Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo, Kwela, 2013.
Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo follows two distinct but interdependent narratives. In one, corrupt businessman, Kimathi Fezile Tito is the protagonist winding in between his government tender meetings, sexual couplings, familial awkwardness and moments of despair. In the other narrative, the novel cuts back to a cleansing in an MK camp in Angola, shortly after an attack by the South African National Defence Force. These two narratives are brought together structurally by a ghost, Senemea, who is terrorising Kimathi. She propels the narrative deftly towards Kimathi confronting his own past, and the reader confronting a rather sordid depiction of the struggle’s past.
One of the strengths of Mhlongo’s novel is certainly its use of dialogue – witty, gratuitous and exact, it provides a lens on a distinct class for whom “the bureaucratic wheels” (15) are turning, and who many South Africans feel are unaccountable both to their country, but also to a political history which has elevated them economically and politically.
Kimathi put all three of his cellphones on the table, including the one he had just taken from his cream Dunhill jacket. Ganyani sipped his whiskey without talking. Kimathi winked at him joyously and held up his glass. “Relax and enjoy your whiskey com[rade],” he said, studying the amber coloured liquid before sipping it. “You Shanganese like to complain a lot, just like you did in exile. (38)
In these flourishes of “comrade” and the references to “exile,” now so closely associated in the media with political corruption, the flouting of “struggle” language and its popular (mis)usage seems to have emptied the rhetoric – and indeed South Africa’s political history – of its meaning. In a sense the novel actually hinges on these surfaces. The contrast is of what is exposed on the surface, and what the ghostly apparition of Senema points out to the protagonist: what you don’t see – “I am saying that you must ask yourself whether we are living in this world or in an illusion” (51).
Darian Leader points to the same distinction between linguistic surface and meaning in his book, Strictly Bipolar. In this Lacanian analysis of manic-depression, Leader attempts to anatomise the speech of the manic subject. He points out that mania invests language with levity, a freedom of linguistic usage which is then frustrated by its depressive counterpart when meanings of words seem to return all too quickly. He notes,
How strange that the two axes of language – words and meanings – would each emerge in manic depression in alternating strengths, as if each would have to wait in turn before seizing their subject. In the mania, it seemed as if words had prised themselves away from their meanings, so that acoustic connections could be followed, whereas in the depressions words were loaded with a single monolithic meaning. (19)
Fittingly, in between swigs of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, puffing cigars and racing down the M1 in his BMW X5, Kimathi reaches into the glove compartment of his car and downs a few mood stabilisers. Now beyond this seemingly incidental inclusion that the protagonist is taking medication intended for manic-depression (and it does seem incidental because Mhlongo doesn’t ever quite make it known to us why this detail is important), what really suggests the mania which Leader delineates in his book, is the vacuity and ease of language which the corrupt delegation of Kimathi and his business partners embrace.
In this way, Senema functions as a link between the lavish and superficial present and the harrowing past from and to which the narrator is both estranged and invariably linked. In-between Kimathi’s narrative of madness, haunting and excess, the narrative returns to the Amilcar Cabral camp in Angola where a female MK agent is being tortured in what has in recent years appeared as the MK’s ritual and often ruthless purges.
The flashes back into the past do their work to highlight the emptiness not only of the protagonist’s speech, but also of the rhetoric of freedom-fighting in general. While distressing crimes are perpetrated in their midst, revolutionary songs are recited – and these songs which have gained Jacob Zuma such scorn from the media are placed again in their initial context, highlighting both their significance and irrelevance.
This depiction of the MK is reminiscent of Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story in which the liberation movement was problematised. In Wicomb’s controversial novel, the whole struggle discourse is revised in terms of its persecution of coloured South African MK fighters – particularly women – who were among its ranks and often accused of colluding with the apartheid government. Mhlongo picks up this mantle as he depicts the brutalisation of Comrade Lady M, who is incarcerated and physically assaulted because she is unwilling to sleep with one of the officers.
Along with the dislocation represented throughout the novel, Mhlongo offers his readers a plethora of literary references dropped into the text as spurious, empty symbols. In his first encounter with Senema, Kimathi mentions The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital and The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born in an attempt to impress her when his Cohiba Behike cigars and luxury SUV fail. Throughout the novel characters hum along to songs not knowing what they mean and people admire paintings unaware that they are fake. Kimathi’s ex-wife, conjured to him by her bra, g-string and Lancôme perfume, remains only as the surface she once inhabited. By this reasoning, the historical apparition of Senema becomes all too fleshy and real when she reminds Kimathi, “your past deeds are so shameful that only by forgetting have you been able to live with them” (97).
It is this preoccupation, worked out through the novel, which calls for some realisation on the part of literary scholars. Much attention has been drawn to reading surfaces in the last while, but it is precisely the protagonist’s dead parents, his dislocation from his country and the meaninglessness of the rhetoric that he wields, which culminate in the misery and confusion of the novel. These surfaces require both a ghost to remind Kimathi of the depth of his responsibilities, and a fractured narrative in which the history of the MK movement consistently intervenes to show that there is no way of pursuing the new without having a clear-eyed sense of the continuity of the past.
But in a sense, if this preoccupation with levity and surface is what makes Mhlongo’s novel interesting, it is also its fault line. Reviewers have noted the significant influence of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho on this work. For sadistic investment banker Patrick Bateman, Mhlongo substitutes Kimathi Fezile Tito – offering us the reminiscent images of the Valentino suit, conspicuous consumption and eventually disconnection, the opacity of illusion over reality. But as many critics have noted about American Psycho, it is the extentto which Ellis is prepared to go to highlight these traits that makes the novel not gratuitous and misogynist, but an agonising social critique. In this way, Mhlongo’s appropriation seems rather flippant, and is at the risk of seeming as superficial as Kimathi’s references to Karl Marx and Ayi Kwei Armah. James Wood characterises this problem when he says,
The risk of tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to evoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent the mangled language in your text; and perhaps thoroughly debase your own language. (27)
Mhlongo’s partial appropriation of Ellis and the ubiquity of arbitrary literary allusions are both useful in that they allow the narrative of Way Back Home to race, unhampered by excessive detail, towards the end. The greatest strength of the novel is certainly that despite its shortcomings, it is compelling and engrossing, but the problem suggested above comes to reside again in the novel’s ending. Eventually it seems that Mhlongo himself does not know how to reconcile the past with the present. The book rapidly progresses until it halts, rather impotently to an end. Has Mhlongo merely created a story that is supposed to entertain, a grotesque parody of a section of South African society that we can relish as some kind of wish fulfillment? Or is this an attempt at a deeper meditation on South African history and contemporary South Africa? Mhlongo himself seems unsure, and at the end of Way Back Home the reader is not guided towards any answers. Because of this, Way Back Home seems to be a big novel that’s made to be small. Whether this is for the sake of maintaining the speed and impulsion of narrative or merely an oversight on the part of author and editor is unclear.
Leader points out in his book that the psychoanalytic reasoning behind bipolar indicates that it arises from a preoccupation with wedging two inclusive states apart – goodness must remain untainted and badness can only ever be bad. The ghostly apparition of Senema attests that the current discourse in South Africa results from just such a deluded reasoning – corruption is always contrasted with the heroic and glorified political struggle of the past. In a gutting moment of the narrative, Senema reminds Kimathi of the weight of history by (arbitrarily) referencing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, “If you deliberately choose to forget the past, you’ll lose both eyes” (97).
Mhlongo, Niq. 2013. Way back home. Cape Town:Kwela.
Leader, Darian. 2013. Strictly Biopolar. London: Penguin.
Wood, James. 2008. How fiction works. London: Vintage.