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M Blackman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Heart of Artlessness

Although Zakes Mda’s ‘The Heart of Redness’ was published quite a few years ago, having just read it, I feel the urge to comment. The novel deals with two ideas that fall within my interests – that is to say development theory and cultural specificity. And although these ideas are both interesting and thought provoking in a South African context, in ‘The Heart of Redness’ they contain, for me at least, a certain amount of woolly thinking. This, however, is not the only problem with the novel. Its other major failing is that it lacks the artistry that makes for a good novel.

Mda’s style is prosaic and only seems to offer regimented didactic moralizing that is more suited to a history book than a novel. What also troubles me about the content is Mda’s incessant pedantic explanations concerning articles of clothing and cultural practices. There seems to be little for the readers imagination to feed on as he constantly enlightens as to how things look and what their function is in Xhosa society. This gives the narrative a grindingly slow and cumbersome weight that seems wholly at odds with the attractive ‘lightness’ of the community he is describing.

Of course it may be argued that there is nothing wrong with a certain amount of didacticism in novels. Many novelist before have had some ideology to explicate, some new explanation of an historical event to offer, or some axe to grind. Tolstoy is a perfect example of one such author. In fact if Plato and Aristotle were right about what art should do, then Tolstoy and Mda are the paragons of artistic endeavour. However, there is a major difference between Mda and Tolstoy, and that is what I have called artistry. Tolstoy was always disgusted that people would like his novels for his style and his insights into the way people acted in a social environment. He felt that the bourgeoisie would miss the message behind it all. If Mda had the same concerns then he has done well to strip his novel down to the message rather than the artistic façade. But this surely expunges what is at the heart of The Novel.

I am not saying that novels should be filled with ‘purple prose’ that awe the reader with their beauty. And I am certainly not condoning the use of flowery adjectival nonsenses. However, subtlety, ambiguity and objectivity all have something to do with novel writing and this is exactly where Mda fails. The novel is filled with passages like:

They sit at the pine table and talk about their strategies in opposing the casino holiday resort. Camagu learns that a project of this magnitude cannot be built without cutting down the forest of indigenous trees without, disturbing the bird life and without polluting the rivers, the sea and its great lagoon

Mda’s need to tell and not show, his desire to regimentally explain what should be left up to the reader to understand and the fact that he leaves no other reading to the novel other than the one he is dictating are huge failings in ‘The Heart of Redness’. It comes as no surprise that there have been accusations that sections of the book where plagiarized from a history book. Mda’s defense has been that he involved himself in postmodern appropriation or intertexuality rather than plagiarism. This, if true, is perfectly legitimate but if so, then he should also be aware of some of the other tenets of postmodernism. One of these is that he, as the author, is ‘dead’ and that to try and dictate meaning to the reader is not in fact what a writer/artist does. Mda is precisely what Barthes would refer to as an ‘ecrivant’ in that he intends what he has written to have only one meaning and that his writing has a direct relationship to the world. This is, as Barthes suggested, is not what an artist does.

But there are some more problems with the novel that rub up against what other thinkers have suggest at what lies at the heart of art. For Aristotle the plot in a narrative should be believable. That is to say that it is not an expression of what does happen but what could reasonably happen. ‘The Heart of Redness’ is filled with instances that quite simply beggar belief. One is when Camagu, who is a man educated in America to doctorate level, has to be told by the peasant girl Qukezwa that alien vegetation is damaging to the indigenous ones and should be chopped down. It is not that a young woman, growing up in a small cut off community with only a standard eight, might not understand this but that Camagu doesn’t, that it is a new idea to him, is a little strange if not totally unbelievable. Of course one realizes what Mda is getting at; that the ‘civilized’ rational world has something to learn from communities who are in touch with their cultural past and with their relationship to the land they grew up on. Sure, there is some truth to this, in fact probably a great deal of truth to it, but is this really the way of getting this idea across? It just smacks of a lack of imagination besides being totally unbelievable.

The other major flaw with the novel has to do with the ideas that drove Mda to write the book in the first place. One of its themes is that the capitalist hegemony not only destroys local communities, but does so while making claims that they are they progenitors of infrastructure and development. That capitalism has no interest in local culture and certainly will not help uplift local communities is nothing new and one feels it is rather too obvious a statement to make.

The novel is driven by the dycotomy that exists in the community living in Qolorhar – the division between the so-called Believers and the Unbelievers. The Believers stand for their traditions. They have a culturally specific understanding of their position, not only with regards to their past, but also how they fit in to the modern eclecticism of South Africa. The Unblievers seem to have lost that connection and have hybrid cultural practices. Mda implies that this is the reason why they attend the corrupt and false notion of progress and support the building of the casino by a set of outside capitalist developers.

Mda suggests that communities must develop for their own reasons. This is very much at the heart of the idea that paternalism of any kind is wrong. As Isaiah Berlin claimed: “Paternalism is despotic not because is more it is more oppressive than naked, brutal unenlightened tyranny but because it is an insult to my conception of myself as a human being, determined to make my own life in accordance with my own (not necessarily rational or benevolent) purposes, and, above all, entitled to be recognized as such by others.”

Mda is not as subtle as this and this is what possibly weakens the book’s impact. Nobody would deny that a casino and holiday resort (owned by outsider capitalists) in a rural area would do little for the local community. A cultural and environmental impact assessment would almost certainly find the project destructive and of little benefit to the local area. Not even the giving of gambling rights to indigene communities in America and Australia suggested that the casinos should be run and controlled by outside developers.

This asks the question why Mda would choose such an obvious idea to argue against? Sure, one of the ideas that rears its head throughout the novel is that BEE and capitalism are two of the major forces behind the vast inequality in contemporary South Africa. But I don’t think anybody would deny that. Even in ANC rhetoric this claim is made again and again. So one must question why Mda feels the need to make such an obvious statement. What Mda really seems to be arguing is that communities are capable of their own development and that they should find their own ways of joining the market. But even if this is the case then the Mda’s idea of how to do this is a rather peculiar one.

His answer is that the community should set up their own tourist industry, because he feels that they have a strong enough identity for it to become a tourist attraction of its own without gambling and luxury sun-beds. In doing this Camagu, the vehicle for Mda’s revelations, makes it very clear how this kind of tourism should work. Unlike John Dalton, who wants to start a themed tourist spot where the westernised come and see old cultural practices, Camagu understands that tourist should come and see how people live in the community now, rather than how they did in the past. However, Camagu demands that his co-operative, as he calls it, should still make beaded necklaces to sell to wide eyed westerners. The difference between the two seems very minor. Another problem with the idea is that when the development of the community takes root, and the community gets electricity and starts buying cars, there will be very little unique for the tourist to see.

There also seems to be another problem with Camagu and Mda’s idea, and this is that it suggests a total lack of agency on the part of the community and the individuals in it. Mda seems to be suggesting that the only way that the community can develop is to sell themselves. That they cannot interact with the market in any other way other than having a place of historical note, a few hexagon shaped huts, some beaded necklaces and a nice beach to swim at, seems to me to be morally problematic. This is certainly not the development route that countries such as Japan and South Korea took. Of course what Mda is worried about is retaining cultural identity but the above-mentioned countries seem to have retained theirs without merely attracting westerners to come over and see Sumo and rice growing and buy woman’s underwear from vending machines. Mda’s idea seems both logically and morally flawed.

The book, I feel, is an example of not only what is wrong with South African novel writing but what is wrong with South Africa as a whole – too much axe grinding and not enough imagination.


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