Inventing new worlds

‘It’s really one of the few books that I have written that I really enjoyed [writing]. It has been a labour of love. I really enjoyed allowing my mind to wander, to break rules and to get out of constraints and boundaries. In a sense it was the spirit, which just transported me. I know its sounds mystical and all that, but ja, it really took me and transported me,” says Mandla Langa of his fifth novel, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Picador Africa).

Announced as the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book: Africa Region at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban on Wednesday, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon gave Langa much enjoyment in the creative process, which can perhaps be attributed to its allegorical nature.

Langa’s previous works were steeped in the South African reality, whether in stories of the armed struggle (A Rainbow on a Paper Sky, 1989) or internecine violence in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal (The Memory of Stones, 2000).

The Lost Colours of the Chameleon transports one to the fictional Indian Ocean island of Bangula as it examines the individual’s and society’s relationship with power in a fragile, newly formed nation suffering from a “Blood Plague”.

Langa says allegory allowed him “to dream, to paint on this plain canvas, to paint as much as you can without there being restrictions”.

As with all his books, Langa says he read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon during the creative process of The Lost Colours of the Chameleon: “There is something about the structure, the style. There is something about the irreverence of language and the ability to turn everything upside down and not follow convention — for me, that is refreshing and I hate boundaries, so it takes me out of the possibility of sticking to boundaries.”

He was challenged “to create the landscape that takes the reader into the country, into the mythical land and the fictitious place — succeeding in peopling that place with characters people can identify with”.

Langa later says that researching the dynamics of an Indian Ocean island — weather patterns or the prevalence of vultures — was “one of the hardest parts of writing this book”, which took three years to complete.

“The struggle was in the research; even though you have a mythical and fictitious place, it has to have the characteristics of a real place.”

The other struggles included having “to try to think of how to carry forth ideas of what is taking place in your own world into another realm and how not to be banal and pedestrian about it — To translate your own real circumstances into another reality — that takes a lot of doing,” says Langa.

“This book has been in the making for a number of years — I have really travelled around and seen quite a number of incredible jurisdictions and had conversations, and even in my previous incarnations when I was at Icasa [as chairperson of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa], I met some of these composite characters who have ended up as some of the players in my novel,” says the 59-year-old who spent much of his exile years around Africa. (Langa went abroad in the late Seventies; he is part of the anti-apartheid struggle aristocracy and Constitutional Court Chief Justice Pius Langa’s brother.)

The book was written while Langa was living in South Africa, with the impetus to sit down at the keyboard coming after considering socio-political events in “Africa, Latin America, Asia and, of course, some of the more egregious kind of stuff like the war in Iraq and the Palestinian question. But much more importantly, there was the stuff unfolding in Zimbabwe, there was our own possibilities of ‘if we don’t watch it as South Africans, we might be also heading down that route’.”

It is apparent that for Langa the “dysfunctional use of power” is a universal problem, which eventually becomes “indexed by the number of corpses that pile up”, thus making politics a “mortuary industry”.

“The book in some sense was an outburst from inside myself to comment on the post-colonial malaise where we finally achieve power, and the big question then, which is the big question of leadership all over — It is sometimes easy to get power, but it is insuperably difficult to deploy it. To handle it, and to not let it go to your head. In a sense I started to see glimpses in our own political make-up towards power becoming a burden.”

The allegorical nature of The Lost Colours of the Chameleon meant Langa was able to “criss-cross” cultures and lands to create a “new living people”, the Creoles of Bangula, which allowed him to “move away from the run-of-the-mill black-white contestation: even though it’s implied, it is not as glaring and in-your-face as has been the problem with South African literature”.

It was a deliberate attempt to “move away from that canon” of apartheid or anti-apartheid literature: “Racism is a universal sickness; it’s not only endemic in what is going on in South Africa. But I wanted to move away from what I can call favourite tropes of South African, sometimes even African, writing.”

On considering that the Commonwealth Prize shortlists for Africa were dominated by South Africans, Langa is effusive about the state of new South African literature: “It’s getting younger, it’s getting brasher, it’s getting much more inventive, dealing with themes you would never have dreamt of. The political circumstance in South Africa has thrown up, to my mind, a lot of creativity.”

Mandla Langa appears at the Time of the Writer Festival at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Elizabeth Sneddon theatre until March 14. Visit or call 031 260 2506

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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