Untitled: Prey to ?his decay
UNTITLED by Kgebetli Moele (Kwela)
Kgebetli Moele engages the reader at once, intimately and directly, often uncomfortably, in the thoughts of his protagonist; this is part of his original and specific approach to writing fiction.
In his startling first novel, Room 207 (Kwela, 2006), he showed what it was like to be a young black man with more brains and aspirations than available funds, battling against the odds in Hillbrow in the throes of transformation.
In Untitled, he turns his attention to young girls in school in small rural places like Teyageneng. It's true they are in school (most of their grandmothers were not), some have cellphones (but no airtime), and they may even have access to computers and TV (while still having to heat water on the stove to wash). But what is life like for them if they are surrounded by adults who do not protect them, if they are exposed to men whose minds are "completely decayed"?
Of all the ills and sadnesses that are affecting (even afflicting) us in South Africa, one of the worst is the plague of rape. How is it possible, how – in God's name, or whoever – can grown men rape children? Many readers will have asked themselves that question. It goes from bad to worse: women, young girls, tiny girls. Moele concerns himself in this novel with the young girls, and he deals with many levels and forms of coercion.
"His mind had completely decayed; he could not see anything wrong with what he was doing."
These words come from Mo-kgethi, the 17-year-old girl narrator in Moele's latest novel. She is at school in Teyageneng, which could be Anyvillage or Anytownship in South Africa, and the "completely decayed" mind belongs to the principal.
The cover looks like the soft grey-blue of a school exercise book, the kind that Mokgethi may have used as her personal diary, the book for her poems, her most personal thoughts. From the heart and totally unpretentious.
Once again Moele delivers with seemingly artless simplicity a narrative of considerable complexity and depth. Mokgethi might be 17 but she is bright and self-respecting enough to think she might get a scholarship to Oxford; and she knows she is beautiful. Her life circumstances are believable – not perfectly ideal but good enough, okay.
Even so, one Saturday afternoon she makes an error of judgment, allows herself to be taken for a ride, and then has to come to terms with the new, changed Mokgethi.
In her diary she recounts in a conversation with herself and the reader the downfall of some of her friends who have been lured or forced into sexual activity as young as 11. She brings up for consideration complicated and difficult matters: What is the position of children left in the care of angry and exhausted grandmothers; what to make of girls who use sex to survive, and how long can they expect to live; what of babies born to 15-year-olds?
Disastrous as these matters may seem, Moele has more for the reader. He takes on seemingly respectable men – teachers, dance instructors, taxi drivers, uncles – all esteemed in the community, who have sex with very young girls, repeatedly and either in secret or openly. And then some cops, some magistrates, the old and young gossips, the families who condone, who turn a blind eye, all play a role and are all revealed in Mokgethi's story.
Moele shows very skilfully how reputations and self-esteem are mangled by malicious rumour, and how girls themselves are sometimes drawn into contributing to this comprehensive personal and societal disaster by also gossiping and accepting the un(en)titled role they get thrown into while still children.
Moele has studied communication science, works as a part-time taxi driver and has travelled in the United States and Europe ("Offshoots of being a writer," he says). He has considerable insight into and respect for women, which is reflected in his many strong (though not always "good" or "nice") female characters. He says he began the novel unintentionally. "It began as a poem for Refilwe, to Refilwe, and a week later the first draft of the manuscript was done."
Asked how he got into her voice and headspace, he politely demurs: "I think that it is a creative process hard to pin down and explain."
That may well be but he has succeeded in creating a powerful novel, difficult to endure but fluent and easy to read.
Untitled is not a polemic or a sermon; it's a novel first and foremost, but it could be read at schools, in youth groups and, perhaps best of all, in private, by young girls like Mokgethi; and by young men like her friends James and Mamafa – but most especially by teachers, parents and whoever else has contact with those whose brains have "completely decayed". However unused to or inept they may be at reading fiction, some beneficial residue of understanding and compassion may remain.
Moele's award-winning Room 207 generated much debate and his work has been translated into French and Italian. Despite his success, he says: "It is the hope [that writing will pay the rent] of every South African writer; most of the time it doesn't materialise but, more than the financial gains, writing is addictive, a drug/gambling-level addiction, and it defies reason."
Of his fellow writers his current favourites are Given Mukwevho (Traumatic Revenge), Nthikeng Mohlele, Makhosazana Xaba and Vonani Bila, among others. For Mo-kgethi's own list of favourite books, see page 37 of Untitled.