the town of Amersfoort, in the Netherlands, leaves the lover of her Struggle days for an Afrikaans pastor.

"The Heart of Redness," a brilliantly profuse novel complicated and convoluted by the intricacies of historical depth, is marred only by an occasional flatness in the telling, in particular about weighted issues such as economic development.

Mda's work is provocatively offbeat and tragically weird, inspiring comparisons with the work of a favored author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. However, Mda rejects the label of magical realism for his own work. He says the magic he portrays is an integral part of the reality he describes and is also integral to the storytelling tradition he learned at his grandmother's knee. The "majola" brown mole snake of Camagu's clan that brings good fortune has autobiographical echoes. No doubt Mda's majola oversees the fantastic juxtapositions and transformations that characterize all of his work.

Transformation is a key theme of "Ways of Dying," which was published in South Africa in 1995, five years before "The Heart of Redness." The homeless Toloki, who ekes his living out of mourning, and Noria, his "home girl" and ladylove, walk into a garden fragrant with Belle of Portugal roses and delphiniums photographed for the pages of Home and Garden magazine, which Toloki pastes on the walls of Noria's shack. It is encouraging that love and happiness are possible amid great squalor. Death is ever present, and by perpetuating its traditions, the survival of a man of no means is enabled.

Mda's rigorous critique of the cultural imperialism that obliterates tradition calls to mind the fearless truth-telling in Chinua Achebe's novels of post-colonial power-playing in Nigeria. In Mda's novels, as in Achebe's, the true villain is colonialism, which is often replayed in a new guise.

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