The talented mister mystery

BY GARETH LANGDON

People hide their scaredness, I don’t know why, but we all do. Maybe because we see people being brave in movies and stuff and we want to kind of be like them.

The decision to write anonymously is sometimes met with scorn. Critics snort and say “what are you hiding from? If you really believe what you’re saying, why not say it as yourself?” I had never read an anonymously authored novel before One Man, but I have more respect for the author now, and I fully understand the decision. There is power in anonymity.

One Man traces the events over a short period – probably about a week – in the lives of six protagonists. Characters get their own chapters. The overleaf tells us that Gwaza, an escaped convict on a revenge quest, is our lead. His chapters are written in a mix of poor English and Zulu, with some jail slang thrown in. The novel opens with Gwaza violently removing the tongue of an enemy in jail, and feeding it back to him. Not kid’s stuff, by any means. Gwaza is in hot pursuit of the lawyer who put him away, herself facing the realities of the South African legal system as she watches criminal after criminal escape conviction for violent crimes. Her young daughter Kiki also features, her chapters expertly rendered in a childlike prose that betray a much more nuanced understanding of the world around her. She is smart, but she is also spoilt. The youngster is being cared for by Mira, a twenty-something Afrikaans white woman who struggles with her career prospects after being denied a place in medical school due to affirmative action policies. Mira’s father, Mr Du Toit, features too, a chain smoking, heavy drinking oom who tries to sabotage his business before it is taken over by a young black entrepreneur with “the right connections”. The cast of six is completed by Joseph, the Du Toit’s gardener, who is actually a fully qualified doctor himself, forced to leave his home of Zimbabwe due to the lack of work.

By the character list alone, you can begin to see what this novel is doing. Between the disgruntled white tween, the angry Afrikaans man, the convict, the immigrant and the spoiled young future leader, the diverse tapestry of South African stereotype is more than well-catered for. But while a knee-jerk response may be to discount this novel as another feeble attempt at exposing stereotypes – stereotypes we all know are wrong and grow tired of – such a reaction would be misguided.

The novel is adeptly written. Without context, I cannot congratulate the author for an amazing debut in terms of literary nous. Nor can I congratulate him or her on an artful rendering of each individual voice, since it could be that this single anonymous author is a group of people familiar with these character tropes and properly equipped to write them. The anonymity has a peculiar effect then – it forced me to read the novel as novel only. As words on a page weaved together to tell a story. The “author” is well and truly silent here, and all that we are left with is the character’s voices, entities unto themselves.

The experience of reading One Man was peculiar, but revelatory. Existing outside of context and with authorial intent inscrutable, the novel excels as both exposé of South African society and as a call to readers to work harder to change what we see as wrong. One Man reflects the sometimes exhausting tragi-comedy that is the state of our nation through its nature as an artefact untethered from the political, racial or ideological assumptions we might make if we knew of the author’s identity. It tells it like it is, and also how it could be. One Man challenges the preconceptions of what a South African novel should be, and what South Africa as a nation and young democracy looks like and could be. I was deeply moved by the novel’s events but I was also frightened by the accuracy and power that it had.

I fear going into more detail may reveal the plot and the novel’s power would be shattered for you. But if you haven’t read any South African literature in a while, One Man is a great place to start.

One Man is published by Kwela Books.

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