An author to note
Some weeks ago, unable to sleep, I rummaged through my to-read book pile. I found a small white book, The Scent of Bliss (Kwela Books). The choice was deliberate: I wanted a small book, a read I could rush through in those waking moments.
By early morning, and scores of pages later, I had resolved to speak to its author, Nthikeng Mohlele. The Scent of Bliss is about a literary scholar simply called Q who lives in a place called Lumumbaville. From his flat there, he surveys the busy city. His is a forlorn view of the place, where pleasure seems to be followed immediately by death. He sees "men with throbbing loins whispering things into young ears, then an embrace, a pizza, parted legs, and a pine coffin".
The character Q works at the local university where he teaches creative writing. It is a rather uninspiring job; he finds that many of his students don't bother to consult him, although hundreds of people go to the nearby My Kind of Jazz, a record shop turned into a butchery. Q is attracted to Bernice, owner of the butchery.
Mohlele's book is the sort where the narrative is clipped of all but the essential detail, and to a large extent this works, especially in the first half. He writes assuredly, with ease and elegance. During the course of the book we notice that Q is no longer working at the university and his lover has disappeared into nothing. Perhaps owing to Bernice's disappearance and the end of his career as a scholar, he picks up a peculiar hobby: collecting insects. "A single operation takes a whole day ... following which he sits on his veranda and studies the patterns on the wings of butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantises and moths."
He also tries out the fleshy offerings of Lumumbaville and on a certain day he picks up Belinda, a young girl. When she gets into his flat she blurts out, "What are you doing with so many books? Don't you have a life?" Belinda, not unexpectedly, finds the prevailing jazz mood oppressive: "Who the fuck is Miles Davis anyway?" He is rattled by this, but her supple body atones for these indiscretions. "If the world depended solely on how people look, Belinda might have a future," Q says to himself.
Certain moments are moving and executed with astute assuredness, but I found Mohlele's nonchalant refusal to saddle his book with detail a bit disconcerting, especially in the second half. His probing poetic style at times waves away emotion, resulting in a rather skeletal feel to a potentially meaty story.
A few days after completing The Scent of Bliss, I meet Mohlele at a restaurant in Rosebank. He is wearing a black suit and a checked shirt. I offer to buy lunch, he politely refuses and promptly apologises for refusing my offer, saying: "I was at Kaya FM and I ate something there." He has had an operation on his stomach and can't, for medical reasons, stuff himself with food. Instead, he orders still water and during our interview gulps mouthfuls of it, almost as if it were a tonic.
"Any literary influences?" I begin. He says he has been influenced by music more than by writers. "I like the way music is composed and I find that I am fascinated by the way it is put together," he says and adds that he wants to enrol for a music degree to understand it better. He finds trumpeters the most intriguing of all musicians: "It's amazing what comes out of just blowing air into an instrument."
He is drawn to the brevity that is typical of most musical compositions and poetry, which he described as a "demanding" form. He says: "When I write poetry I am able to compress vast narratives."
Yet ours is a long, rambling, lively talk—almost two hours in which Mohlele proves that he has "a wild imagination". We talk about books (and his book in particular), philosophy and music (Miles Davis in particular). "The most wonderful people are people who broke the rules," he says enthusiastically about Davis's improvisations and how that shaped the way jazz is now played.
"Lumumbaville is everywhere," he says, going back to his book. "It's everywhere where there are people." Mohlele wanted the city to be named after an iconic figure, one who was selfless in terms of sacrifice and ideology. The choice was also about difference: "I like distinction. I don't want to do what everyone else has done."
I point out that Q as the name of the main character is rather curious. "Yes, I thought about giving him a name. I wanted mystery to the character." He says he wrote characters from the alphabet before he settled for Q. "He is someone trying to forge an identity. He is a microcosm for other people like him." Names such as Q and Lumumbaville may sidetrack those who want to pin down the book to a certain locale, but he has a Jan Coetzee, a very South African name. Still, he says: "I don't like context. A writer shouldn't allow himself to be dictated to by context. In fact, I don't want to respect reason."
I point out that, perhaps, he could have put a bit more flesh and a little more narrative symmetry to his work. "I despise structure," he says, with mock heat. "It places limits. I think ideas are more important. In the real world that's not how things are." He says the real world is not linear. He comes back to why he finds poetry a compelling medium. "It is open to a trillion interpretations."
"I don't like long books. That's why it's important not to waste phrases. We shouldn't use images of convenience. Whatever image you use should echo beyond the text."
The Scent of Bliss starts penetratingly but somehow loses its poetic and philosophical energies. Nonetheless it's a remarkable debut. Mohlele is a novelist to look out for.