By Nthikeng Mohlele
Review by Sarah Frost
Nthikeng Mohlele has written a superb second novel in ‘Small Things’. This book is philosophically interesting, and psychologically astute, demonstrating intelligence and integrity. It is no wonder that world renowned author J M Coetzee said of the book: ‘Behind this story of love, music and the eternal quest, lies an artistic sensibility as generous as it is complex. The prose is rich in texture, the final effect melancholy and comic in equal proportions.’
Finely written in the first person, with much attention to intricate detail, the story maps the life-path of a protagonist who remains nameless until the end. He describes himself as ‘a mildly accomplished journalist, a hesitant revolutionary, a looming failure at the institutions of poetry and marriage, parrot of tourism information, laundryman checking hospital sheets for stains, promising trumpeter, futile philosopher thinking in circles about love and life without reaching any conclusive opinions.’
He was born in Sophiatown, which he names ‘the Chicago of South Africa,’ where he meets a jazz singer Desiree, the woman who is to become the love of his life. Initially, I found Mohlele’s description of the protagonist’s relationship with Desiree unconvincing, seeming more abstract than heartfelt. However, by the end of the book one gets a sense of Desiree’s personality (the lead character lives with her for a while before she leaves him to return to her husband), and thus the relationship becomes plausible. Mohlele muses on the nature of love, noting that ‘Desiree’s is an eloping kind, a love that constructs and abandons nests, much like a fugitive dodging police hounds’, whereas his love for her is ‘as distinct, detailed and colourful as coral reeds in sea beds’.
He becomes a journalist, writing stories for the Daily Argus, until he is detained and interrogated by the Special Branch. After this he is put into solitary confinement for several years. When he emerges from prison he becomes a flaneur in Johannesburg, sleeping in city squares, bathing in public toilets, and observing society from a distance. He marvels at ‘the postcard view of Johannesburg, its fusion of lights, the illusion of cosmopolitan prosperity’ and admires ‘the deceptions of the cityscape,’ while pondering deep philosophical questions about the nature of being. He is shot by a criminal, but survives, refusing to press charges, wondering instead about the man’s motives: ‘Murder is supposed to be a conscience-wrecking deed; how was it then that The Dark Figure seemed so composed, without a shred of remorse?’ He takes a job as Information Officer at the Tourism Information Centre in Newtown, and then becomes a busker, after he begins a relationship with Mercedes Sanchez, the daughter of a friend of his. She is a trumpet player and teaches him her art, while seducing him. ‘The key to sex, says Mercedes, is music: rhythm, breathing, unpredictable melodies.’ Mercedes’ father, Gabriel, warns him: ‘Love is not for the faint-hearted … who says love has to follow known and accepted formulas for it to be love? Poets have endured torments reducing these things to rhyming verse.’