Friday, 13 July 2012
Challenging Insitutions: Coovadia's Taxi Poetry
In The Institute for Taxi Poetry (Umuzi) Imraan Coovadia presents us with a university department where "taxi poetry" is studied, and with the hundreds of minibus taxis on the streets of Cape Town, whose "sliding door men" aggressively collect fares and generally rule over the passengers. These minibus taxis may have the poetry to which the title of the novel refers painted on their sides, yet when poetry is quoted within The Institute for Taxi Poetry, it is on three occasions from within the recognised canon of South African poetry, the authors being //Kabbo, a nineteenth century San convict (translated into English by Stephen Watson), Karen Press and Douglas Livingstone. Coovadia does quote one of the revolutionary black poets, Keroapetse Kgotsile, to attribute his line to the taxi poet Gerome Geromian, and the epigraph to the novel is taken from Mongane Serote's City Johannesburg. Poetry permeates our lives, these allusions say; it formulates for us what we think - but probably nothing more specific than that.
Solly Greenfields, "once a taxi poet, and then a Buddhist, once a Muslim, once a Jew, once a lowly cook in the Mount Nelson? on other occasions a guest in the very same hotel", whose murder by an unknown assailant stands at the beginning of the novel, is the catalyst for the plot - which is arguably the weakest part of the novel.
The best of it lies in the juxtaposition of the taxi industry and the university institute in which the narrator works, neither of which is presented as approaching the ideals which may once have been associated with it. The minibus taxi industry is violent and corrupt, and Coovadia shows the regime in the institute where his narrator works as increasingly authoritarian and controlling: the revolutionary poet finds that he is misplaced there too.
It may not be coincidental that like many prominent figures of the Struggle, Greenfields is an estranged Jew. He has been a freedom fighter, a trade unionist, a supporter of all other workers engaged in the struggle for freedom, a poet and a nurturer of poets and, the narrator at first believes, is keeping the revolutionary spirit alive in a period when it is becoming corrupt. We shall discover that he has a character flaw which will bring about his death, but no one's perfect, especially not revolutionaries.
Gerome Geromian is the second of the two men presented in the novel as founder-writers of "taxi poetry", ancestor figures, as it were, in the great tradition of poetry associated with the Struggle. He comes from a patriarchal Afrikaans up-country family, against which he is in revolt, but whose traditions are still a component in his work.
Unlike Greenfields, whose life has been one of active involvement in the taxi industry and in trade unions generally during the Struggle, Geromian has lived his life in picturesque exile, and continues to do so: when he visits Cape Town he demands all the comforts to which he is accustomed. Coovadia has agreed that Breyten Breytenbach may be one source here, and the structure of Geromian's name confirms this.
The narrator, Greenfields's former "intern", teaches students at the Institute for Taxi Poetry, which is part of a university, perhaps the University of Cape Town, where the author works. He - the narrator - is aware of the discordances of a popular, no, a proletarian and revolutionary literary forms being studied in a university, and at the end of the novel he decides to separate himself from academia.
The novel is a mixture of what really exists and of fantasy (revolutionary poetry is not strongly associated with minibus taxis, which although they do at times have slogans painted on them, do not in my experience parade poetry). So goodbye, simple realism.
But can the taxi industry be seen as representing the revolutionary movement? Does "taxi poetry" represent the famous "Soweto poetry" of the 70s? Yes and no may be the answer to this: the narrator comments, "it was even said that the government was a gigantic taxi company. Whereas I thought, that was making a simple thing out of a complicated one". Yet minibus taxis emerged in the 80s, are associated with the black proletariat and have proved uncontrollable, as their organisations have become violent and corrupt, by the authorities, both in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras - parallels are too many to be coincidental.
The narrator's son, Zebulon, is his - and our - means of insight into the post-revolutionary generation. Zeb rejects the idea of academic training and aspires to being a sliding door man - a life of power and action, as opposed to one which is marginal and reflective.
His verdict on academia is inaccurate, but it is through him that the narrator knows of the youthful element in the Cape Town underworld. Zeb, despite his career choice, is not simply materialistic; he seems to see himself as a guiding light to the young. His character and his rejection of the principles and practices of the past combine with his father's knowledge of the two spheres - taxis and the Institute - to help the narrator to contemplate at the end of the novel a new life, which is unrelated to either.
This is a puzzling book which refuses to settle into a particular form which would define for us the rules by which we could understand it.
But it shows us beautiful, squalid Cape Town and the ideologies between which inheritors of the South African past and young people moving into its future are choosing. - published on July 8, 2012