/ 8 January 2010

Gripped by status anxiety

Gripped By Status Anxiety

Back in the 1980s ANC houses in Lusaka were filled with men who cooked. Military training camps had made them learn; the critical palates of comrades had made them improve; the praise of guests, grateful to anybody who could produce variety from pitifully boring supplies, made them take pride in it.

Back home from exile, you could tell when the normality of bourgeois relationships was restored. They started sitting back, feet up, arms folded, waiting for their wives — or the helper — to prepare the food.

Don Mateza, hero of Zakes Mda’s latest novel, Black Diamond (Penguin South Africa), is a man who still cooks. Not merely because he doesn’t have a wife. Cooking is one of the defiant little gestures Mateza makes to stay an ordinary man, when all around him are clawing their way to the top of the capitalist dung heap. It’s a detail that makes Mateza step off the page and breathe.

Black Diamond is an unusual book in the Mda opus. Originally conceived as a film script, Mda turned it into a novel when his erstwhile producer did a runner. So it has a conventional, action-driven plot. Don, working in a VIP security firm, moves in to protect a strait-laced magistrate, Kristin Uys, under threat from a thug she has jailed. Anyone who has watched The Bodyguard knows that jeopardy will provide the climax and that enforced closeness is likely to produce both tension and attraction. They won’t be disappointed.

The skeleton of what could have been a gripping crime film is still visible through the novelistic flesh. The cast of characters is limited, the forward unfolding of the plot episodic. And there is almost none of the surprise — a pinch of dreams, a nip of time travel, a hint of ancestral intervention and a bucket of enchanted coincidence — that has made Mda our finest magical-realist writer.

The settings are rich and vivid, illuminated by sensual detail, from the smell of food and the sound of jazz in Soweto to the padded poser at the Melrose Arch gym. Recognition stabs sharply: this is the Jo’burg you walked through this morning. And if the solidly grounded feet of the book disappoint readers who relish Mda’s magic, its satirical edge more than compensates. Most of those who surround Don — and especially his social-climbing, former-model girlfriend, Tumi — have either achieved black diamond status, aspire to it, or are reduced to impotence by the bitterness of knowing they’ll never make it. Mda does not preach; he makes us laugh out loud at the absurdity and nearly weep at the pointlessness of the goal.

Black Diamond is a book rich in symbols. Echoing John Gay and Bertolt Brecht, the criminality of black capitalists feeding off mines in war-ravaged neighbouring states has its obverse in the criminality of the Visagie brothers, who live off the detritus of consumerism in their chop shops and off the bodies of the women they pimp. Ideology shoulders out race as the great social divide, as one relationship shoulders out another in Don’s life.

But, if he is a recognisably real man you might drink with, the same is not so true of his female counterpart, the doughty Afrikaner magistrate. She works admirably as a symbol. In a world where costume is key to enacting class, the terrors in her soul are enacted through a darker form of solitary dress-up. Yet she is not entirely believable; she is so much surface that we never really get to know her beyond what we are told. And, though it’s the predictable ending for a film, Mda is certainly capable of a less gendered and more nuanced resolution to her complex unhappiness than simply salving it with the love of a good man.

Sadly, it’s a classic male literary perspective. Don lives autonomously; Kristin is revealed and resolved through her interactions with others.

But then there are the cats. Don owns and loves a pedigree longhair; the magistrate a street moggy. The cats are entirely believable. They create incidents, reveal character and change minds. Think of them as furry, four-legged tokoloshes and you’ll realise that Mda has not entirely forsaken his magic, even in this gritty tale of class and crime.