by Bongani Kona
Kwela Books, 2013
Sometime in the winter of 2010 when, like the protagonist of his breakout novel, Penumbra, he was in his mid-20s and unemployed, Songeziwe Mahlangu had a nervous breakdown. The episode, and everything which led to it, is revisited and placed at the epicentre of his elegiac autobiographical novel, which maps how a young man’s life unravels into the abyss of mental illness.
A “penumbra” is the second of the three distinct parts of a shadow as it moves from darkness to full light. Mahlangu’s novel’s three-part structure – “The moon is dying”, “A turn under the sun” and “Before the sunrise” – echoes this movement, and images of lights and shadows, night and day, and radiance and darkness illuminate and obscure its pages.
The book begins in half-light on a grey morning in Cape Town.
“This not how things are meant to be,” reads the opening line. “I walk past sickly people in the street. One man’s face is charred, with pink lips that have been licked by spirits. He moves like he is dying.”
This melancholic observation – one of several – sets the tone for what unfolds. Mangaliso is en route to the bank. Having resigned from his job, he desperately needs a reduced payment schedule on his student loan.
The meeting with the bank doesn’t go well. Faced with financial uncertainty, the edifice propping up Mangaliso’s world begins to crumble. He is asked to call a financial consultant but her name is Helen Messiah and her phone number contains the digits 666, the mark of the beast in Christian cosmology. Mangaliso flees the bank in terror.
As the day progresses Mangaliso’s fear escalates. His mind spirals ever inward into further depths of alienation and, paradoxically, into a more desperate need for affirmation from others. He is “desperate for people, anyone to talk to”.
But his friends, a côterie of destructive and self-absorbed young black graduates, are more concerned with climbing up the corporate ladder and amassing money and worldly possessions than with Mangaliso’s personal and national soul-searching.
Alone and adrift in a world torn apart by failed revolution, dire poverty, corruption and capitalist greed, he turns to God for redemption, but finds only judgement. His conscience is ravaged with guilt and, as he walks past old hangouts and neighbourhoods, pieces of his earlier life come back to him in a series of vignettes.
The explosion of memories leads to a sudden flooding in of the past, a past which is by definition unchangeable and irrecoverable. Fact and invention collapse into one another, and a disturbing climate of claustrophobic solipsism descends. His sentences, while often deceptively simple, build in a way that only tightens as things progress: space closes in, the darkness descends. Meanwhile the terror underneath grows, consolidating itself as he drifts “into precarious existence”, into the dark night of the soul.
“This night is going to have me all to itself,” he says.
And it does. By nightfall Mangaliso is driven to the psychiatric ward at Groote Schuur.
His disease is clear. Capitalism seeks to make us all addicts and in the process turns us from autonomous human beings straining toward goodness into mere automatons serving the dictates of the market. The result is mass depersonalisation – life, work and misery. Diffuse schizophrenia. Rampant depression. Life atomised into fine paranoiac particles.
But capitalism is nowhere in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the standard diagnostic reference work used by psychiatrists) and the doctor who admits him seizes on the least irrelevant part of Mangaliso’s story and diagnoses his condition as drug-induced psychosis.
Part 1 of Penumbra comes to a close when Mangaliso is discharged. He is a changed man, but the change is not so much psychological as spiritual.
Mangaliso (with Mahlangu behind him) has come to realise it is society that is sick. He takes issue with the valorisation of the wealthy in the new South Africa, not only because it normalises capitalism’s inbuilt inequalities and pathologises the poor, but also because it masks the moral bankruptcy at the heart of it.
What follows is a struggle to survive, to fit in, to accept his own creative powers, to find love, and to escape the moral and spiritual bankruptcy which surrounds him. Although Mangaliso learns that everything has a dark side, he also discovers there is redemption in creativity and imagination. Finally he embraces his destiny is to become a writer.
“I remember beautiful artists. They have a gift of seeing beyond conditions, and draw us back to the blackness of uncertainty,” he says. “That’s what art should achieve: point out the other side. Art is not there to unearth any truths, but rather to show the multiplicity of the nature of things.”
And this is precisely what Mahlangu manages to do with Penumbra: to see beyond conditions and to draw us back to the blackness of uncertainty. He does not tell stories, he writes life itself, and, in fact, he writes the act of writing itself.
The author and the narrator have found healing by telling their story, and how beautiful it is.