Books of The Times
The South African novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda has a formidable political lineage. His father, A. P. Mda, was a guiding light in the 1959 founding of the Pan Africanist Congress. He was a lawyer and by all accounts a stern, serious man. Zakes Mda (pronounced EM-dah) is a serious man of a different sort: one who refuses to be somber. In “Sometimes There Is a Void,” his new memoir, his life and hard times are mostly played for wistful comedy.
Much of this tragicomedy is sexual. Mr. Mda, who was born in the Herschel District of South Africa, in 1948, is more of a lover than a fighter. He has often been, he says, “in a pickle with women.” His first wife, Mpho, set his mistress’s bed on fire. His second wife, Adele, belittled him mightily. “She would stand at the door and say, ‘You are not going anywhere until I am done insulting,’ ” he recalls, somewhat in awe. She would add: “I’m going to insult you until you walk slowly.”
Adele knew how to hurt a writer. During their drawn-out divorce proceedings in America — Mr. Mda has taught creative writing at Ohio University since 2002 — she would search out stray negative reviews of his work and mail them “to those people in South Africa who she thought were interested in my work.” Ouch.
Mr. Mda’s buoyant sensibility keeps “Sometimes There Is a Void” afloat, against terrible odds. This is a talky, formless and seemingly endless book, one that has none of the sculptured intensity of his best novels, which include “The Heart of Redness” (2000). It’s about as far from a considered work of art as it is possible for a professional writer’s memoir to be.
In this chronological narrative this happens, and then that happens, but there’s no drama; nothing builds toward climax or catharsis. As a reader you die a bit inside when Mr. Mda types things like “remind me later to tell you” or “but I digress” or “I don’t know if I have mentioned this before.” How hard can it be to find out if you have mentioned something before?
There are three or four smaller, better books yelping to free themselves from “Sometimes There Is a Void,” and I’d line up to read each of them. The first is a no-brainer: it would more fully explore Mr. Mda’s relationship with his father, about whom this memoir offers a glimpse of a complex and moving portrait.
The elder Mr. Mda was a man of enormous rectitude. He worked tirelessly for his mostly poor clients but had little time for his family. His racial politics made him suspect in apartheid South Africa, and at least once he was taken away by the police in the middle of the night. He eventually went into exile in the British Protectorate of Basutoland, as Lesotho was then known. His family would follow later.
Mr. Mda vividly describes how his father, who disapproved of corporal punishment, would make his unhappiness felt. “He had a way of making you feel not only that you were a disappointment to yourself and your parents, but you had also let the whole continent of Africa down — from Cape to Cairo, Morocco to Madagascar,” he writes. Mr. Mda and his father were never close, an estrangement the author now regrets.
Nelson Mandela, in the years before he was imprisoned, was Mr. Mda’s father’s lawyer and friend. The author remembers riding in an automobile with Mr. Mandela and being scolded for laughing at a poor man’s rickety car. “You laugh at that man’s car,” Mr. Mandela said, “yet you don’t even have one like that.”
The author’s father and Mr. Mandela later had a falling out. This break, Mr. Mda writes, along with his own outspokenness and his refusal to deify Mr. Mandela, have made him feel no longer entirely welcome in South Africa. He blames a “vast patronage system and crony capitalism,” for which Mr. Mda holds Mr. Mandela partly responsible, for his marginalization.
A second smaller book would trace Mr. Mda’s own political awakening, and his gradual awareness that he could have more impact through his art than on the front lines. He is, he admits, a bit of a marshmallow. This book is strewn with lines like, “I was not much of a warrior,” “the sight of guns, never mind touching them, made me cringe” and “I have always lived in my own namby-pamby land.”
The third book would be both about his growth as an artist and, frankly, as an intellectual hedonist. Before abstaining altogether he was a serious drinker, so much so that his friends called one of his houses in Africa, where they used to gather for beer and grilled meat, “the stadium.”
His writing about music is seldom less than terrific. “Our prophet was Frantz Fanon, and jazz was the hymnal that nourished our souls,” he writes about his early years, and there are intense appreciations of John Coltrane and the bluesman Champion Jack Dupree.
When he first arrived at Ohio University as a student in 1981, he writes: “My first culture shock was that there was no jazz in America. I expected the air to be permeated by the trumpets of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie; the saxophones of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker; the double bass of Art Davis and Charles Mingus.” Instead, country music “whined in my ear like an irritating mosquito.”
Mr. Mda is a keen observer of America. While teaching briefly in Burlington, Vt., he notices there are almost no black people on the streets. But when he visits a prison, half the men are African-American. He asks, “Was that where they kept their African-American population — in the county jail?”
This book is like a beloved, garrulous uncle who has no idea when to stop. It’s a mess, and I can’t recommend it, but it’s a big-hearted and mostly loveable mess. It imparts of a sense of, as Mr. Mda says about life with Gugu, his third wife, “Hey, I didn’t know that there could be so much laughter in one lifetime!”
SOMETIMES THERE IS A VOID
Memoirs of an Outsider
By Zakes Mda
561 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
Because of an editing error, the Books of The Times review on Friday, about “Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider,” by the South African writer Zakes Mda, misidentified the relative who was a friend of Nelson Mandela and whom Mr. Mandela represented as a lawyer. He was A. P. Mda (Mr. Mda’s father), not the father of A. P. Mda.
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