Sunday, November 05, 2006
She Plays with the Darkness
I recently read Zakes Mda's novel, She Plays with the Darkness, for my South African Literature seminar. I love Zakes Mda's works--they are filled with haunting and exquisite images--descriptions that are so beautiful they make you ache and sometimes so terse and bitter that they slice right through you. From the first page I was captured "Even in the middle of winter, when the whole land hibernates under thick layers of snow, they sing and dance to the songs of the pumpkin. The white slush swallows their stamping feet right up to the calves, and then spits them out again in a frenzy" (1). I was intrigued by this description snow. I had known that there is snow on the mountains in Southern Africa, but for some reason, I had never imagined people living in the snow. Here is a site with some amazing photos of Lesotho, from which the one here is taken.
The story revolves around two "twins," who are not really twins, but were born within a year of each other: Radisene and his sister Dikosha, who was concieved at a night dance a month after Radisene was born. The smart Dikosha is at the top of her class, but is withdrawn from school when her mother runs out of money. Radisene loves nothing more than herding cattle, and he is not so great at school, but when he tells the Catholic fathers that he plans to be a priest, they pay for him to attend high school in the low lands. So, Dikosha stays behind wandering with the herdsboys that Radisene wants to be, while Radisene goes to school where Dikosha wants to be. When Radisene abandons his mother and sister for years wanting to make something of himself before returning, the close connection between him and his sister is severed. She won't have anything to do with him when he returns some fifteen or twenty years later. As Radisene becomes a successful "ambulance chaser" and conman, Dikosha withdraws futher and further from mainstream society, living in a cave and communing at night with the images that come out of the paintings to dance. Radisene sends money for a large mansion to be built for his mother and sister, complete with a mirrored dance studio for Dikosha, but when he finally comes back to the mountains to see them, he finds the mansion in shambles, dust layering over everything but the room meant to be the kitchen, where his mother sleeps. Dikosha has never set foot in the new house, preferring the old house she once painted over with her own designs.
As Radisene becomes more corrupt, Dikosha becomes more mystical and otherworldly, planting music in the head of a small mysterious boy who sings songs to her. There are political coups, massacres of police brutality, a beautiful policeman who is abused by his wife and who lashes out violently on his own; a seductress who becomes a harpy; a football (soccer) star who becomes an outcast, and an outcast who becomes a rich man; there are rumours and rapes and murders and lawsuits; and Nigerian 419 con artists. In the end, the twins ironically seem to take on two opposite aspects of the careers they could have had, had Dikosha told the Fathers that she would become a nun as Radisene told them he would become a priest. Radisene, as part of his repetoir, becomes a desperate preacher at a funeral, preaching on the glories of insurance. Dikosha, like a saint who has retained her youth into late middle age, stays in her rondeval hearing confession after confession. When Radisene kidnaps her to take her to the flatlands, someone asks him where he his going with his grandaughter, and the story of the twins breaks off abruptly as they desperately sit in a car together in the rain
An excerpt from the passage I find the most haunting, about the small boy Shana, who appeared from nowhere to play beautiful music on his sekgankula and sing obscene lyrics about women. His only fear was the mist:
Since he had materialized in the village, Shana had never ventured further than the fields and the hillside. He protested that he was afaid to go to the distant mountains. But Father-of-the-Daughters barked at him, 'Don't be a weakling, Shana! Be a man! You have no reason to be afraid because I'll be there with you.'
While Father-of-the-Daughters was busy with his ablutions, Shana ran to Dikosha's rondavel and played his sekgankula outside her window. At first Dikosha thought he was playing in her dreams. But when she realized that she wa awake she knew that the Shana of flesh and blood was outside her window. She opened the window, and he stopped playing. And for the first time since they had known each other he spoke to her, 'Please keep my sekgankula for me ... until I return. I am going to the far away mountains. I will see you when I come back.'
They set off before sunrise. Father-of the-Daughters rode on his horse while Shana walked beside him. They drove the cattle toward the horizon where mountain peaks kissed the pink and purple sky. They travelled for many hours, climbing one mountain after another, and crossing streams and rivers. Sometimes, they stopped for a while so that the cattle and the horse could graze and drink. Father-of-the-Daughters gave Shana a pice of steamed bread and some sour porridge froma billycan.
Later in the afternoon they descended into a gorge, and all of a sudden everything looked white. It was the mist. Shana shivered, but Father-of-the-Daughters urged him on. The boy resisted. He wanted to turn back. Father-of-the-Daughters would not relent. 'Come on, stupid boy! We still have a long way to go!'
The mist was rising, and Father-of-the-Daughters also began to be fearful. Shana held tightly to the hind leg of the horse. It kicked him away. He stood up with the mist swirling around him and plucking at his clothes. Then he turned and ran as fast as he could. But the mist was at his heels. It caught up with him and threw him to the ground. The mist began to suffocate him. He let out a muffled scream, and kicked his legs, fighting against the mist, as it wrestled him over and over. Then suddenly he was still. Hsi body lay sprawling on the ground, his face controted by a frozen scream.
And the Nigerian 419-ers, who have taken on the aura of myth.
They were two huge dark men in flowing West African robes. Their boubous were made of a cloth so rich that even Jabbie could have only dreamt about it. They introduced themselves, and said that they were from Nigeria....
They decided to hold their discussions in the cosy surroundings of the Lesotho Sun, where the Nigerians had a suite in the most expensive wing of the hotel, the one normally reserved for visiting heads of state and other dignataries.
'Well, we'll be on the level with you,' said the bearded, fat-faced Nigerian.
'We don't believe in beating about the bush,' added the clean-shaven, high-cheekboned one.
We are involved in a scam and we need your assistance. There is a big share for you,' said the bearded one.
They said they were from Toronto, but had recently opened an office in Johannesburg. In Canada, they had insured the clean-shaven one for five million dollars. They had paid the premiums for four months. Now the time had come for the clean-shaven one to die, in order that the bearded one, the sole beneficiary of the policy, should get his five million dollars.
Radisene was taken aback. He asked, 'You mean your friend is willing to die so that you can get all that money?'
The Nigerians laughed in their booming voices. 'Of course I won't die,' said the clean-shaven one. 'That's where you came in. We need a death certificate to the effect that I am dead. I was a tourist in Lesotho, you see, and then I fell ill and died ... or perhaps I died in a car accident. Your country, like our Nigeria, is famous for its glorious car accidents.'
'All we need from you is use your connections to get a death certificate. If it's a car accident we'll also need a police report. A car accident sounds more convincing, and you deal with those a lot.'
Radisene was fascinated by the suaveness of the Nigerians. And their ingenuity. 'They make our own little crooks look like Sunday-school teachers,' he muttered under his breath.
End of quote... Can you imagine what happens?
All quotes taken from Zakes Mda. She Plays with the Darkness. New York: Picador, 2004.