Don't try and keep your Believers distinct from your Unbelievers while reading Zakes Mda's vibrant and vital novel. Once you set aside that maddening task, you will enjoy the pluck and bounce, the echoes and reverberations, of the parallel plot strings of The Heart of Redness. You will also be well on your way to grasping the heart of this playful, wily and evocative novel where skepticism itself is taken to "the heights of religion."
Mda's fourth novel, which has already garnered him the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Africa region and the first Sunday Times Fiction Award in South Africa, explores the multifarious history of the descendants of the headless ancestor in South Africa's Eastern Cape. The novel shifts back and forth between a mid-nineteenth century Xhosa community split into Believers and Unbelievers by the visions of a young prophetess, and a contemporary generation still reeling from the horrendous fallout of her prophesy. Throughout The Heart of Redness, Mda weaves superstition and myth, curse and miracle into a riotous fabric. All of the historical figures, however, are drawn from meticulous research and do not say or do anything they did not say or do in fact. For the historical threads alone, Mda's novel is an important contribution to the contemporary South African literary scene.
The new South Africa, the rainbow nation¨both these epithets are sadly used with derisive irony these days¨is currently overwhelmingly characterized by cant and political correctness. Seven years after the official end of Apartheid, the country is still reeling from its brutal history; it is still healing, trying to resurrect an identity¨however multifaceted¨from the quagmire of racial tension, disparity, crime and violence. Over this complex terrain Mda casts his keen, unsentimental eye, taking several jabs at the ruling elite, those political leaders who stoop to bribes and fail to consult the very people they are meant to be governing. While Mda treads on some difficult terrain in both the historical and contemporary strands of the novel, he does so lightly and with a great deal of humour.
The Heart of Redness brings together a raucous cast of characters: harvesters of the sea, twins, zealots, prophets, warriors, sirens and temptresses. One hundred and fifty years ago in the village of Qolorha in South Africa's majestic Eastern Cape, 15-year-old Nongqawuse prophesied that her people should destroy their cattle and leave their crops unattended so that the ancestors would rise from the dead, new cattle would fill the kraals and the white oppressors would be driven into the sea. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when developers threaten to build a casino and turn Qolorha into a sea-side tourist haven, the battle between the Believers who are in favour of civilizing progress and the Unbelievers who want to protect their culture, as well as the indigenous flora and fauna, intensifies.
Throughout the novel, redness is ever present as the insignia of tradition. It refers to the traditional red ochre that the Xhosa women use as both dye and adornment. The believers cling to their "redness"; the unbelievers shun it. Yet, redness runs through this novel¨in parallels, and twins and mirrored characters, revealing that there are no easy divisions or distinctions to be made. Traditional values cannot be pitted clearly against progress; belief is not clearly distinguishable from disbelief.
Stepping into the riven village of Qolorha, Camagu, the returned exile and peddler of dreams becomes a catalyst for much of the action in the novel. After many years in America¨Camagu (he shares many similarities with the author who spent 35 years in exile in America and England)¨returns to Jo'burg to commune with fellow drifters in a Hillbrow nightclub called Giggles. Camagu is disillusioned with the new South Africa. He finds himself an outcast since he never learned to toyi-toyi, do the freedom dance that was so much a part of the liberation struggle. He also finds himself overqualified for many jobs in the gold city. He is about to return to America. Instead, he follows his heart and the voice of a beguiling woman to Qolora-by-sea. Although he cannot find the captivating siren he has followed there, he soon becomes enmeshed in the family and clan feuds of a town on the brink of progress.
The Heart of Redness gains much of its momentum from the casino plotline. Will it be built? How will it affect the village? Yet much of the novel's delight is to be found in the hilarious on-going feuds between the Believers and Unbelievers. In the story-telling tradition Mda draws on there is plenty of joy in digression. In one episode the Zim, chief of the believers is plagued by the women Unbelievers who follow him about ululating. The Believers retaliate by summoning the hadeda ibis birds to "laugh" at the rival chief.
The Apartheid era, its origins, its brutal course and its demise, is the void at the center of the novel. The narrator refers to this section of history as that of the Middle Generations: "The sufferings of the Middle Generations are only whispered. It is because of the insistence: Forget the past. Don't only forgive it. Forget it as well. The past did not happen. You only dreamt it. It is a figment of your rich collective imagination. It did not happen. Banish your memory. It is a sin to have a memory. There is virtue in amnesia. The past. It did not happen. It did not happen. It did not happen."
Mda's entire novel is a defiant retort to these whisperings. The mirror families that straddle this void reveal that South Africa is not only about Apartheid. The traditions, stories and struggles of pre-Apartheid South Africa reverberate in contemporary South Africa in a very real, palpable way. Families haul all their tangled, complex, often contradictory bits of history toyi-toyi-ing into their presents. Resistance to change, to progress, however evil one may think it, proves just as futile as opting for the fool's paradise of blissful amnesia.
Zakes Mda, internationally acclaimed playwright and novelist, is also a poet, painter and academic. In all of his work, creative and theoretical, he dismisses the notion of art as merely aesthetic, static. He has never been interested in art for art's sake. For Mda, art is dynamic and functional. The Heart of Redness is no exception. Whether it is, Xoliswa, the frustrated, intractable school principal who longs for the Dolly Parton and Eddie Murphy fairy tale of America, or Oukezwa, or the beguiling and bold daughter of Zim; Bhonco the Believer cursed to scratch at the scars of history forever, or Dalton the white trader who speaks better isiXhosa than the amaXhosa people in the village, Mda's characters all harbour a spirit of defiance. Yes, his characters leap from a committed prose. They can call a spade a spade, as well as use one to dig themselves out of the situations in which they find themselves mired.
Occasionally Mda slips into didacticism via Camagu, the character who helps the reader navigate a path through the equally fruitless alternatives of rampant development and blind adherence to tradition. At one point Camagu, neither a believer or unbeliever and determined to develop a solution to the town's dilemma asks Dalton, the white trader intent on developing cultural tourism: "When you excavate a buried precolonial identity of these peopleÓa precolonial authenticity that is lostÓare you suggesting that they currently have no cultureÓthat they live in a cultural vacuum?" It is this question precisely that Mda poses so masterfully throughout the novel. And in spite of the occasional twinge of didacticism, it is ultimately Mda's resilient, lyrical and exuberant prose and his refusal to allow any of his characters to sink to playing the victim game that makes The Heart of Redness such a heartening read. ˛
Nikki Barrett, a freelance journalist, has recently returned from South Africa where she worked on her first novel.