Skip the small talk
SMALL THINGS by Nthikeng Mohlele (UKZN Press)
An author's first novel is a miracle, a feat you can't really explain, American writer Jeffrey Eugenides said (or words to that effect) in a BBC interview. That interview came to mind while reading Nthikeng Mohlele's second novel, Small Things.
After the elegance and assuredness of his first novel, The Scent of Bliss, I was expecting him to take the proverbial next rung up.
Mohlele was able to get exiled elder statesman of letters JM Coetzee to write a blurb for his novel. I can see why Coetzee would want to prop up Mohlele.
In some ways, Mohlele must remind Coetzee of his younger self.
Both write what might be said to belong to the metafiction faction of literature; both aspire to conceive sentences so elegant that they could decide to up and leave, baggage-free — off the page, I mean — for a walk in the Karoo.
This is not meant to be a comparative take on Mohlele and Coetzee. So let's quickly state what the Nobel Booker-winning writer said of Mohlele and move on to the small matter of Small Things.
"Behind this story of love, music and the eternal quest lies an artistic sensibility as generous as it is complex. The prose is rich in texture, the final effect melancholy and comic in equal proportions."
It's about a nameless person, a newspaper columnist and trumpeter, who grows up in the shadow of the fame of Sophiatown, "the Chicago of South Africa".
His father, a miner, died in a mining accident; about his mother, nothing is known. So he grew up in Benevolence Place, a Catholic-run orphanage where monks were always quick to remind him that "you do not have parents".
Our protagonist is something of a delinquent and he is soon expelled from the orphanage (for "being a demon"); he is then taken in by Bra Todd, who is something of a jazz head and teaches him a newspaperman's ways. Our protagonist is besotted with Bra Todd's niece, Desiree, a pivot around which the narrative revolves.
If there is another pivot it is the imposing suspension bridge named after our icon, Nelson Mandela. But this comes much later. Before Mandela looms over Johannesburg (and by extension the nation's imagination), our protagonist spends 18 years in an apartheid torture chamber for an inflammatory comment piece he wrote for a newspaper.
He is interrogated, locked in solitary confinement or set to "digging furrows, clearing bushes, moving and carrying logs and timber".
However implausible that may seem, 18 years later, our hero lurks in the shadows of the bridge, feeling the blues and blaring them out on his trumpet.
Almost unbelievably, he still retains his love for Desiree, who is now a big-time corporate lawyer. After some time roughing it, he gets a publicity job in Newtown for a tourism company.
The novel combines wry commentary about the country ("This is a great country, but fools will ruin it"), endless Baudelairean strolls in the city, the pangs of unrequited love and wailing in the eaves of the bridge, the Jo'burg structure that joins two halves of the city and two ideas of South Africa: the North and the South.
The novel is unsatisfying on many levels, not just its unwieldy, almost nonexistent plot. That's a compliment — the plot for metafictioneers is not that central, it's what they do with the sentence and thought that matters.
And many of the novel's sentences are unsatisfactory. We don't want to concentrate on cheesy metaphors like this one: "Her belly with enough wine to floor nine pirates" or this simile: "My love for her is still as distinct, detailed and colourful as coral reeds in sea beds" but on the blandness of some key episodes in the novel."
Our protagonist's old flame, Desiree, is living with a mathematician who has been trying to come up with a theorem that shows how "life is meaningless".
Those who follow happenings in the world of mathematics will know about the solving of what's known as the ABC Conjecture by a Japanese-American genius, Shinichi Mochizuki.
In lay terms, the puzzle is about the relationship between addition and multiplication; the idea was first proposed by David Masser and Joseph Oesterle in 1980.
When I read Caroline Chen's article on Mochizuki, not a particularly well-written piece of journalism, I got a really good idea about this signal moment in maths. (If you are interested in this fascinating story, google her article.)
Reading the episode about the meaningless of life in Mohlele's novel, from which I expected more rigour and sophistication, wasn't thrilling. The moment lacks mathematical dexterity and philosophical flourish.
The novel ends with our protagonist retreating into some Arcadian idyll. Of course, I don't wish to prescribe how people write their novels, but I have a problem with a novel in which people leave the city in resignation to settle in a pastoral landscape where they await their death.
A line from Patrick Chamoiseau's work of genius, Texaco, might be useful: "They were fleeing the countryside to moor their hopes in City's enigma" and, elsewhere, "in a few years, more than half of humanity will face, under similar conditions, what she calls City".
China, what a few decades ago could have been described as a rural country, has more people living in cities than in the country.
We can't run away from the city as millions flood into it; we have to make sense of it. That's one small thing humanity must deal with in this century.