Khalil’s Journey solidly crafted, engraved with fine detail

Khalil's Journey by Ashraf Kagee, Jacana, Cape Town, 2012

Khalil’s Journey, Ashraf Kagee

Ashraf Kagee’s debut novel, Khalil’s Journey, comes to us cloaked in glory and praise. A recent recipient of the EU Literary Awards, the book staggers under the weight of many metatextual menhirs: here there is a shout from Business Day, there a weighty proclamation from Mongane Wally Serote that “the voice of the voiceless has been emancipated with great skill”. One doesn’t like to approach a book and find that half one’s reading has been pre-empted, especially when the pre-empting is done in this intolerably vague manner. But as everyone knows, you can’t sell a book in South Africa without the help of noisy trussing from the publisher’s bag of favours.

It’s a pity that, in an age where we’ve witnessed a certain liberation from metaphor, we’re still being called back to read certain works as mast-bearers for the thematics we’ve decided are important to us. Works like Khalil’s Journey are read more as mirrors than as lamps, prized more for the way they capture an existing world than how they create a new one. Our yearning to fix the inchoate, to locate the somewhereness of culture in this country reveals itself at moments like these, where what we elevate is the accessibility of the work, above all else. The vocabulary for speaking about this book has already been supplied, and the work slips readily into the praise lavished upon it.

Khalil’s Journey is a work whose very title encodes its narrational and conceptual arcs. We’re dropped into a windy Cape Town – because, so the logic seems, it would not be recognisable without a knowing soliloquy on the Cape Doctor – in the 1980s where the eponymous protagonist lies, aged and dying and being quite garrulous about it, in the non-whites section of Groote Schuur as it existed then. Khalil finds himself in the grip of a story that possesses him overpoweringly:

He felt a compulsion to remember as much as he could, to make a good yarn of the story trying to burst out. Self-consciously, Khalil tried to contain it, to bottle it up, to close the lid on it, but it kept bubbling up, trying valiantly to get itself told.

This tale, we are told, is no epic. “Cape Town was no place for an epic”, the narrative asserts confidently before wanly checking this assertion with a self-questioning interpolation. A sort of formless conversation is being conducted, with Khalil lying in bed like a character out of Beckett, unable to die and so compelled to narrate his process of living. And since he is the author of this tale, he is free to invent it, of course. This he does, in eventful prose that fills the pages to the point of congestion. The narration hovers slightly above him in a convivial sort of way, dipping into his thoughts and then disporting once more in an airy manner. In the first few pages, point of view – who is thinking what we are reading, and why? – is not fluidly resolved, so that it trips us up just when we are trying to attend to the story.

The work’s voice grows clearer and cleaner in the next section, shaking off the clumsiness of the preamble with a stirringly realised passage that artfully draws out the links between the before-time prior to Khalil’s birth, and what will come later. These characters float free of their obvious symbolic moorings – that which is outside Khalil’s field of memory is free from the ossifications that the third-person voice brings with it. The way in which the everyday detail accrues precisely, with measure, demonstrates a writer leaning into the vitality of his imaginative reserve.

Kagee writes with a compound eye, allowing him to visualise many characters at once, so that the work runs freely between the characters and their thoughts. The author barely missteps in what is a fluent and volubly readable work that adds to the ever-burgeoning pantheon of literature which explores the seam of oceanic migration to South Africa. His writing is clever, witty, with a dry tone that strikes the right key between the casual humour of the everyday and the attentiveness to the more serious moments that occur. There are glints of early Rushdie in the first few sections of Khalil’s Journey, though it deliberately lacks the epic register of, say, Midnight’s Children.

Indeed, one of the greatest achievements of this work is that it is a historical novel without being a historical novel. Kagee’s writing exhibits what T.S. Eliot defined as “relevant intensity” – the details are perfectly honed and finely pitched, so that they refer without an over-abundance of detail. The novel manages this style with a commendable degree of élan, which only makes the points where it loses step more troubling. Where it stumbles – and this is really my only quibble with this novel – is that its author seems to take the idea of novelistic evidence too seriously. When J.M. Coetzee spoke witheringly of the sort of novel whose conclusions are checkable by history “as a child’s schoolwork is checkable by a schoolmistress”, he had this phenomenon in mind. Kagee too often succumbs to the idea that to evoke, one must show, and show clearly. Take the following passage:

Imam Albertus presided . . . the imam was always game to officiate at weddings, funerals, Haj-departures, name-giving ceremonies and most other events that required the presence of a religious minister . . . On one occasion, he had been approached by a group of concerned congregants who requested permission to hold a meeting in the Hill Street Mosque. “What kind of meeting?” The imam had asked. “We want to discuss the talks between the English and the Boers now that the war is over,” they replied. “Everyone is talking about creating a Union of South Africa. We want to determine our role in the new Cape of Good Hope. We want to discuss the future of the Muslim people.” To this request, and all others like it, the imam merely smiled a distant smile and shook his head. “The mosque is for praising God,” he would always reply, “not for discussing worldly matters.”

Most of the novel’s invocations of the historical take place in this primitive fashion. They occur at a gestural level meant to keep them to the periphery of the interpersonal. It is glibly kitsch at best – too bloating, like blocks cut from a textbook, compared to the material around it. The connection is sometimes too didactic: the novel seems implicitly aware that human relations are too fluid to be enamelled in this way, but it does so nevertheless (and what is that ignoble word “game” doing there?).

