Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu

The shadow purgatory of now

Alexander Matthews reviews Penumbra, Songezizwe Mahlangu's debut novel

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Penumbra, a parable of disillusionment and mental breakdown, is challenging – both to read and to critique. This is not necessarily because of its sombre subject matter – but perhaps more in the way this is dealt with.

This is Songezizwe Mahlangu’s first novel. What becomes immediately clear is that he has a fiercely thoughtful and intelligent voice – a voice we need to hear more from. Mahlangu broaches interesting, important themes and issues – black middle class aspiration, creativity, domestic violence, the search for purpose and identity.

The protagonist, Mangaliso — or Manga to his friends — is a graduate working in a numbingly boring finance job in Cape Town. He finds solace first in his friends – and their drugs and drink – before, increasingly gripped by paranoia, he turns to religion.

Although Mahlangu’s talent is evident — and I wish to laud and encourage it — I have reservations about this book. Because while Penumbra is interesting and competently written, it’s also lacklustre. It lacks punch or spark. Mahlangu has written in the first person and yet the reader is still somehow detached from Manga’s internal world: where there should have been compelling intimacy, instead there is slightly off-putting self-absorption. The prose is plain and restless, veering between blandness and the nearly nonsensical – though perhaps this is deliberate. Every character appears flawed, untrustworthy – even Manga’s normally reliable flatmate, Tongai. Which is fine – our world is populated with unreliable folk. The way they’re depicted, though, does make it difficult to warm to them, though. Again this is probably deliberate. But in using a utilitarian style to create the spartan grey, shadowed world that Manga sees, the reader doesn’t become engaged.  This lack of rapport between protagonist and reader is problematic. It means that by the time you reach the closing pages, you don’t really care that much about what lies in the future for Manga and his friends.

Penumbra’s publication is exciting in one respect: here we have a young wordsmith who is writing about his world, who is writing about now, grappling with himself, his community, his country. So much of local literature is obsessed with the past. Of course our history needs interrogating and exploring – that’s how we make peace with the past and learn from it. But we also need a decoding of now. We need contemporary literature that grapples with contemporary complexities. However flawed, Penumbra at least attempts this. We need more of that. We need more of Mahlangu. I’m already looking forward to his next novel.

Penumbra is published by Kwela and is available from Kalahari.com.

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