BY JOSHUA MASEROW
In Small Things, Nthikeng Mohlele returns to the dominant preoccupations of his first novel, The Scent of Bliss. Again, love, its torsions and iterations, and how the pursuit of meaning arises in a transitional polity desperately seeking a new beginning figure strongly. Small Things is about political, personal and interpersonal failure. It examines psychic, existential and biological senescence and the task of self-(re)making.
Mohlele’s novella, soon to be a play on the local theatre circuit, understands the agony of loneliness as a symptom of a brutalised society flailing against the crush of past and present injustice. It is a tribute to the push back of the will to exist with dignity against the callous forces of a society that, in its haste to move on from a terrible past, has left many of its (unacknowledged) struggle heroes unhomed and rudderless. In that sense it is an extended thought experiment: how does one attain freedom after emancipation, if the withdrawal of overt oppression is the first step on the journey to freedom?
The world of the work is sparsely populated and minimally furnished. Penumbral beings gormlessly navigate their troubled existences through the terrible beauty of a semi-recognisable Johannesburg. The few, melancholic characters – the unnamed narrator, his love interest Desiree, her uncle Bra Todd, the daughter and father from Cuba, Amazu the Nigerian Mathematics Professor, and the dog Benito – are dimly parsed blots that creep no further than the hazy edges of the reader’s imagination.
With the very first sentence we meet the unnamed narrator’s unrequited love for the cold, haughty and capricious Desiree who ceaselessly rejects his unceasing advances. Despite the malaise of his early years – orphaned, forcefully removed from Sophiatown under the Group Areas Act, condemned to Meadowlands while Desiree is sent to Alexandra – his love for the “maddening”, scornful and fickle Desiree remains resolute.
In his early twenties the narrator is accused of treason as a fiery, transgressive journalist. He transfigures the frustrations of his discarded love into venomous columns denouncing the machinations of the apartheid regime. For this he pays, becoming a target of the secret police – a target to be gagged and silenced. He is detained, taken to Republic House interrogation facility, and kept in solitary confinement and numerous labour camps for nearly two decades. After his release, on the eve of South Africa’s liberation, he is thrown into dereliction, wandering the streets of Johannesburg – a “vagabond” flaneur.
Through his passion for music, the world of letters and his cursed love for Desiree, the unnamed narrator pulls himself out of poverty but not beyond the pain of failed love, the finitude of human existence and the barbs of social and racial estrangement.
What travels over from page to mind, more than anything, is the unending chatter of consciousness. The narrative carefully emulates the reckless meanderings, musings, loopbacks and non-sequiturs of a strained mind. This does not signal an attempt to write into life a band of human experience beyond the grip of politics. Rather, it succinctly captures the ways in which the barbarism of Apartheid exerted, and exerts, untold trauma on the psyches of its victims. It creates a powerful portrait of how a life, with poetic and artistic aspirations, is rent by the brutality of a racist, autarchic political order.
In this abundantly strange and beguiling tale of failure dressed in a voluptuous prose (which could, in places, have benefited from greater economy of expression) Mohlele, in the words of Franz Fanon, ‘introduces invention into existence’. His book confirms the inquisitorial value that literature possesses, to think through the agonistic interactions of love-sick, traumatised, aspirational and artistic human beings and the encumbrances placed on them by uncompromising and inescapable history.