The Texture of Shadows: Beyond anger and retribution

THE TEXTURE OF SHADOW by Mandla Langa (Picador Africa)

Few people really know what went on in the struggle in South Africa between apartheid government forces and the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). In The Texture of Shadows, Mandla Langa addresses this ignorance, and tells the inside story of MK soldiers.

Nerissa Rodrigues, chaplain to the soldiers, addresses the president of the exiled movement in a thoughtful and contemplative note on her concerns about the treatment of people incarcerated in ANC camps, and the location of the graves of soldiers buried on foreign soil. (In real life there were many such letters sent to the ANC president in exile.)

The story is set in the period just before Nelson Mandela was released. Two units of trained soldiers in the People’s Army cross from Botswana into the then western Transvaal. One group is bringing back two heavy trunks; in this unit the soldiers’ code names are the names of trees such as Mahogany and Sassafras; young men who in a previous life were taxi drivers, photographers and such.

One of the units hides out in a cave, waiting and keeping watch: “There was something addictive about nightfall, its tenderness, the sounds, far off, of a silence coming from the villages signified only by smoke.”

Real characters emerge for these men despite their hidden identities and that none of them knows the real names of the others in their unit. The military man in charge of this operation is General Palweni; Mahogany’s unit has some doubts about him – there have been rumours. What happens to them all over the next 10 days is the main thread of the story, but in flashbacks the reader is given a detailed picture of life in the training and prison camps, of Angolan villages, of Luanda and Gaberone.

‘The culture of secrecy’ 
Another major character is Jan Stander of the South African security police whose mission is to identify, corrupt, threaten, intimidate and finally turn those soldiers he wishes to recruit as askaris; and then to embed them within the ranks of the People’s Army.

These askaris include Jolene, a young white woman from Calvinia in the Northern Cape, who starts out with the FNLA in Angola under Roberto Holden. She’s not your average platteland meisie, and this is a fascinating portrait drawn with both mocking insight and compassion. Another askari, more dominant in the novel, is Strella, trained as a sniper in Libya, a survivor and a killer – an unforgettable creation, perhaps not entirely human – who turns up everywhere in this complex tale. Nerissa herself surmises that he might be just a shadow.

The culture of secrecy within the Movement, though necessary, lends itself to abuses, and Nerissa is sent to investigate Sector 37, a camp under the command of Nozishada, “a man of ferocious strength and grace, a warrior resplendent in battledress with a shiny holster in which nestled an officer’s pistol that lent grandeur to destructive power. But as she looked into his eyes, she encountered an arrogance so deep as to defy categorisation.”

From Angola, Botswana and the western Transvaal the story moves to KwaMashu, near Durban, where a cell of the internal wing of the Movement has taken in the survivors of Mahogany’s unit. These men are guarding the one trunk that they still have, and everyone now wants. In KwaMashu more characters and factions come into play: hostel dwellers from Kwa’mshayazafe, young drug-dealing gangsters with guns, one psychopathic fugitive from the People’s Army, and two young women, who are lovers of the main players but also, it so happens, influential comrades in their own way.

‘Beyond anger, retribution and politics’ 
Langa pulls all these strands into an extraordinary denouement, which he advances slowly as he relates the same chain of events over and again, each time from a different point of view, keeping the reader in suspense as to the final outcome. And this slow replay allows time for each character to reflect on what has brought them to this point.

In her note to the president, Nerissa says: “I have had to reach deep to understand the dialectic of good and evil in the context of our struggle.” Langa examines this in the human reality of each character. What happens to the trunk, who gets killed and by whom, are all woven into a riveting final section in which fire and firearms play a significant role, and all the characters, even in the midst of a township battle, have choices – and exercise them.

Langa himself went into exile in the 1970s, was based in Lusaka and elsewhere, and did military training. He also lost a brother, Ben Langa, who was killed on the incorrect suspicion of being an informer for the apartheid government. The ANC admitted this in their submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996. While Langa offers a frank view of the underbelly of the liberation movement, and counters the dominant post-liberation narrative, he also acknowledges the complex good achieved.

His main protagonist, Nerissa, is an inspired creation and lifts the novel beyond anger, retribution and politics. There is no lack of action, quite the contrary, but Nerissa above all refocuses on the spiritual realm, on the morality of her comrades. She herself is no stranger to anger and a visceral desire for justice, especially in relation to Stander who, even in his final moments, thinks he should be thanked for what he thinks he’s done for “yorr pippel”.

Wounds to the psyche 
In a recent interview, Langa said Nerissa is a composite character, based on a number of women, but especially on the late ANC activist Phyllis Naidoo, who rescued “countless lives of young refugees and exiles”. In our apparently limitless fascination with war, so many memoirs, histories and novels have been written. Langa’s novel focuses not on battle and weaponry, nor even on heroism and adventure, but on the long moment of transition from armed struggle and the return from exile.

And like WE Sebald in Austerlitz, Langa uses fiction to explore wounds to the psyche – Sebald’s novel follows a war orphan into adulthood; Langa tells of soldiers returning to the world of so-called peace, in which they are no longer at home, and faith and hope are assaulted by betrayals, madness and, as Nerissa says, “diseases of the body and mind”.

Moving and memorable, this novel will hold its place among the best in our literature.

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