Imraan's words on the move
A few pages into Imraan Coovadia’s new novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry (Umuzi), and after briefly being tricked into swallowing its preposterous thesis, I upbraided myself for being insufficiently observant of Cape Town’s taxi life.
I visit the city often enough, so how had I missed the poems inscribed on the taxis that Coovadia writes about? I also wondered why this cerebral development had not wandered up north to Johannesburg.
Coovadia’s fourth novel is set in the city whose “cod-liver-oil sky” could signal “the possibility of rain in 10 minutes or blazing sun”.
Narrated by Adam Ravens, the book begins on a tragic note: veteran taxi poet Solly Greenfields has been shot dead at his cottage near Main Road in Woodstock. Solly is an old man and his peers, who are also enemies in the competitive taxi business, have lost their youthful ruthlessness. “So who would kill Solly? There were no obvious suspects.”
The trajectory of Solly’s career perhaps provides clues. For one, his fellow taxi poets “had never forgiven him for starting the Road Safety Council”. But danger lurks everywhere; after all, Cape Town is also a city “run by Croatian disco men from Zagreb and Malay gangsters from Pinelands” and its taxi industry is policed by surly Somali gunmen.
On Tuesday (or in chapter two, for the action unfolds over a week), the centre of the novel moves from the streets of the city to the citadel that is the University of Cape Town (UCT).
We await the arrival of exiled South African writer Gerome Geromian, now based in Brazil, who is due to be honoured by the university’s Institute for Taxi Poetry.
Geromian could be modelled on any of South Africa’s exiled star writers. Dennis Hirson? JM Coetzee? Manu Herbstein? Breyten Breytenbach?
Unfortunately, Geromian’s powers have waned and criticism (or, that ugly word, “criticality”) is similarly in short supply. Even if Geromian were to write a “list of the separate parts belonging to a Defy refrigerator, the reviewers, everywhere you went, would hail it as a cool triumph”. Critics, take note.
The Institute for Taxi Poetry is an experimental work that tries to view the world through a Lusophone lens. It imagines how our part of the world would have been if the Portuguese had been more effective colonisers.
If Coovadia’s work was a computer operating system, we would call it open source — it is so open in its imagination of another world. There are many references to Shona poetry, incidental mentions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dar es Salaam and many other African countries and cities. One of the book’s central characters, Antonia Chirindza, is Mozambican.
How would our arts and academia look if we all spoke Portuguese? What would be the nature of South Africa’s relations with Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and other countries? And how would we have reacted to the Lisbon revolution of 1974 that was the trigger of the bloody collapse of colonialism in Portugal’s dominions of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and the island nations of Cape Verde and São Tomé and Principe?
Instead of looking to Australia, Britain and the United States, we would be looking to Portugal and Brazil, as the Angolans do.
Now, Portugal is one of those sad, failed colonisers whose former possessions — and not just the gigantic land mass that is Brazil — are on the way up while the “mother country” slides inexorably into an economic abyss.
I visit Coovadia at his home in the suburb of Gardens in Cape Town to talk about his novel. He tells me The Institute for Taxi Poetry reflects his interest in the taxi industry, “the limits of university thinking” and his disgruntlement that race seems to be the default setting for South African literature.
“The problem with being a South African writer is that you always have to go back to race,” he says, adding that “hybridisation” in South Africa was well under way until it suddenly stopped. “Was it in 1994 or did it happen in 1653?” he asks.
And this is why the Lusophone lens is important. For whatever reason, the Portuguese colonists in Africa and elsewhere were not opposed to copulating with local African women, creating a new breed of mulattos and assimilados.
Coovadia, a university man (he teaches creative writing at UCT), says university life “walls you off [from] reality” to the point that the “working class is invisible”.
It is not just academia that is oblivious to other realities; our literature is too, he says.
Many of the writers emerging from the university setting are similarly blind to what is going on. This might explain why some novels coming out at the moment are tedious accounts of upper-middle-class lives. (If the Mail & Guardian books editor asks me to review another novel about a white woman and her idyllic life on a farm, I will challenge him to a fencing duel!)
Anyway, back to the novel. Coovadia says Cape Town is a fascinating city, but its varied segments never intersect. This novel can be seen as an attempt to link those disparate facets of the city.
He says that when Capetonians, indeed South Africans, are in awe of something, they say “it’s so European”. This, of course, extends to the South African novel. Indeed, one of the reasons why it is beloved in the rest of the “world” is because of the country’s strong ties to the English-speaking centres of the globe. Coovadia asks: “How much of our novel is borrowed from Europe?”
His novel does not rely heavily on Europe. It stares fixedly at the local and it tries to mix institutions such as the taxi industry and academia, which are not just worlds apart but also unrelenting in their narcissism and self-referentiality.
Does it work? Are these sundry parts expertly brought together to make the novel an organic whole?
I think there are times when the taxi parts feel like separate components, not oiled, creaky. It challenges the reader in certain ways. For instance, the first chapter is rather difficult reading. Even though it is spiced by the narrator’s witticisms (in conversation and lectures, Coovadia is extremely humorous), it is not easy reading; you never quite know how you are supposed to handle it.
Is it a satire, an allegory or a realistic novel? When you finally work it out as perhaps a satirical reading of the happenings in the English department of the university, the results are often intriguing.
There is an obvious problem with this dogged particularity: If a random reader in Malaysia picked up this novel, would it make sense? Would she enjoy it? Perhaps, perhaps not, but what cannot be scoffed at is the novel’s attempt to situate itself firmly in this distinctively South African setting.
Maybe Coovadia has a point: the university system should work in tandem with the taxi industry. If these institutions, very powerful and very provincial, could be made to work together, the race question that preoccupies us so much might be half-solved.
Despite its faults, Coovadia’s “tilting of the world” is commendable, a brave new imagining of the 1994 project.