/ 21 February 2005

To burn so bright and die so young

"They stand aside, and they say that these things just trickle off your tongue. To burn so bright, and to die so young. Phaswane Mpe never told us this, not in so many words, anyway, but what he was writing out was the process of his own possible dilemma." John Matshikiza writes about Mpe and K Sello Duiker.

They stand aside, and they say that these things just trickle off your tongue. To burn so bright, and to die so young.

Phaswane Mpe never told us this, not in so many words, anyway, but what he was writing out was the process of his own possible dilemma. His one and only novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, turns out to have been a warning, a commiserating, an all too powerful statement about the present that we are living in.

It is rich and living, and was also talking about conflicting spaces and about living and dying. And it was also an elegy for his own life, a life filled with potential and wonder in the urban jungle of a wonderful new world that was to unfold before his very feet as he walked it.

We never really listened to what he was talking about. He died at the age of 34, approaching the crest of his creative powers, a writer and academic, a teacher and an (albeit quiet) talker, a man who was destined to make a difference to the profile of our post-apartheid universe of optimism and pain and space.

All of that potential was taken out when he literally walked out of a proud academic future and, against his own will, against the will of all those who supported and loved his individual sense of expression, nevertheless, surrounded by imponderable thunderbolts from the world of the unfathomable spirits, succumbed to the dismal, unspeakable, infernal past, the negation of the present, to what the Artist Formerly Known as Prince would have called a big disease with a little name: or do we still not dare to call it by its name?

Okay. That was Phaswane Mpe. I met him. I knew him. He was my friend.

They say these things just trickle off your tongue, because, after all, you are just a writer. Stuff just pours out of you. That’s what you do.

Not so. Writers die.

To burn so bright, and to die so young. How do I explain the self-immolating fire of K Sello Duiker? Maybe there is after all a connection between these two talented black deaths right here, just when everything is seemingly ready for us to take control of a culturally, psychologically, economically, politically undefined space in the not-yet-wasteland of post-apartheid South Africa.

Two of the new generation of finally free black South Africans burying themselves beneath the ground, retiring to the inner recesses of the ant heap and its murky depths, removing themselves from the light of this long-awaited new day that they themselves spent so much time and talent articulating, against the odds.

Let us be clear: this was talent. But what is talent?

In this case, I believe that it is about being able to take a hawk’s eye view and a worm’s eye view on the lives we are living, and then not just describing, but analysing them. Like tearing apart the ant heap into which you are about to surrender yourself, whose mud and ash will be your burial blanket, your eiderdown.

K Sello Duiker describes momentary clarity in the mist of a drunken party as a state of being “clearheaded as a pilot”. He describes the unraveling of proceedings “as the evening grew deeper” and proceeds to tell us just what happened, and what the outcome was. The outcome was not necessarily what the protagonists thought it would be. Pleasure, or the false dream of pleasure to come, was soon to be replaced by the hangover of daylight robbery.

“Themba looked at me as though to say: be careful where you’re treading. You don’t want to fuck up a potential lay. But I was drunk and I knew that if I tried to lie it would be unconvincing. Besides, I was a little wary of Lorain, who’d told me earlier that she was a third-year psych student. There was something about the way she looked at me that made me a little paranoid, as though she was scrutinising everything I said and forming rash opinions.”

He wakes up the next morning to discover that his instincts about Lorain (whoever she or he is) were entirely correct. Lorain and his/her friends are gone, along with the thin skin of the reality that the unseen narrator (presumably K Sello Duiker himself) and his partner-in-crime, Themba, were clinging to in the new world into which they had been involuntarily born.

Individually and severally, as they say, Phaswane Mpe and K Sello Duiker thrust us against the uneven window of the delights and despites of the country that we now claim as our own. What have we really inherited? How many questions have we really asked ourselves, and how many others have been deliberately left unanswered in the name of expediency, correctness, inherited prejudices of fear and loathing?

Or perhaps just ignorance?

“We had one kamikaze left to kill and enough shame and embarrassment to keep us celibate for the rest of the summer,” he says in his elegiac short story.

K Sello Duiker leaves us with a tantalising whiff of his brilliance. Phaswane Mpe too. Phaswane dared to speak of the loss of a whole generation at the jaws of the monster that was about to take him down.

It raises a question. They both raised questions. But in our new, naked and raw environment, we really cannot afford their loss.

I suppose that I am trying to say that, certainly with the death of true artists, there will always be more questions than answers.