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A Fine Madness

By Masande Ntshanga

 Here’s how this starts: halfway through Mishka Hoosen’s debut novel, Call it a difficult night:, I get the impulse to remove its pages from the binding and to rearrange them into a remix of the book – an impulse, no doubt, that stems from the novel’s relentless adherence to a searing psychological logic as opposed to a chronological one. In the end, after 80 or so pages spent in the company of the narrator, I resist and elect to leave the book in one piece. Impulse tells me I’ve arrived at the right place.  The protagonist of the novel, however, has not.

Following a stream-of-consciousness narration that weaves us in and out of the past (leaping between Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Cape Town and Michigan) most of Call it a difficult night takes place between the walls of a mental asylum – a purgatorial maze that has the narrator shuffled from one nurse to the other, wading through a haze of medication that increases in dosage with each sign of dissidence. The message is clear: she is to comply with the clinic’s regulations or risk the paralysis of everything but her mind.

Her mind. For a slim novel, Call it a difficult night, gallops forward with the headiness of a palimpsest, crossing in, out, over and under itself, employing repetition and motifs, switching from the first-person to the second – into verse and tracts of non-fiction – all of which communicate the experience of being seized by the narrator’s illness: its manner of binding, both flagrant and subtle, imminent and immediate, issues both from the self as well as from those charged with managing and treating it. This is us going beyond the illustrative, it seems to insist. This is us plunging into the titular night.

This is not to say the book is haphazardly put together; if anything, the opposite holds true. The process of forgoing control is a planned one, here, beginning with the book’s cover – not unusual for deep south in its minimalism – which depicts a cascade of handwriting, a single sentence, written over itself repeatedly, until it attains a hypnotic blur. The image is a reference to unsent letters within the text, written by a German mental patient, Emma Hauck (1878–1920), whose words are “arranged into columns, repeated over and over till parts of the paper are faded to grey”. The same image echoes through the novel’s formatting, which often has the text arriving in block paragraphs divided by bars of white space, as if the book itself were blinking before leaping across space and time again, following wherever the narrator’s mind might place her next, between bouts of lost consciousness. This might seem like a stretch, but all of it is merely to say: look, here is a living document, and because it lives, it also speaks.

Throughout, the narrator suffers from being the unwilling audience to a multitude of voices that follow her from childhood, sometimes comforting her – exposing her to a beauty that exists beyond our senses – and sometimes inciting her to perform acts of violence against herself. Following her, I found myself similarly exposed to a number of voices in my head, voices other than the narrator’s, which echoed across time, from different lives and from different works, communicating, commiserating, and in the end, blurring the line between the narrator’s thoughts and my own. I took this as the novel’s call to remove myself from the position of spectator – from the vantage point of the aide, in other words, to that of the patient – and I complied.

Here’s what happened when the narrator said, “I sit behind the pillar by the smoker’s corner, trying to stay out of sight.” I thought of Ken Kesey’s Chief Bromden, telling us, “I hide in the mop closet and listen, my heart beating in the dark, and I try to keep from getting scared.” And here’s what happened when the narrator said, “I started to rebel, mocking the therapists and fighting the diagnoses.” I flashed back to Gayl Jones’s Ursa, described as such: “They said you had those nurses scared to death of you. Cussing them out like that. Saying words they ain’t never heard before.”

Now here’s how this ends: reaching the end of Call it a difficult night, I get that impulse again, if only as a way to respond to Mishka in a manner that might feel more visceral than a review. But my hand is stayed once more because everything one needs is already here, strung together by a voice that holds the reader captive – drawing you in and repelling you in turn – illuminating, and tasking you with searching for more understanding, more empathy, and in the end, more of a willingness to open yourself up to the unknown.


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This story features in the Chronic Books (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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