Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Unpacking colonial relations: Shades

By Mbongeni Malaba

Marguerite Poland's novel, Shades, is a profoundly moving and exquisitely crafted story of love, faith, missionary endeavour, the search for education and identity. It explores the quest for power, in the realm of families, and the broader Christian family at St Matthias Mission in the Eastern Cape. Poland intricately weaves together the lives of pivotal members of the community, principally Father Charles Farborough, who epitomises the dedication of a benevolent missionary, whose selfless devotion to his family and flock exemplifies the finest traditions of the contribution by missions in southern Africa.
He exudes loving-kindness and generosity of spirit, has more emotional intelligence than his wife, Emily; cares deeply about the well-being of his daughter Frances and son Crispin; and is deeply saddened by his failure to breach the barriers erected by his son's depression.
His wisdom and compassion are powerfully conveyed as Poland charts his close bond with Frances. This stands in stark contrast to the fraught nature of Emily's relationship with both her children: the chasm between mother and daughter is unbridgeable; and Emily does not hide her disappointment in her son's poor scholastic record. Thus Crispin and Frances grow up feeling inadequate, in terms of their mother's aspirations. Her devotion is centred on her nephew, Victor Drake.
Poland's masterstroke lies in her capacity to delineate the complexity of her characters in such a way that the reader constantly re-evaluates his or her relationship with them. Emily Farborough's limitations as a mother are rooted in the loss of her first and second offspring and the anguish that characterised the long drawn-out labour that resulted in a stillborn son. Her small stature belies her "titanic will".
Her alienation from Africa is seen in her iconic reverence of "Englishness", symbolised by her love of roses and family china and posset cups. Unlike her husband, whose faith is steadfast and all-embracing, hers is founded on strength borne from iron determination, an unrelenting moral code and hard bargaining with God.
The complex nature of love emerges in the contrasting relationships within families: Charles and Emily's relationship is based on mutual affection and respect. Victor and Frances' bond is predicated on bubbling hormones; Charles provides reassurance for Crispin and Walter Brownley, his former assistant, through gestures, like his heartfelt hugs and handshakes, which speak louder than words.

