Mandla Langa’s The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Picador Africa) is remarkable for its continent-wide reach. Certainly it is one of the most ambitious recent novels to come out in South Africa. Set in a fictional island republic, the book is vividly aware of the world beyond South Africa — both in terms of its subject matter and the way it is written.
The allegorical book is expansive in scope and its use of myth and legend. It is also provocative in the way it examines power as it presides over disease and death. Recently the novel was the subject of a public discussion at Wits University, on the same day the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize committee announced that it had been nominated in the category of Africa’s Best Book.
The discussion was moderated by Wits University-based writer and feminist Pumla Gqola and involved fellow scholars Robert Muponde and the head of the Wits school of language and literature, Professor Leon de Kock. De Kock situated the book in the context of the general concerns expressed by writer and critic Lewis Nkosi about the South African novel. Nkosi remarked in 1966 that the South African novel was mere reportage and that the country had nothing to compare “with the imaginative power of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or the placid grace of its style”.
De Kock also talked about scholar Dan Wylie, who was similarly fascinated by the grand South African novel and who loudly wondered why South African novelists wrote small, unambitious books that don’t rate when compared with Nobel-winning poet Derek Walcott and Booker-winning novelist Ben Okri. De Kock commended Langa’s book for breaking “with the modesty of South African writing”, adding that it was “very ambitious, sophisticated and structured”.
The novel is set in the fictional post-colonial state of Bangula, in the grip of a pestilence that is vaguely referred to as the “blood plague”, perhaps appropriately as the leader of the country is referred to just as the Colonel. The Colonel won’t accept that the country is diseased — the disease that dares not be named in a country led by a leader who will not be named. (It reminds you that Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda was referred to as the Ngwazi, literally meaning “great lion” or “conqueror”, or Moammar Gadaffi as the Brother Leader in Libya.)
The Colonel, who is later succeeded by his son Abioseh, heads a government that runs a country of one million people. You want to think that this is the kind of population that lends itself to a cohesive state. Yet the state is riven, perhaps a natural condition considering its sordid history of slavery and warlordism.
There are dissatisfied whites; Creoles “whose bodies were in Bangula while their spirits were ensconced in Europe”; and Africans who live in poverty, some of whom who are part of the Blood of the Ancestors, a tribal, somewhat superstitious outfit that has a long history of fighting on the island. “One faction felt that the long route towards nationhood had skipped a crucial phase, namely, the shedding of blood —” The Colonel believes that “beneficiaries from the spoils of the past had got off lightly”. He is peeved by how the “landed didn’t care when farmers’ dogs savaged” black people and “how their radio talk shows received calls sympathising with the traumatised dogs that must have been provoked by the victims”.
Although race is one of the big issues, it is the blood plague that threatens to get in the way of a programme grandly named Reform. The Colonel reasons that “we’re [a] poor country with a population of around a million. We can’t spend so much on health. Keeping dying people alive is very expensive.”
When Abioseh takes over a barely functional state he sees the need “to reform the Reform”. Death has become so prevalent that even the undertaker complains that “the gravesite is protesting and saying: no more; enough is enough, at the sight of so many of our dead”. As is to be expected, Bangula has become a police state and one security chief wonders if he shouldn’t install some listening devices in confessional booths as these may yield valuable intelligence.
The book is ambitious and shows some of the problems one expects to see in grandly imagined narratives. At times, however, it feels overwritten and a few of the passages a tad drawn out. At the Wits discussion one of the panellists found the choice of genre baffling. “Do you want to allegorise the pathological failure of this continent to govern itself?” De Kock asked. But Gqola praised the narrative’s resisting of specificity — a feature that comes largely from its use of allegory.
De Kock’s argument about the suitability of allegory recalls what VS Naipaul said about magical realism and the genre’s chief exponent, the Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He said: “There is far too much reality in Colombia and writers must express it with realism rather than resort to all these gimmicks.”
Allegory allows the imagination to soar, as Langa’s novel shows. It also makes possible a narrative that could be described loosely as a “beast of no nation” — the type of story that resonates everywhere. Yet one could lose the rawness and the identification with a particular locale that comes with specificity.
Still, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon remains a challenging, provocative and– at times — uneasy read on death and power in the post-colony.