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Small Things, the fascinating story of a flaneur in Johannesburg PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 03 June 2013 15:24

By Nthikeng Mohlele

Review by Sarah Frost

Nthikeng Mohlele has written a superb second novel in ‘Small Things’. This book is philosophically interesting, and psychologically astute, demonstrating intelligence and integrity. It is no wonder that world renowned author J M Coetzee said of the book: ‘Behind this story of love, music and the eternal quest, lies an artistic sensibility as generous as it is complex. The prose is rich in texture, the final effect melancholy and comic in equal proportions.’

Finely written in the first person, with much attention to intricate detail, the story maps the life-path of a protagonist who remains nameless until the end. He describes himself as ‘a mildly accomplished journalist, a hesitant revolutionary, a looming failure at the institutions of poetry and marriage, parrot of tourism information, laundryman checking hospital sheets for stains, promising trumpeter, futile philosopher thinking in circles about love and life without reaching any conclusive opinions.’

He was born in Sophiatown, which he names ‘the Chicago of South Africa,’ where he meets a jazz singer Desiree, the woman who is to become the love of his life. Initially, I found Mohlele’s description of the protagonist’s relationship with Desiree unconvincing, seeming more abstract than heartfelt. However, by the end of the book one gets a sense of Desiree’s personality (the lead character lives with her for a while before she leaves him to return to her husband), and thus the relationship becomes plausible. Mohlele muses on the nature of love, noting that ‘Desiree’s is an eloping kind, a love that constructs and abandons nests, much like a fugitive dodging police hounds’, whereas his love for her is ‘as distinct, detailed and colourful as coral reeds in sea beds’.

He becomes a journalist, writing stories for the Daily Argus, until he is detained and interrogated by the Special Branch. After this he is put into solitary confinement for several years. When he emerges from prison he becomes a flaneur in Johannesburg, sleeping in city squares, bathing in public toilets, and observing society from a distance. He marvels at ‘the postcard view of Johannesburg, its fusion of lights, the illusion of cosmopolitan prosperity’ and admires ‘the deceptions of the cityscape,’ while pondering deep philosophical questions about the nature of being. He is shot by a criminal, but survives, refusing to press charges, wondering instead about the man’s motives: ‘Murder is supposed to be a conscience-wrecking deed; how was it then that The Dark Figure seemed so composed, without a shred of remorse?’ He takes a job as Information Officer at the Tourism Information Centre in Newtown, and then becomes a busker, after he begins a relationship with Mercedes Sanchez, the daughter of a friend of his. She is a trumpet player and teaches him her art, while seducing him. ‘The key to sex, says Mercedes, is music: rhythm, breathing, unpredictable melodies.’ Mercedes’ father, Gabriel, warns him: ‘Love is not for the faint-hearted … who says love has to follow known and accepted formulas for it to be love? Poets have endured torments reducing these things to rhyming verse.’

Although the novel is an existential musing on the nature of love, it also offers insights on the nature of living in Johannesburg in this century.  The lead character notes that: ‘I live in my head, in a reality that rewards club deejays more than it does midwives and neurological surgeons; a Johannesburg where suffering has no meaning.’ He is self-reflexive enough to understand that he has chosen a life of hardship, refusing to accept a well-paying job a former Comrade from the struggle days offers him, so that he can retain his moral freedom, choosing instead ‘the certainty of Johannesburg winters, the solace of the trumpet. There is a certain freedom, a particular reckless abandon,  that comes with not being important … I am always free to tell Comrade Q, whoever he is, to fuck off.’ Succinctly he sums up the current South African malaise: ‘I call silently on the stars above to shake us from our heedless slumber, in beds soaked with the urine of orphans and the blood of slain men of goodwill.’ But he sees himself as an observer, not an activist, articulating his ‘embracing of life’s plagues’ as ‘reluctant defeat.’ The lead character is nothing if not self-deprecating. He asks ‘what wisdom could come from a drifting soul dislocated in its deceptions, its embedded conspiracy theories.’ His many musings lead him to the profound conclusion that what holds life together are ‘small things’ which he equates with ‘an aquarium of sorts, where I could look in, see meaning swimming around coral reeds, in pinks and fiery reds.’

I will avoid spoiling the novel by disclosing the ending, suffice it to say that the protagonist experiences an epiphany of sorts, realising that his life story is ‘the story of a life of loss. Everything. But that is not the sad part. The bewildering thing about it all is how many stories, some worse than mine, lurk in the shadows.’

Mohlele has brought this story, one of many, from darkness eloquently to light. I would heartily recommend this book as a relatively humble, but indubitably skilfully written, window into the life of a South African citizen who wields very little power, who nevertheless maintains his social and emotional autonomy by insisting on the importance of critical thinking, thereby avoiding falling into victimhood.