Walter's love for Emily manifests through his willingness to put what he regards as her best interests first. Helmina Smythe constantly battles with her jealousy of Frances, as she grapples with her unrequited love for Walter and desperately fears becoming an old maid. Her devotion to and understanding of Crispin redeems her, in the eyes of the reader.
Benedict Matiwane, an orphan raised at the mission by the Farboroughs is acutely aware of his indebtedness to Emily's zeal in finding a sponsor for his education. She regards him as part of her family, even though he feels alienated by her banishment of his beloved, the voluptuous Dorcas Pumani, whom he consorts with, in defiance of mission rules. Emily's puritanical streak is mirrored in the catechist Mzantsi, who eagerly reports the breach to Emily, knowing she will strictly enforce the rules, with unintended consequences for her family. Christianity's dis-ease with the flesh, with passion, is laid bare. Emily and Mzantsi's love of power over their subordinates ironically reveals their lack of compassion, a virtue that characterises
Father Charles and, arguably, lies at the heart of the success of his mission. His genuine desire to achieve the best he can, given the financial constraints faced by the mission, is seen in the provision of formal education, as well as the training in farming and the thriving production of tin goods - thus providing outlets for the academically gifted, as well as artisans. So successful was the smithy, that the Mission was forced to drastically reduce its output by the colonial government, as the quality of its produce was superior to that produced by whites.
Emily and Mzantsi are keen on nurturing Benedict to become a priest, but the ritual humiliation that Benedict and Mzantsi were subjected to by a drunken white manning a dip, during the outbreak of rinderpest, radicalised the former, whilst the latter was left smarting. Formal, western education characteristically empowered Benedict, in particular, to question the discrimination blacks were subjected to by colonialism. It heightened his critical awareness of the double standards practised by the English, despite their tendency to malign the Afrikaners. Walter Brownley's setting up of a printing press at St Matthias broadened Benedict's skills and gave him the opportunity to establish a reputation by contributing incisive critiques of the colonial dispensation in the black newspapers that nurtured intellectual debate and the rise of black nationalism in South Africa. Significantly, Frances commends Benedict's efforts, unlike Mzantsi, who is fearful of the radical stance of some of the contributors. Knowledge is power, hence the paranoid hatred of "clever blacks" in colonial - and postcolonial - contexts. Thus, it is not surprising that, after the death of Crispin, Benedict chooses to leave St Matthias in search of freedom and a new identity:
"I have gone and wherever I have gone,
I will hold this place in my thoughts and in my remembrance.
It was my womb in which I was conceived, in which my spirit has been moulded and to which
my heart will return, no matter what the exile.
But now I must be born. I must go forth alone.
And if I should return, I will return in freedom.
For without that freedom, I can never call myself a man."
Benedict is acutely aware of his bond with the mission, of the capacity for greater awareness that western education has brought him, as well as the concomitant vulnerability to pain or sadness.
Walter is disheartened by the gulf that emerges between Benedict and himself, but remains supportive.
Like Father Charles, pastoral care is his forte. Exiled to Mbokothwe, where he replaces the hapless Rev Hubert Brompton, driven mad by his toxic mix of rabid racism and delight in the plague brought by the twin scourges of drought and rinderpest, which he sees as divinely ordained to break the spirit of the blacks and make them more receptive to Christianity and imperial rule. Charles and Walter epitomise the positive aspects of missionary endeavour ("I come that thou might have life and have it more abundantly"), while Brompton and the Dean are heedless of the injunction to "Love thy neighbour as thyself". Poland's even-handedness lays bare the contradictions that bedevilled the advent of Christianity in South(ern) Africa, and rightly so. But the liberal presence of ministers of religion and the numerous products of mission stations within the nationalist movements, and the growth of the church in Africa, attest to the significance and resonance of the Christian message, not only in the sub-region, but in the far reaches of the countries built through the sweat of slave labour.
Walter's stint at Mbokothwe breathes new life in the church: the arid wasteland is transformed, the church comes to life again, a school is established and the fond farewell bid by his parishioners is eloquent testimony to his labours in Christ's vineyard. Ironically, he questions his vocation, born perhaps of his seemingly hopeless love for Frances; but also his awareness of the chasm between the leaders of the church and those operating at grass roots level, like himself. Paradoxically, the rejuvenated Mandlankosi Jingiso (named Pusey by Brompton), a diviner as well as the servant of a priest, predicts that Walter will marry and establish a family.
The relationship between Walter and Mandlankosi is based on the mutual respect of each other's culture and faith. Walter masters isiXhosa with Mandlankosi's assistance, is prepared to accommodate the traditional belief in "shades", which highlights the importance of "inculturation" in order to earth religion in a cultural milieu.
Significantly, this provides the link with Crispin (Helmina and Walter believed he had a vocation, but his belief that he was a "dunce" negated this). Walter, Benedict and Crispin were able to find Brompton in a cave and bring him back, despite the fact that he was mad, which clearly underlines the "adapt or die" moral of the tale. The two boys reverently followed Xhosa customs at the site.
Crispin's devotion to his childhood friends, the Pumani boys, enables him to emerge from the negative influence that Victor had over him, but his sensibility is overwhelmed by the harshness of colonial injustice, symbolised by the iniquitous migrant labour system, which Victor and Otto Klaus cash in on.
The friendship highlights one of the greatest contributions of mission stations in Africa: the capacity provided by the multiracial environments which enabled people to acknowledge the dignity of the other and thus transcend racist mind sets. However, Crispin's death suggests that in Africa, only the "fittest" survive.
Poland's depiction of women is striking. With Jane Austen-like economy, the characteristic natures of Emily and Helmina are established, as well as the essential hollowness of Alice Drake's existence, as her life revolves around her debilitating veneration of her long- deceased first husband. Frances's' growth in consciousness is movingly mapped out, culminating in her determination to embrace her father's advice: "seek the truth and live by it even if it means you must be alone." The novel pays tribute to her inner fortitude, given her isolation and she is duly rewarded with a worthy husband.
The evocation of setting is another of the triumphs of the novel: the challenging environment of the missionary outposts is compellingly rendered, as is rugged beauty of the Eastern Cape. The appalling conditions in the mines and the abuse of the miners, by the white and black overlords, are chillingly depicted.
But, above all, the lyrical beauty of Poland's style clearly establishes her as one of the most outstanding of South African novelists.- published February 3, 2013. 

Shades has been republished by Penguin to coincide with the release of Poland's memoir Taken Captive By Birds

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