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Review of Mandla Langa’s The Lost Colours of the Chameleon PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 October 2009 05:33

It might seem outrageously trite to suggest that reading Mandla Langa’s fifth book, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon, was akin to meeting the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, but having had the privilege of both experiences, I unashamedly defend it. It is also tempting to attach a swatch of “-ists” to this accomplished South African author - lyricist, activist, humanist – but while they are appropriate to Langa’s genius, these, among others, are precisely the tangled pretensions his tale seeks to unpick.   

Other reviews of the book have outlined its triumph as an allegorical satire, based on intense research and set in the post-colonial quagmire of a developing democracy on Bangula, a fictional Indian Ocean island. Its parallels with the South African experience are obvious: social anguish wrought by unrelenting poverty and disease, racial discord, institutional neglect, wastefulness, greed and denialism, and a prophetic vision of governance by death squad as both a remedy and a railcar for rampant crime and political anarchy.  

But it is the universality of this suffering and a longing for grace that Langa portrays with painstaking tenderness, abiding humility and mischievous wit.  His is the honest eye and heart of the fine artist, showing us by turns and in layers, without pontificating and with visceral dignity, the bipolarities of “the struggle to be who you want to be”. 

Langa’s breathtaking word-pictures coax the everyday into magnificence. Painting the large and the little, the fragrance and the stench, the finery and the squalor, he tells the story of three young men who are fathered by the Colonel, Bangula’s leader. Each is uniquely impoverished by their emotional distance from him and each other, but cleaves to the primal magnet of love and companionship as and where they can find it.  The motif of the chameleon relates to human adaptability, whether for self-preservation in its finest sense, or for nefarious anonymity and hypocrisy.  

As opposing private and public fronts collide to force change through calamity, Langa muses that “there will always be blood.” Blood courses through the veins of the narrative, and is inevitably shed on pavements and pine floors, through cruelty that would be unimaginable were it not so ubiquitous in the past and present realities of all countries.  

He depicts this in the swathe of the island’s “blood plague”, inflamed blood generating massacres by angry mobs, and the vengeful beheading of perceived enemies among villagers by a group called “The Blood of the Ancestors”, which spurs more slaughter by the same means of those suspected of contagion.  The spiritual DNA of sacrifice for humanity is espoused in both the Catholic “blood of the Lamb” and the African tradition of appeasing the ancestors, whose restless ghosts curse their descendants with chaos.  

He confronts us with not merely signs, but the actual unfolding of apocalypse, even in the bloodline, the end-of-civilisation being signaled by the breakdown of family and community. The half-brothers Hiero and Abioseh have no children, no-one to remember them, and here Langa observes from various angles the derelict model of family as deriving from conflict between men and women, projected in a web of bitter compensation for abandonment. 

The boy Abioseh sits alone at his parent’s lavish dining-room table, as isolated as any orphan. MaZembe, while obsessed with her mantle of power as the mother of the nation - and with preserving its fictions - neglects her son, because she sees in his reclusive nature a likeness to her faithless husband. The Colonel confesses to the teenage Abioseh his longing for a bond with Zebulon, the son he sired with Madu, his great love and daughter of an infamous warlord. Abioseh pursues a guarded but deep relationship with Jacqui, the beautiful model-turned-entrepreneur believed to have been another of the Colonel’s mistresses. Zebulon, having watched his mother Madu die in abject poverty and survived by begging on the streets with the help of Melinda, a young prostitute, finds a soulmate in Zoya, a singer who understands “encounters and partings”.   

In this cross-hatch of fragile bonds, Langa illustrates the body of humanity, peering through the membranes of deception and disclosure to retrieve a tissue of truth by which the protagonists can live. Hiero’s mother, Emma-May, cannot admit to him that his father was not her husband, so he rationalises that “mothers have to tell lies to reassure the world that there’s no such thing as infidelity.”  Abioseh comes to believe that mothers are “the ones with a monopoly on the truth about the lives, loves, triumphs and despairs of society”.  Langa observes men “feasting on female flesh and living life on their own terms”, while pitying fathers who “sow their seed into fertile regions, but could never be entirely certain of the nature of the harvest”. He concludes that fatherhood is not about “ownership of sperm”, but about caring. 

As thugs exploit the mood of public disaffection by posing as police and terrorising innocents and the simple joys of daily life, Abioseh seeks to rehabilitate the legacy of his father’s rule, aspiring to a communitarian ethos for Bangula. His dreams centre on visions of the people’s power to reclaim security within their shared humanity. In the rain, he sees Nature presiding over the self-destructive nature of man; but the cyclone of deprivation and moral decay lays waste to all man’s efforts, good and bad, and as Abioseh is deposed, his people’s resilience will be tested once again. 

Even amidst the misery– most poignant in the Camp of Bones, where the blood plague’s refugees are left to perish - Langa shows us the splendour of the spirit as the counterpoise to savage self-hatred.  His description of Zoya’s song, expressing women’s anguish, men’s guilt and society’s yearning for deliverance, is a reverent defence of innate goodness. As events conspire against him, Abioseh reflects on his own failings and the possibility of forgiveness and harmony, and silently asks: “Where is the source of all this venom, my brother?” 

Langa’s stance in this work is reminiscent of the Dalai Lama’s in that he writes with warmth that is simultaneously critical and compassionate.  He seams the story with humour to temper its gravity: a radio broadcast of schoolchildren singing “in high-pitched voices torturing the unemployed”, and Zebulon being “the issue of influential testicles”.  

He shows us the lovely under the overlays of horror and filth, and if there is one certainty that emerges, it is that we all seek happiness – but in our flight from suffering, we drift and falter, afraid of derision and further degradation. Yet, though our well-meaning thoughts and deeds can be tragically thwarted, we can and must choose to hope.   

The Lost Colours of the Chameleon is the awesome pondering of a luminous humanitarian sensibility, a journey taken hand-in-hand with Mandla Langa through a dreamscape that mirrors the world’s reality, to discover refracted dimensions of the living and dying soul.