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Scribe of the times

A great moment for our literary culture,” Lewis Nkosi pronounced the Cape Town Book Fair, where he was a distinguished guest, launching a new book and participating in panels, as well as celebrating his 70th birthday. He laughs about the time, long ago when he and other progressive writers tried to shut down the Frankfurt Book Fair for a day in protest against apartheid. But he also agonised about the disservice that would do to book lovers.

In the 1950s, he recalls, “I was one of those lonely guys in Sophiatown carrying books … People said, ‘Lewis Nkosi’s always carrying books with him.’ The tsotsis used to say ‘Spy!’ because you were smuggling literature into the township, instead of being a performer, a jazz musician.”

Nkosi, who has spent the better part of his life outside his native South Africa, seems to have found a sort of internal exile in his interest in literature, despite his standing as a Drum journalist. Yet he reminisces too about a moment when his picture made it to the front page of The Golden City Post because he and a colleague had been beaten up by racists in Zeerust. Suddenly people approached him in the streets, treated him like a hero.

A wanderer for decades, he is at home primarily in his writing, as the editors of a new collection of essays by and about Nkosi write. But he also connects with the idea of heroism, and what it might mean in a society desperate for people to look up to. In the 1950s, black urban South Africans idolised gangsters as much as jazz musicians. Nkosi’s third and latest novel, Mandela’s Ego, deals with the contradictions of hero-worship: it’s about a Zulu man, Dumisani, whose sexual potency is compromised by the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. There is a dark Fanonist joke here, perhaps — it was the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon who equated the position of the colonised with emasculation.

“But Dumisani also makes love through Keats,” notes Nkosi. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness …” he quotes Ode to Autumn with exaggerated ponderousness. In young Dumisani’s mind, Romanticism and romance are one, and his hero-worship of Mandela is a form of romanticism too.

Whatever their confusions or inner splits, says Nkosi, “I’m in love with my characters. I’m always using them to look at the other characters, to make a judgement — a moral judgement, an ethical judgement.”

Critical judgement is at the centre of Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi, edited by Lindy Stiebel and Liz Gunner and published by Wits University Press. It acts as something of a Festschrift for Nkosi. The first half collects pieces by various commentators, mostly academic, about Nkosi’s work: his criticism, poetry, plays and fiction. The second half is Nkosi “in his own voice”, including revealing interviews and a selection of his essays — on Bloke Modisane, négritude, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and “the republic of letters after the Mandela republic”.

The title ties him to his work on Drum magazine in the 1950s, though the volume does not contain any of his journalism from the era — perhaps it is now to be regarded as juvenilia, but it would be good to have a taste of his earliest writing. Also, his short stint on Drum was just his starting point and he has moved a long way from there physically, across the globe, and in his critical and creative work.

Nkosi left South Africa while in his early 20s, studied in the United States, then left for London, where he spent the next decade, writing and broadcasting. After that, he spent time teaching in the United States and elsewhere, before settling in Switzer-land. He has returned to South Africa to visit, speak and teach since 1990, but has not settled back here permanently.

Nkosi’s critical work is always direct and personal. Yet he has clearly engaged critical theory and adapts it easily to his purposes, whether critical or creative. It is perhaps most evident in his fiction. In this he is closer to Coetzee than to, say, Gordimer, or to Esk’ia Mphahlele, whom Nkosi excoriated in a famous essay included here. He raised many hackles, as long ago as 1966, by saying that he thought most South African fiction of the time was mere journalism masquerading as fiction — that it had not received the necessary investment of imagination or the requisite shaping of form. Here he pre-empted Albie Sachs’s controversial call, in the early 1990s, for our literature to cease limit-ing itself to struggle sloganeering, and Njabulo Ndebele’s later case for a “rediscovery of the ordinary”.

Nkosi’s fiction is provocative. Besides his plays, which are discussed in detail here and show his deep interest in psychoanalysis, his novels have caused upset. They are highly self-conscious literary works that aim to do much more than realistically reflect a particular situation, however accurately or insightfully. They are more like twisted fables.

Mating Birds (1983), his first novel and a late debut at age 47, is about a black man accused of raping a white woman; the novel is his lengthy self-examination and self-justification from prison. It was praised by Stephen Gray and damned by André Brink. In Still Beating the Drum, the novel and its reception history receive a careful reconsideration by Lucy Graham. Elsewhere, Andries Oliphant reads Nkosi’s novel Underground People (begun 1978, revised 2002), about an agent for the “National Liberation Movement”, as an exercise in “demonic irony”. It would have been good to have some comment on Mandela’s Ego, but time constraints probably precluded that.

The pieces in Still Beating the Drum provide a stimulating overview of Nkosi’s writing career, a map of his complex, shifting “home”. His previous critical books are out of print, and he surely has more to say, so what we need now is a Collected Essays.

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