Haunting and provocative mix for 2010 UJ Prize winners

Imraan Coovadia and Jacob Dlamini are the winners of the annual University of Johannesburg literary awards. Coovadia won the main prize for his third novel, High Low In-between (Umuzi, 2009), an absorbing and disturbing story about a son returning from San Francisco to South Africa and finding that his family isn’t what he thought it was. Dlamini took the Debut prize for his nuanced memoir, Native Nostalgia (Jacana, 2009).

As the story of High Low In-between unfolds, Shakeer witnesses his family and the country itself become stranger still. This dark, penetrating exposé of a not-so-new South Africa is a departure from Coovadia’s riotously funny and irreverent earlier work, The Wedding (2001) and Green-eyed Thieves (2006). In serious mode, however, Coovadia is just as incisive.

The chief focaliser in the narrative is Shakeer’s doctor mother, Nafisa, and the strong tension generated in the story stems largely from her disintegrating private life: her husband’s death (suicide or murder?) is merely the most obvious aspect of this. Her irregular finances are being probed by the Receiver, her household is slipping from her grasp and she suffers a needle-stick injury from an HIV-positive patient, which she fatalistically leaves untreated.

The larger social currents around her increasingly vertiginous world are equally disturbing: corruption and political meddling in medical practice (the roll-out of antiretrovirals, for example) is depicted in the most sinister light, malpractice in the form of illegal organ transplants occurs in a dark underworld that is becoming tacitly accepted and old political loyalties are being jettisoned in the race to get on to the gravy train.

The prime target of the critique, however, is Mbeki-era Aids mumbo-jumbo. Shakeer’s father, who was forced out of his position at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (which doesn’t come out of this novel well) for isolating a strain of the HI virus unique to Africa (summarily declared a “racist virus” by the health authorities), stands accused of violating the “dignity” of Africans.

Shakeer caustically muses: “The Health Minister promoted African dignity by passing suitcases of illegal money to Hansel Metzger [read Matthias Rath, peddler of “anti-HIV vitamins”] at the Union Buildings. She ensured African dignity by drinking herself into a public stupor by lunchtime on a working day. But dignity, dignity, dignity forbade counting the numbers of the dead.”

So Coovadia does not shrink from tackling the Alice-in-Wonderland oddities of the new South Africa, but, in the end, the concentration of High Low In-between is elsewhere: in the strangeness of people one is supposedly close to, in the myriad, intricate triggers that cause catastrophes, in the ultimate mystery of human beings and their infinite complexities.
Abstract, dreamlike, yet pungently real, High Low In-between will provoke and haunt readers in equal measure.

With its baby-pink cover, provocative title and still more provocative contents, Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia — part-history, part-memoir, part-polemic — is bound to create waves.

Received wisdom on the apartheid era is that all urban blacks suffered in much the same way and were herded into dormitory townships that were lifeless, sterile and uniformly oppressive. And then the miracle happened: the millennium dawned, the ANC was triumphant and basked forever after in the praise of a grateful populace.

If this is your version of the past 50 or so years, then Native Nostalgia will fog up your reading glasses. With a disarming freshness, conveyed in highly readable (at times, extremely funny) prose, Dlamini proceeds to poke gaping holes in this political fairy tale.

In his rendering, the township of his youth (Katlehong) was a rich and varied world made up of an array of cultures, languages, belief systems and moral codes. Oppression and injustice there certainly was, but Dlamini is more concerned to lift out the people’s resilient will to live — their humour, their love of using Afrikaans expressions (this one’s sure to rattle a few cages), the fascinating texture of their daily lives.

To cap everything, Dlamini is well read and theoretically sophisticated — that most damnable thing of all: a sassy, educated native. He deftly weaves social theory into his narrative about the subversiveness of state radio, local boxing heroes (among them Gerrie Coetzee — surprise, surprise) and the larger-than-life characters of the township. The result is a breath of fresh air on a stale subject.

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