This didacticism results from Kagee using the 20th century as the trellis on which his story hangs. Khalil lives a long life, and it is a life that is signposted by the familiar stations of history it passes through: the death of his mother from tuberculosis, the trials of establishing himself in the working world, the signing of the treaty that ends the Boer War, the formation of the Republic, the sinking of the Titanic, the Depression, the rise of resistance to colonialism, and so on. Khalil is a passive witness to these incidents, but they are introduced far too coarsely to signify outside of their brute facticity. A character will be asked about the ICU, and his reply will be bookended with the quite unnecessary information that he is “referring to the largest trade union on the continent that mobilised the African poor around the Union”. Barbarous asides like these weaken the novel, because one begins to sense that Kagee is writing the inner life of a culture and not the inner life of the characters within that culture.

The novel seems pinned in a constant battle with facticity, as though the author is conflicted by a desire to ignore history butting against a need for his setting to be recognisable. So we read that “[t]he System that everyone said stank was still very much in place, keeping everyone in their place including Khalil at this very moment”. Assertion and disavowal dance interestingly, but the distancing effect (“that everyone said”) animates the raison d’être of this story: Khalil, as we learn, is not overtly political, and neither is his narrative. But the author’s proximity seems to muddle things: it’s as though Kagee can’t decide how much to ironise and when to do it, as if to ignore the historical would be to commit impiety. It undermines the project of representing the ordinary a little when the author doesn’t seem to trust his characters to narrate their own experiences.

The author’s defence might be that he was attempting a form of free indirect style, but the anxiety is always present. A passage will begin in omniscient mode, progress into what appears to be the character’s stream of consciousness, and then be upended by a voice that seems to hover somewhere behind the protagonist, always too cleverly knowing to sustain one’s immersion in the story. In a novel devoted to the ordinary, one wants to feel that the characters are souls rather than fictive creations.

If it seems like I’m making heavy weather of this, then bear with me. The ordinary was always a retreat from the anxiety-laden largesse of society – one life, spread out before us with its furniture and its mechanisms in close detail, is more easily viewable than a collage of disorienting difference. But capturing the sublimity of the ordinary – which, after all is the point of the whole exercise – is something that requires a fine attention at sentence-level, a concentration in the process of rendering that peels back the calcified to reveal the bright and the new that lies underneath. In this respect, there are many fine passages throughout this work, none more so than when the writing clears itself of historical chunter and focuses on the lived experience. Khalil marries Mehroun. They have many children and in the quick sections devoted to them, Kagee pans over their lives with authorial confidence while still according them their haecceity. And if at times one suspects that they come close to playing sociologically allegorical figures – the doted-on daughter, the militant young son – then that is underplayed by the velvety nimbleness of the depictions. Kagee shows himself to be deeply interested in human lives at a personal level, and skilled at close rendering in a way that invites comparisons with Richard Rive, although he lacks Rive’s sentimentality (and is all the better for that).

Of Khalil himself, surprisingly little can be said. He has a Beckettian cleverness, especially in his final years. He goes on, impelled by the undertow of time, while all around him, things happen. He is frequently seen observing others around him, and in his older age he seems to develop a quietness or reserve that allows Kagee to escape the criticism that his protagonist lacks quiddity. If the reader suspects that Khalil is far too often his author’s vassal, then we are nonetheless grateful for what his silence allows. Again, though, it is a silence that is breached by the author rather too often. As Khalil begins to deteriorate, we are told that what he has is most likely not TB, the disease that carried off his mother in the first act, "but some other souvenir left behind by decades of smoking Pall Mall Blue, with its famous Virginia Tobacco, so propvol of deadly poison it just wasn’t funny”. The billboard-phrase leaps out at the reader, leaving one wondering if this is the novel being complicit in South African literature’s distressing fondness for nostalgia – that knowing nod that exposes itself whenever someone in the novel uses the word Bioscope – or the author simply showing off his research, but either way, it’s unnecessary historical texture.

Khalil’s Journey is a peculiar novel. It is thoroughly conventional, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, as the award has demonstrated. It mixes the characterological, the social and the historical, as all novels of this sort purport to do, but it does so in a stochastic way. It drops the reader deep into the swirl of the everyday as it once was, but it (by and large) refuses the easy nostalgia that often marks this sort of project. However, this refusal brings with it a weightlessness that can be unsettling. What saves it from excessive banality is that Kagee is, overall, a fine writer, and can prove himself so with a disarming passage amidst the blare of the bricolage. Here, for example, is Khalil’s grandson, reflecting on his grandfather’s twilight:

It seemed to Kemal that his grandfather had lived a mostly good life. Not necessarily a life that stood out in the greater scheme of things, mind you; not a life that moved mountains or one that would bring about the rise or fall of a nation, but a simple, steady life – imperfect and flawed as it was – that had its ups and downs, ins and outs and tos and fros.

The provisional voice (“seemed . . . mostly . . . not necessarily”) is perfectly pitched, the thought captures the ethos of the novel adeptly, and if one has a few reservations (is this really a teenager’s diction? the equivocating clichés are a bit lazy, perhaps), then one is nevertheless struck by the directness of meaning that Kagee achieves. His evocations are solidly crafted and engraved with fine detail, and that, after all, is really the point.


Jody V Ford says:

Simply marvellous criticism!
The way that you were able to raise a torch to this fine work and show all of the thngs that make this novel a work of art. Kagee was one of my undergrad psychology lecturers therefore I know that he will be able to fill the human characters with a depth and personality that will pull at the pages into which they are written. Well done on a great and fair criticism and thank you for not wielding a sceptre at the piece (which we’ve seen has become the norm these days).

Amy says:

Hallelujah — who said literary critisism in South Africa was dead? A fine review of an interesting work (that was perhaps dealt too harshly with by Jane Rosenthal).