BY BONGANI KONA
Where to begin? I’ve had a terrible time writing this review. I think as an unwritten rule it’s best to stay away from the work of writers you admire. There are just too many pitfalls along the way. My predicament is that Zakes Mda is one of my favourite novelists and I can’t bring myself to admit that I didn’t like his latest book, The Sculptors of Mapungubwe. It feels like a betrayal of some sort or an act of sacrilege.
There is something magically transfixing in Mda’s earlier books – Ways of Dying and Heart of Redness especially for me — which I don’t find in The Sculptors of Mapungubwe. Although it’s set in an ancient time — 1223 CE, “the year of the mirror” — it’s a book borne out of anger at the governing elite in post-apartheid South Africa and maybe that is its undoing.
Like the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the novel centres on the rivalry of two brothers, Rendani (Rendi) and Chatambudza (Chata). The two men are both exceptionally skilled sculptors but their philosophies on life and art are antipodal. “While Rendi could mould oxen, bulls, cows that were so realistic that their legs had joints and their feet hoofs, whereas the other boys’ cattle had only pointed stumps for limbs. Chata, on other hand, created animals that never existed anywhere except in his imagination,” Mda writes.
“Style,” American writer Joan Didion once said, “is character.” Chata, the novel’s protagonist, is free-spirited not only in his art but also in the manner he lives his life. He regularly flouts the societal expectations of Mapungubwe about what constitutes proper behaviour for a man of his age. This is in contrast to Rendi’s strict adherence to the laws and expectations of the land. As the Royal Sculptor (a propagandist and career politician of sorts), Rendi has three wives and is widely respected by nearly everyone but he is jealous of Chata. And the jealousy is the poison at the root of their relationship.
Driven by envy, Rendi begins to use his influence with the royal household to find ways to rein in Chata’s freedom to create. “Any work of art that was both abominable and strange, [described in the novel as “mbisili”] and that worked against social cohesion and nation-building” is outlawed. For a contemporary example of mbisili, think of the work of Brett Murray and Ayanda Mabulu.
As you read The Sculptors of Mapungubwe, you can feel Mda’s contempt and impatience with Rendi and the ruling elite and this is the major weakness of the novel. It’s too didactic and most of the characters are not well drawn out. They’re either good or bad. I understand Mda’s anger but I just wish he could have used to write a better novel — like he has countless times before in the past.