14 stops to transformation

STATIONS by Nick Mulgrew
(David Philip)

Slipped into the middle of these collected stories is one that is a fragment, a succinct and poetic evocation of the aftermath and heritage of colonialism.

A shard from it reads thus: “This museum holds things, you said, that we shouldn’t remember. Things not worth remembering.
The decades have no hold on the amethyst ...”

Who can decide what we should remember? And with what relief we briefly consider the amethyst, while other matters are slowly processed.

Mulgrew clearly intends to contribute to transformation; his stories are direct and current. The title on the spine of the book designates them as “fourteen stories [crossed out] stops on a slow road to purgatory”. They range from the bliss and break-ups of love among the born-frees (Mulgrew is 26) to afterlife wanderings among the shades of settler ancestors, with sharp satire in between.

Love stories Athlone Towers, Turning and Stars are tenderly observed but steel at the core; Mulgrew shows relationships that won’t work. Most painful and poignant of these is Ponta da Ouro, in which a mother and son spend a first Christmas post-divorce in Mozambique, without husband and father. Here, as in Stars, Mulgrew invokes traditional routines and rituals such as going to Christmas Mass or a cleansing swim at dawn as a way of seeking solace. At the same time, he seems to doubt their efficacy.

A story in the unforgettable category is Gala Day, in which two children bunk school and go into the cane fields – love and death circle each other.

Mulgrew moves along from pain to satire: in Biblioteek vir die Blindes he lampoons white complacency and self-righteousness in a woman’s one-sided phone conversation in a coffee shop. This story makes the skin crawl.

A terrific counterpoint, but no less unsettling, is Restaurant, in which Mulgrew invokes Eleanor Roosevelt – “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” – read with delicious and inflammatory irony on a Huletts sugar sachet by Med fusion eatery entrepreneur Thembile in KwaZulu-Natal. Discouraged, she puts an end to this stillborn rainbow-nation endeavour.

In Mr Diaz we see a combination of braai talk, black economic empowerment and the bitter fruits of trying to hang on to privilege in another discomforting or hilariously funny story, depending on whether white tears make you laugh or not.

From satire back to colonialism and the 14 stations to purgatory that descendants of settlers and beneficiaries of the colonial order have to make to learn and progress. It’s a difficult path, referring to Christ’s last walk carrying his cross before his crucifixion. The complex inferences take some teasing out and Mulgrew is both compassionate and mocking.

The protagonist in the last story, in which the 14 stations are again invoked, is a mountain climber in the Cape Town area. He has fallen to his death. Or should we say #Fallen?

Having “passed through” himself, he is able to see those on the other side. The statues of colonial heroes such as Cecil Rhodes and Louis Botha are not gone (and not #Fallen), but are unable to die and suffer eternal torment in memory, singing hymns, especially an Afrikaans version of Amazing Grace.

Mulgrew is a founding publisher at uHlanga, which recently produced Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes, the winner of the 2016 Ingrid Jonker Prize for poetry.

uHlanga has published Mulgrew’s collection of poems, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together.

And amethyst apparently signifies “intense spiritual growth”.

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