Title: Soweto under the apricot tree
Author: Niq Mhlongo
Publisher: Kwela Books
Local price: Rxxx @ Takealot
Hemmingway is quoted as saying all stories end in death “…and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you”. Niq Mhlongo’s short stories seem to always have a link to death. In his first collection, Affluenza, seven of the eleven shorts featured death. In his recent collection, Soweto under the apricot tree, he’s got the same ratio; seven out of eleven feature a deceased person. And one deceased cat. The deaths are seldom the subject or even the theme of the story itself, but there always exists their pallor in his content. You would imagine a high level of earnestness in his shorts then, but he does manage to add some interesting colour and comedy here and there.
In Soweto under the apricot tree the short stories are set in and around the townships of Soweto. In this batch Niq has collaged a portrait of the peri-urban that reveals the many social interactions and dynamics at play. An assortment of characters presents the issues in and around black life in interesting and quirky stories that explore a variety of topics. From paternity to xenophobia; from revolutionary politics to tenderpreneurship; from aspirations to vigilantism. And that dead cat.
“Curiosity killed the cat” is about the tension that builds between two suburbia neighbours around the death of a cat inauspiciously named Napoleon Bonaparte. Like the megalomaniac military man, Napoleon strikes a colonial terror on Ousi Maria, the domestic helper to the Phala household. The neighbour’s cat seems to sense her superstitious reservations and regularly saunters in her vicinity. On this one fateful day, his bullying lands him in the swimming pool and Ousi Maria watches him drown. Then ensues the tussle between African culture, with its non-filial connection to domestic pets, and Western Culture with its adoptive embrace of the cat and the dog. Children (black) are called Satanist cat killers at school and threatened with suspension by the school principal (white). Wives (white) sulk at other wives (black) for not attending the burial service of Bonaparte. Wives (black) fight with husbands (black) and domestic workers (black) about the traditional cleansing that is now required for the swimming pool. The story does a good job of juxtaposing the beliefs of one race against another, together with the intra-race tensions from black people’s moves away from their cultural reference points.
The evaluation of black folks diminishing affinity to ancestral engagements is a topic in which Mhlongo is interested. Particularly, he explores the substitution of African beliefs for Christian faith and liturgy in black lives. In “My Father’s Eyes” a woman is shocked when her seemingly good Christian husband consults a traditional healer to establish the cause of their daughter’s cerebral palsy. The shock is doubled when the remedy is cited as being the act of locating an absent father’s grave and ancestry, with which the woman needs to make amends. “I really don’t understand why we black people have to slaughter goats and cows to ask ancestors for money, employment and things that are beyond us by nature, like Fufu’s disability…” reflects a mother to a son-in-law about her granddaughter. “There are some things about tradition that Christianity cannot solve” rebuts the son-in-law. The contemplation of tradition also features in the story titled “Avalon”, named after a popular cemetery in Soweto which is the scene for the philosophical reflections of the story. “You see ntwana, white people don’t waste money like us black people when it comes to death and burial…when one of them dies today, they bury or burn you tomorrow” says Bra Makhenzo, a local political enthusiast and faux “successful business man” who floats around the township in his BMW 5 series while drowning in debt. “But we’re not white”, replies the narrator of the story, who is not named.
That’s another thing Mhlongo does often in his stories; not giving his first-person narrators a name. Nor his second person narrators for that matter. These literary devices add an interactive element to the stories; they bring you close to the action, as you observe like a fly on the wall while the narrator addresses a non-responsive third party; but it keeps you removed enough as you hardly get to first name basis with the main characters. In “Private Dancer Saudade” a female narrator speaks to a muted male suitor whom she meets in her stripper job. The story is an account of the topsy-turvy emotions of a woman swept away by a wealthy man who spoils her with fancy clothes and sleep overs at high end hotels. She takes the absent beau through her elation at his love and distraught at his abandonment, as she sits in jail charged with being an accomplice to criminal activity about which she has no clue. The second person narrative connects us as readers to her blind love and takes us along for the tumultuous ride.
Generally, reading Niq Mhlongo’s stories is like discovering a Russian doll. If you’re not familiar with one, you’ll think it merely a quaint ornament. When you realise that there’s another version inside, and another inside that, and yet another inside the inside, you’re intrigued and excited and incredulous; each layer and its detail coming from a seemingly impossible place. The titular story “Soweto under the apricot tree” is one such Russian doll. Sipho, the narrator, sits with his friend Siya and a few elders in the aftermath of a successful tombstone unveiling. Mhlongo starts the story with an innocuous lesson on the history of the apricot, peach and plum trees in apartheid era Soweto. The story meanders on random detail, like “Uncle Bhodloza drinks a glass of water after eating some raw green chillies. Beads of sweat cover his forehead. The water seems to cool him…”. Then, out of nowhere and unprompted, “Uncle Bhodloza’s eyes turn to Siya. ‘You see that branch where the pigeons have just settled? That’s where your father committed suicide’”. From here details of 70’s township tsotsi’s and their exploits expand into the disclosure of a family secret that leaves Sipho as confounded as the reader. “Overwhelmed by these family secrets, I decide to go inside the house to play… ‘Mannenberg’ by Abdullah Ibrahim. Were my mother’s marriage and my birth really just accidents of apartheid?”. All that action ends as abruptly as finding the last piece in a Matryoshka doll. Not in any cliff hanger kind of way, but in the quotidian way that you realise the setting sun has suddenly disappeared and it’s dark outside.
Niq’s use of death as the backdrop for the debate of new ideas and the space around which new ways of being are explored (particularly in the black lived experience), make him a true story teller in that Hemmingway kind of way. He doesn’t have the brevity of Hemmingway in his short story writing and often adds odd details and facts which come from his curious observation of daily life. But he’s got as much adventure in his writing and is as good a story teller.