Triangulum by Masande Ntshanga (Penguin)
If writers have a responsibility to capture the times they exist in, in order to critique the status quo — especially when nation-building is under way — Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum is a testament to the ability to do so without forfeiting his creativity.
Using South Africa’s socioeconomic, technological and political tapestry as his primary references, Ntshanga has fashioned his commentary on the nation into a layered work of fiction that damns us all.
Set in what used to be the Eastern Cape’s Ciskei homeland, a bewildered teenage girl is lost somewhere between suffering a concussion on the playground and losing her mother. She is haunted by apparitions that appear to convey coded messages. Without the closure of a grave for her mother, or the proof of a corpse, the protagonist chooses to regard the hallucinations as supernatural messages that will lead to her mother’s unknown whereabouts.
In Triangulum, the influences of science, indigenous knowledge systems and psychology are at play, making the reader uncertain about whether the girl’s sightings are extraterrestrial, ancestral or schizophrenic.
Despite this uncertainty, the protagonist’s convictions are cemented as the apparitions open up her small world to reveal the motives behind the abduction of three girls who went missing on her mother’s birthday, as well as a human and drug- trafficking criminal network facilitated by her peers.
But there’s more to Triangulum than a troubled teenager’s quest for her missing mother. With a plot that unfolds over a 40-year period in post-apartheid South Africa, Triangulum takes its time unpacking our recent history while mapping out the possibilities of our near future.
The unnamed protagonist’s narrative unfolds alongside the phasing out of the Bantustan system in the 1990s, the economic erosion of South Africa from the early 2000s, the normalisation of surveillance and the harvesting of personal information for marketing purposes in the present day,and goes into the future to forecast an ecological disaster by the 2040s.
Ntshanga presents Triangulum using a three-act structure in which the narrative is divided into the set-up, conflict and resolution phases and presented in the first person. Although this format may come across as straightforward, or somewhat dull for science fiction, it is offset by Ntshanga’s use of different iterations of the same voice.At times the protagonist addresses the reader directly, at others her thoughts and experiences are relayed through extracts from letters, dream recordings, documents she has to sign or journals. And, although the plot remains within the confines of the three-act model, by not presenting the protagonist’s accounts chronologically, Ntshanga addresses the protagonist’s inner turmoil, as well as the scientific theory according to which chronology is trivial because time is relative.
Ntshanga’s engaging style of writing employs the reader as an agent in uncovering the unknown that is hidden in plain sight. To do this, the reader is encouraged to revisit earlier passages and remain acutely suspicious of all characters in order to stay afloat while reading. With the addition of an existing past fitted into the framework, Triangulum becomes equal parts science fiction, mystery and historical fiction.
By time-travelling and genre-bending, Triangulum is able to pack a mean and nuanced punch. From the curious naivety of an orphaned teenager to her relenting and fatigued adult musings, the protagonist navigates the reader through the reality of how little South Africa and the world at large is willing to change for the good.
When people are mined for data as the earth is for minerals, the rise of surveillance and the self-serving nature of capitalism is clear. When characters turn to self-medication and drugs during trying times, it reflects the surge of substance abuse and the disregard for mental health in society.
The idea is also explored through themes of secrecy, corruption, colonisation, abandonment, excess, religious propaganda,hedonism and wasteful living. The sense of global apathy is heightened by the novel’s world as portrayed through the lens of a black, middle-class, queer protagonist who suffers physical and emotional traumas.
Overall, Ntshanga’s prose is served by his creative sensitivity and his dedication to research. Through patient descriptions of overt features, right down to the most disregarded of details, Ntshanga is able to articulate a place or a being, be it from the past, present or future, as if he were always there.