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The Madonna of Excelsior: A Novel Paperback – February 10, 2005

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (February 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312423829
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312423827
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #989,513 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In vibrant prose infused with equal parts satire and social criticism, Mda (The Heart of Redness) charts new emotional terrain exploring the Madonna-whore complex in a South African setting. Readers catch their first glimpse of protagonist Niki in the burnt umber brushstrokes of a Boer priest's canvases. Father Claerhout's models hitchhike from surrounding black townships to earn a pittance shedding their clothes for the artist-priest. While his intentions are innocent, those of the Afrikaner farmers Niki and her friends come into contact with are more prurient. Niki spends time in prison after her daughter, Popi, is born with the flowing locks and blue eyes of her Afrikaner father. Based loosely on true apartheid-era events and the notorious "Immorality Act," which outlawed miscegenation, the novel mercilessly examines the twisted mores of the times. A severe though often amusing social critic, Mda at turns belittles and exalts the women who bear dozens of "coloured" children by their employers while reserving his harshest characterizations for the Boer men who relentlessly pester African women. And Niki is a sympathetic-though sometimes frustrating-protagonist, who is thrilled by her power over the husbands of the Boer women who humiliate her. Mda's folkloric prose is filled with bitterness. As Niki is forced to submit to a white man's sexual demands, Mda writes, "[H]e just lay there like a plastic bag full of decaying tripe on top of her." Readers follow the lives of Niki, Popi and Popi's politically active brother, Viliki, for more than 30 years, into the post-apartheid era. While their anger simmers beneath the surface throughout the narrative, Mda's captivating characters ultimately find an uneasy peace in the newly free state.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

This is an elemental South African story of relationships across the color line, first at the height of apartheid's madness and then during the freedom struggle and the ongoing transition to democracy. As in Heart of Redness (2002), Mda tells the big story through the personal lives of a few intimately connected people. The first chapters are based on a notorious 1970s trial in which whites and blacks in one small town were convicted under the Immorality Act for the crime of miscegenation. The focus is on a black woman, Niki, and her "Coloured" (mixed-race) daughter, Popi, whose white father commits suicide after the public disgrace. Popi has a white half-brother and also a black brother, who grows up to be a guerrilla fighter. In the transition, Popi becomes a city councilor, always ashamed of her body, an outsider to whites and blacks in the community. But all their identities shift with reconciliation and revenge, corruption and nostalgia. Mda writes from the inside with a rare combination of passion and truth that will connect with readers everywhere. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By David J. Gannon on March 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The publishing of his second novel, The Madonna of Excelsior : A Novel, establishes Zakes Mda as a bright new star of international literature. This novel, like his first, deals with African society?s attempts to deal with the struggle between tradition and modernity in contemporary Africa.
The basis of the novel is an actual event. In 1971 19 citizens of a village in Orange Free State were arrested for violating the Immorality Act in South Africa. Their crime? Interracial sex.
The book is a fictional accounting of the subsequent lives of those caught up in this incident.
The focus of the story, the ?Madonna? of the title is Popi, a young lady who represents the issue of one of these sexual encounters. She is called ?colored? by polite society and far ruder things by most others. Her life transverses the crossover from white apartheid rule to black native African rule and she fit in neither world, being ?to black for the apartheid regime and to white for the African regime?.
Most of the figures in this novel emerge as people deserving, if not of sympathy, at least of understanding. It is one of the strengths of the book that Mda?s politics?if he has any?are entirely absent from the narrative. This is a book about people and their experiences, not a vehicle for political rhetoric. Not that the tragedies of the political situation in South Africa don?t emerge?they most surely do. They do so within the context of the story, however.
In the end the villains in contemporary South Africa are not the apartheid enforcers who instigate the action with their contemptible raid, nor those caught up in it, or even those who discriminate against these people.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on September 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Fiction does not always facilitate or augment the understanding of complex realities of time and place. Zakes Mda, however, has achieved this mixture admirably in this novel of his native South Africa. The political events of pre- and post-Apartheid periods take a central place in the story. Yet he manages to avoid being overly heavy on facts and details as he builds the narrative around the impact of one specific event and its aftermath on one small community, Excelsior. He captures the essence of life under Apartheid and the difficulties awaiting all when the regime ends. Old prejudices and tensions remain and the transition to the new SA adds new challenges and conflicts, including among the black political leadership.

Mda uses the 1971 case of the Excelsior 19 as the focus of the first part of his account. A group of white men and black women were charged with violation of the Immorality Act that prohibits intimate relations across race lines. The primary character is Niki, one of the Excelsior 19 women, whose life story is a symbol for this time and place. As a naïve, pretty 18 year old, she attracts the attention of a white Afrikaner who assaults her and keeps pursuing her. Escape into marriage is some protection and also results in her confidence growing. Life is good with a husband and her son, Viliki. Never questioning her role as a servant and second class citizen, a humiliating incident with her white woman boss changes all that.

Her rage leads her to take revenge. Realizing her power as a black beauty and the hold it has over white Afrikaners, she applies it deliberately. The mixed-race daughter Popi is evidence of the hushed-up relationship. Despite the indisputable evidence of children like Popi, the charges against the Excelsior 19 are withdrawn.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on March 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In sensuous, intensely visual language, author Mda depicts the life of Niki, a black South African, showing her day-to-day struggles to survive under apartheid and raise her children, but he also depicts Fr. Frans Claerhout's idealized vision of her in his paintings--as a colorful Madonna figure, the mother of children who will eventually change the world. Niki has posed for many of Fr. Claerhout's paintings, a job which has helped her to feed her black son and her half-white daughter, even though she has often had to walk thirty-five kilometers to his studio in order to pose. Niki's story, from her teen years to old age, becomes the story of South Africa itself during the last half of the 20th century, a novel told from the perspective of a black author, and quite unlike the novels of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, though they cover the same time period.
Excelsior, the township in which Niki lives, is almost entirely black, yet all power in government and business rests in white hands. Without resorting to melodrama or clichés, the author shows in incident after incident, how black women are regarded as chattel, regularly harassed and even raped by their white bosses, town officials, judges, and even clergymen. Yet Niki never yields to self-pity, even when she and eighteen other women and the men who have used them are put on trial for violating the Immorality Act, a violation which has produced Niki's daughter Popi. Imperfect, sometimes angry, and often calculating, Niki comes alive as a woman determined to hang on to her pride, using the only power she has, her sexual power, to control those who would control her.
Vivid scenes of South African life from the 1970s to the present bring Niki and her children to life.
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