by Bongani Kona.
At the centre of Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, The Reactive, are two brothers, Luthando and Lindanathi Mda, born a year apart. By the time the book begins one of them is dead. “Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life,” Lindanathi says in the novel’s unforgettable opening line.
In the winter of 1993, the two siblings made a pact to combine their initiation ceremonies – which would mark their passage from boyhood into the world of men – but at the last second, Lindanathi reneged on the promise and Luthando went on his own.
“It was raining when the bakkie took him on its back and drove him up the dirt trail. Inside the camp, they put him in line with a set of boys he shared a classroom with. Then they took out their blades. Afterwards, they nursed him for a week, and he kicked and swore at them for another two. They called him the screamer, they told us later, when we gathered together to put him inside the earth. Maybe it was meant with tenderness, I thought, the kind of tenderness men could keep between themselves in the hills.”
Traumatised by what has happened, Lindanathi turns his back on his family and runs away to Cape Town. There, he’s diagnosed with HIV and he ends up running a scam selling antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) supplied by his medical insurance and getting high on the proceeds with his two friends, Ruan and Cecilia. (Most of the action in the book happens in 2003, before ARVs became freely accessible.) This is until he gets an SMS from Luthando’s stepfather, Bhut’ Vuyo, which reminds him of a promise he made to their family eight years ago, “on a night so long ago I can hardly put it together from memory”. Lindanathi is then forced to make a choice – to return to his family or to continue on his self-destructive path.
There is a lot to praise in this outstanding book. Throughout, Ntshanga battles cliché, in the process forcing us into what seems like an acutely aware state of reading. It’s realism for people who believe in the power of language and are constantly aware of its limitations. Here, for example, he describes a group of hawkers at a taxi rank: “The old women squint at the world through the leather of their dark, folded faces, their eyes glassy with glaucoma, each orb like a marble spinning in wet earth. Globules of sweat draw runnels down their temples, and their pulses beat together like the hearts of small mammals.” And here he describes his struggle with HIV: “Sometimes, I like to imagine I can hear my illness spinning inside my arteries, that it’s rinsing itself and thinning out.”
But it’s the heart of the art – some might call it soul – that has to be commended. The kind of vulnerability displayed in these pages is rare nowadays. We live in a world that has been annexed by giant tech companies (like Facebook, Twitter, Google) which daily erode our capacity for autonomous thought, imagination, language, and above all, love. To feel such deep connection with another human being in the pages of a book is to be given a gift of immeasurable value.
When I interviewed Ntshanga late last year, on assignment for a Sunday newspaper, he said The Reactive had come about from paying attention to the suffering of those around him, and this is what underpins the book. Although it continues Ntshanga’s delicate exploration of HIV/Aids, which he began in “Space”, his short story that won the Inaugural PEN International New Voices award, its scope is much broader. It is at once a meditation on family and community, on the space between personal and national history, and on mourning, memory, redemption and substance abuse. A great book is, after all, seldom about one thing.
However, the theme I’m most drawn to is the idea of waiting, and waiting as an act of empathy and love. Like Njabulo Ndebele’s brilliant experimental novella The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Ntshanga’s characters are all in a state of suspension, waiting for something but not quite sure of what that thing is.
Lindanathi means “wait with us”, and here he explains why his mother gave him that name: “My mother had a friend who almost went blind from working in a clothing factory in the seventies. They’d both been students at Lovedale College before my mother moved on to Fort Hare, and they reunited again, years later, under the dome of an East London factory shop, the friend was mending clothes to put her daughter Lindanathi through school. I suppose that child, listless in a corner, wearing knee-length socks and wielding a bag full of textbooks, became a sign of hope for my mother… [But] who I’m meant to be waiting for and who I’m meant to be waiting with, I was never told.”
However, Lindanathi’s coming of age involves finding out answers to those questions. There is a larger story about South Africa here which needs explaining. In the foreword to An Inconvenient Youth, Fiona Forde’s biography of Julius Malema, the charismatic leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, political scientist Achille Mbembe posits the following argument: “one of the main tensions within politics [in South Africa] today is the realisation that there is something unresolved in the constitutional democratic settlement that suspended the ‘revolution’ in 1994 but did not erase apartheid once and for all from the social, economic and mental landscape”.
He continues: “For each of the historical protagonists in the South African drama, this settlement has resulted in no final victory and no crippling defeat. Rather, the country was ushered into a historical interval… [twenty years later] it is still caught between things that are no longer and things that are not yet.”
In this interregnum, where the violence of the past is still braided into nearly every aspect of the fabric of society, waiting with others just may be the most compassionate thing one can do. As Ntshanga carefully excavates the relationship between the two brothers through a series of vignettes, we learn that their father had thrown them into different wombs and neither of them was good with girls, and that like all siblings, they fought with each other from time to time. But the crucial difference between “the Mda boys” is that Lindanathi has been born into a family with means while Luthando has not, and this is an understated source of tension in their relationship.
“I remember LT topless in denim and wearing a thin silver chain,” Lindanathi says during one of his flashbacks. “Luthando played marbles, that’s what he knew to do most of all with his hands. My brother wasn’t tough, but he fancied himself a township ou. I remember how he didn’t know what a spinning top was before I gave him mine. We used the laces from his Chuck Taylors to spin it, and later that night I was quiet when he refused the water my mother poured out for us at the dinner table, telling me later that he wanted to preserve the taste of beef in his mouth.”
The change Lindanathi undergoes in The Reactive is that he learns to grow a greater sympathy for others. In academic writing on societal trauma, the recognition of the suffering of others is a precondition for acting morally. One cannot happen without the other. And in recognising the suffering of others, societies are able to expand the circle of the “we”. When Bhut’ Vuyo implores Lindanathi to wait with them, this is the kind of waiting he is talking about. It’s an act invested with moral responsibility, and something one chooses to do.
Luthando, by the way, means love. And in South Africa today, just like the two brothers, waiting and love are intertwined.
This story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.
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