BY BONGANI KONA
The premise of Perfect Hlongwane’s unsettling debut, Jozi, is contained in the novel’s opening lines: “Jozi, the Johannesburg we know, of the inner city – Braamfontein, Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville – is a heartless place. It is a monster that swallows people whole.”
The “we” alluded to is, for the most part, a coterie of drifters – the discards of Johannesburg’s pitiless rat race. Frank, a schizophrenic alcoholic, is at the centre of this colourful crowd and the novel chronicles his life and times.
Set in the late 2000s during the period of Jacob Zuma’s rise to the South African presidency and the xenophobic pogroms which left scores of people dead, Jozi is a portrait of a city in a time of great flux. Hillbrow, where Frank has resided for most of his adult life, has morphed from bohemian inner-city neighbourhood into an area which looks like a scene from The Wire.
The breakdown of Hillbrow mirrors Frank’s gradual disenchantment with Johannesburg. The promise it once represented is faded by the time he is introduced to the reader boarding a taxi from Eloff Street to Yeoville. And the only way Frank can live with the crushing disappointment of not having become “someone”, a poet of stature, is by drinking to a standstill on most days.
“It’s true, we drink like there’s no tomorrow,” Senzo, a part-time artist manager, says in one of the most revealing passages in the book. “No, let me correct that; we drink to erase tomorrow. There is a mass impulse towards suicide in this city that operates, most of the time, at low intensity. It appears in the guise of alcoholism, risky sex, sudden violence, road rage, and daring acts of crime. This kind of behaviour is just the early ghost of self-destruction.”
Nearly all of the characters in Hlongwane’s bleak novel are in different states of self-destruction. “You see, my drunken existence on society’s margins is the middle finger I give to a world that has shown me the middle finger first. It is, and I know you will say it is, laziness, or insanity, no matter how I try and explain it to you. But I must tell you anyway; my alcoholism and non-productivity are the eloquent expressions of my rejection of this world and the life in it.”
It is a pitiful kind of politics and nothing redemptive or profound can come from it. And as Frank’s life gradually comes unhinged, the reader is certain that nothing will.
It’s impossible to read Jozi without flashing back Hlongwane’s literary ancestors Phaswane Mpe (Welcome to our Hillbrow) and Dambudzo Marechera (House of Hunger). Though he might not posses Marechera and Mpe’s command of language and penetrating insights into human nature, Hlongwane is an exciting emerging voice.
Jozi is published by UKZN Press and is available from Kalahari.com.