Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cape Flats Novel falls Flat

By Christine Emmett

Cape Town is a divided city. The spatial engineering of the apartheid government banished non-whites to the peripheries of the city, using infrastructure and the landscape as physical barriers. 
This mapping produced a lack of continuity which still abounds from the unlit and anarchic streets of Khayelitsha to the gentrified tourist mecca of the city and the DA's sleepy southern suburbs. 
On the level of symbolism, it's no surprise that protesters flung faeces from the township on the city's elegant colonial buildings last year. 
And it's in this vein that the protagonist of Songeziwe Mahlangu's novel, Penumbra, a young black middle-class UCT graduate living, moving and partying across these boundaries and barriers, becomes an important voice for South Africans to hear. Unfortunately, however, this particular author seems to have very little to say.
Penumbra (Kwela) opens with the narrator flitting around the streets of Rondebosch, Cape Town, paranoid and anxious, reading significance into everything and clasping at his bible in a state of delusional fervour. It's presumed that a mixture of drugs, a sense of meaninglessness and his own wastrel existence have lead Managliso to the tip of psychosis. 
The burden of the novel, as its title suggests, is to map this trajectory, figured through the play of light and dark in a lunar eclipse.
The fictional representation of Cape Town by black South Africans has a limited but esteemed history, featuring the likes of Alex La Guma and K Sello Duiker. It's the fairly sparse style and the first-person narration of Mahlangu's novel that reminds one of K Sello Duiker's own exploration of Cape Town in Thirteen Cents. 
In this novel Duiker has Azure, a young street kid, describe his experiences in the underbelly of Cape Town. But the important distinction is that where Duiker uses a minimalist style to emphasise Azure's youth and naivety, he still imparts observations which are insightful and unexpected. Of the gangster/ pimp, Allen, he notes: "When you're dressed properly grown-ups give you a bit of respect. But as long as I'm me and have no home and wear tattered clothes, Allen will never give me proper clothes because that would mean that I can look like him.
"And no one who knows Allen looks like him. He makes sure of that. Even if it means he strips you himself." 
Duiker's succinct description of clothing, which tells us everything about status, prestige and the pecking-order of the streets, uses this small incident to paint a big picture. By contrast, in Penumbra Managliso's observations sound startlingly myopic. When the narrator's friend, Nhlakanipho, makes a pass at one of the narrator's potential sexual conquests, he melodramatically states "Nhlakanipho has torn me too many times. In my body the waters are rising. He has been abusing me since varsity. Our friendship is a falsehood. He even influences how others perceive me." 
Unsurprisingly, this incident in Mahlangu's novel is neither developed nor elaborated upon. These clichés are never taken further, and nothing is made of this incident. The reader is unwillingly drawn into the vapid exploits of an inflated and narcissistic ego.

One of the seedier scenes of the novel has the protagonist sleep with a woman who he presumes to have HIV. The coupling leaves her "naked, her face buried in her knees", "coughing hard, the heaving accentuating the outline of her spine". The narrator is found afterwards, celebrating in the bar, "satisfied, with a beer and cigarette".
As a variety of esteemed writers from Henry Miller to Bret Easton-Ellis have shown, depictions of coercive sex or violence against woman are not always sexist. But there is little in Mahlangu's text that suggests criticism or examination. There is not one female character with any depth (though this may be a central problem in the portrayal of all the characters in the novel). Women are merely receptacles for sex or violence. They are either prostitutes, treated like prostitutes or simply dismissed. 
The narrator glibly notes, "Any book of importance touches on the politics of the time", but claiming that the sexism of the novel is merely a testament to the widespread sexism in South African culture is impossible, because the episode isn't developed any further. As Mangaliso's friend Tongai notes of celebrated Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera, "I think Marechera was always fascinated by the relations between sex and violence." 
Mahlangu is no Marechera, his novel lacks the brooding intensity to push forward these ideas.
Similarly, though Mahlangu indicates that Mangaliso's telling of the story is neither completely accurate nor honest, there is no voice which contradicts his point of view. There is no distance that allows us to be certain that Mangaliso's views aren't simply shared by the author. 
It doesn't help that Mahlangu has himself noted that he once lived in Cape Town and also suffered a nervous breakdown.
One of the few strengths of this novel is its depiction of mobility
Managliso's ability to move between yuppie Vredehoek, bohemian Observatory, suburban Kenilworth and Gugulethu for gigs breaks down apartheid's racialised boundaries. 
It's his capacity to interact in the present-day with township people, gangsters, prissy white suburban girls and immigrants, which gives this novel its interest.
The problem though, is that Mahlangu never takes the time to describe all the places to which his narrator travels. Riverside Mall, Rondebosch Pick n Pay, Tagore's, Trenchtown, Liesbeeck Gardens, Groote Schuur, Kenilworth - these places are only listed and will have no meaning for anyone other than a handful of Capetonians. 
Nevertheless, in the bored atmosphere of drugs, sex and violence, Mahlangu sprinkles a few literary references. We are told the narrator, an aspirant writer, buys JM Coetzee's Summertime, Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea and Can Themba's The Will to Die. But these references seem like arbitrary name-dropping, because nothing significant is ever said or made of them. A particularly amusing example is of Charles Dickens's Hard Times, where the narrator erroneously praises the "neat and concise use of language" of the Victorian writer well-known for his convoluted and dense style.
A great irony then, is that one such support which Mahlangu claims for his novel is Nausea. It is as though by pinning the haphazard nature of his book on the fragmentation which Sartre produces in his early novel, that Mahlangu hopes to sidestep everything we conventionally look for in a novel. 
Sartre's novel details the isolation of its first-person narrator heading for a nervous breakdown. 
The story is told through fictionalised diary entries. But notably, Mahlangu's novel suggests nothing of the examination, self-evaluation and attention to detail of Sartre's account. Critics have praised it as a dense and compelling novel which renders several weeks of the life of Antoine Roquentin in realistic, self-conscious and pain-staking detail.
Most importantly though, the protagonist of Sartre's novel is notably not Sartre - and this is where the sophistication of the novel lies. It could only be sheer narcissism and false encouragement that would have Mahlangu believe that an incident like his friend getting locked in Tagore's, a jazz club, is particularly engaging to anyone but him. And this is what the novel deals in: the rather boring and meaningless life of Mahlangu/Mangaliso - hanging out at home, going to work, chilling with his friends, having sex and doing drugs. 
The problem then is that this novel fails on two counts: firstly in its attempt to be literary, serious and comment on the state of South Africa and its inhabitants. It fails to provide the reader with any coherent and plotted storyline or any character with which we can identify. All this novel expresses is that Mangaliso/Mahlangu desperately wants to be a writer, but simply isn't. What we are left with is a novel that tells us nothing. It's all aspiration with no substance.
We certainly need black novelists narrating their experiences in Cape Town. As Mangaliso says, "What sticks in my mind is his claim that you can gauge the civilisation of a people by their arts". If this is true, then Penumbra is a testament to something quite worrying. As is that this vanity project has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. As Mahlangu says in the opening line of his novel: "This is not how things are meant to be." - published May 18, 2014. 


  1. Bru do you know that the book is winning and selling like hot cakes off major bookstores.

  2. Thanks for the information! I am looking to travel to Cape Town. I didn't want to visit when I heard about Cape Town's water problems, but since it is fine I am ready to go!

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