Lesego Rampolokeng’s third novel, Bird-Monk Seding, is a stark picture of life in a rural township two decades into South Africa’s democracy. Listening and observing in the streets and taverns, narrator Bavino Sekete, often feeling desperate, is thrown back to his own violent childhood in Soweto. To get through, he turns to his pantheon of jazz innovators and radical writers. Here are two extracts.
BRA JOE. The Elegant. Barefoot. His feet have developed thick elephant skin. Crackled, heavily. Some dried-out river. Drought-stricken. Furrowed much. A layer of dirt-black creeping up from the back of his heels. Unwashed. The sweat, dried up, days old and still packing layer upon thick layer up, oozes off him. And in all this, he oozes something unnameable.
The aura of the man is diamond-to-forehead brilliant. The tattered shirt, its tails flapping as he walks. No, he hops, a caterpillar on the street. Spasmodic. On invisible springs. When he sees me he pretends not to notice me walk on by. At the last moment springs out in front of me, hand out, palm pointed up, and mouths in an incomprehensible tongue … never loud or clear, rather a deep gurgle from yesterday’s throat, from depths out of sight.
Often i drop coins in his hand. Soon as i do he hops on off to the butchery down the road graffitied with “Deutschland ueber alles”, disappears within, is gone for a while, then emerges munching on a stick of biltong. If not the butchery then the Pakistani shop up the road, for loose cigarettes. The smoking of which is a ritual, a show of class.
I’ve seen him sink down on to his haunches, sigh, strike a match, light up and … smoke. Cigarette between index and thumb, other fingers flung out in limp-wristedness, cocked like bourgeoisie handling wine glasses. The other hand on the other cheek, lost to the world. Cigarette up to mouth, deep drag, smoke held, then released in calculated exhalation through the nostrils, smoke rings too. & i have wondered, never known what had led to this. Middle-class mannerisms in the dust. Time to time a fling of the left arm, a flicker of sleeve to wipe off stray mucus, then back to the cigarette.
Bra Joe is friends with MASWEJANA the Pretty Playboy. They say he was a ladies’ man, Maswejana, in his time. Now, not yet in his middle age, he walks down the streets, eyes staring, but at nothing. He is always clean-washed, clothes ironed. But his mind everywhere but here, in this time, this place. His one ear is drawn, like a cartoon character, a few inches out of sync with the other. His face tapers down, egg-shaped, mouth forever puckered, an eternal pout.
He drools a lot. He is coherent, though. Speaks, can be heard, but the understanding is elsewhere. They say he was the hottest chicken around town before this, dressed better than any. Township lore though has it he disappointed a woman he was to marry … and ended up like this. Just woke up one day and couldn’t put his face back the way it was before he went to sleep. His right leg started shrinking, centimetres shorter than the left. His left turned inward and he couldn’t hold anything with it. His one eye, the one above where it should have been, forever streams tears, constantly cries. A sign of his remorse, they say. He walks around, grunting, looking at nothing, but sees enough to ask me for cigarettes only, never money. I stand talking to him, spinning stories, jokes. And he takes it in. And laughs. And when girls walk by, regardless of how they look, he says: “Ba le maswe jaana,” as ugly as they are … and that is it. “You owe me, no no no, man … pay me now, when are you paying me?” I say i have to go home and fetch the money i owe him, i will see him later. & he tells me he will wait until i come back.
Days they sit together, Bra Joe and Maswejana, legs straight out on the floor, next to the only ATM in town … smoking, conversing in tongues i cannot understand. Emotionless. And they stay there for hours. And the world goes by. And they watch the dust, maybe, and its people blow on by. They pass a cigarette between them, smoking each in style, after their own special manner. And they seem lost in whatever dimension. Or space. But locked together in some understanding.
Mutual. It’s a sight for wonder. And when the odd ATM user saunters by, draws money and starts walking away, Bra Joe shoots his hand out. And the day goes on. I have seen the laughter on their faces sometimes though. Like they knew things i didn’t. No-one else could comprehend.
Old socialist-communist-comrades gone capital is like THE YEARN. Ultra-straight man on crack cocaine sticking massive phallic objects up his rectum when the rush takes on. & Gael said:
“It makes you know the truth about yourself. It is a serum. Gets you paranoid still, and you go scared of even yourself. Your shadow tails you, stalks you, talks menace to you …’ The sexual exhilaration is without outlet though. Builds up to explosion and then just peters out, leaves you whimpering, it is majangling electric-wired like the brain cells will explode, and you feel them, on the burn, the ends going to ash. The ultimate white-lit end of it just beyond your reach, and you grasp, your nails wanting to tear out even, if the need arise … and you try a hold on the nothing out there, just … outside your grasp … your arms not long enough … always just micrometres away, you never get to it. And know that for truth but no matter, you have to … so you hurry up and light up away before it disappears forever, you think … but inside you is knowledge of how vain it all is … and that even if it were not and you got to it, you would be smashed to bits, what smithereens means … and that will be the end to miniscule you in the universe floating up there before coming crash-landing on your being. And still you want it. And the hunger makes demands like starvation is your all…. and just one bite will be your salvation. IT IS MASTER, YOU ARE LESS THAN SLAVE NO RELATION MORE DEMEANING.
But you must obey because your genitals will it, the crotch reaches out, desiring deep. You want to fuck to the end of the tiniest crevice. And the biggest juice-dripping orifice beckons. And you want to squeeze the extent of your very self out of your body, it is a casing you don’t need anyway. You need your obliteration in the pleasure promise. So you stoke up white, open the coils. And the glass-pipe hums, mocking. And the rock sizzles and opens its legs for you to come in. Penetration time. You clutch the lighter tight. Don’t want it running away and gone. Need no loss now. And the seconds ticking seem centuries… and you flick and flame up, trembling in anticipation. You torch up, and solid turns liquid turns gaseous and your inhalation makes it shoot up your tunnels, seems running in and out all your holes. Like the hair is in shock standing up. Hold it in long as the lungs can withstand without collapsing, coming down hard. Joyous like nothing else ever since time. Hold, keep it in, still, blow out, sigh. & the wash comes. And baptises and blesses. And the warmth floods. And you grab your cock and pull. And it is to cry … it comes closer. & cums inside you. You pump harder. Fuck images flash, dance in your head behind your eyes and a million pussies yawn wet hot open and you sink your skull in them, all of them, same time. And you feel them wrap around you. You are your cock. And cunt. And arse. And sucking mouth. And sucked. Cunnilingused & fellated to all sevens. And still it calls you and you’re staggering. All the while you are running on your haunches though, like your legs amputated above the knees. Hard as you gallop can’t get there. Just on the point of coming it fades. & it is back to the beginning. Of your time, your existence. You tremble, shake, shiver, collapse into yourself again. Spent. And you did not even ejaculate. The call comes again. Seduces. And you realise your eyes are closed, so you open them and stare. And the black green yellow red stars exploding behind your eyelids retreat. You flop down defeated.
Lesego Rampolokeng, a poet and performance maestro, is the author of 12 books, including two plays and three novels. He has collaborated with visual artists, playwrights, filmmakers, theatre and opera producers, poets and musicians. His no-holds-barred style, radical political-aesthetic perspective and instantly recognisable voice have given him a distinctive place in South African literature