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The Heart of Redness: A Novel Paperback – August 1, 2003
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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From Publishers Weekly
In Mda's richly suggestive novel, a Westernized African, Camagu, becomes embroiled in a village dispute that has its roots in the 19th century. The war between the amaXhosa and the British in South Africa (known to Westerners as the Zulu Wars) was interrupted by a strange, messianic interlude in which the amaXhosa followed the self-destructive commands of the prophet Nongqawuse and were split between followers of Nongqawuse (Believers) and their opponents (Unbelievers). In the village of Qolorha-by-Sea in the late 20th century, the Believers still flourish. They put the onus for the distressing failure of Nongqawuse's visions on the Unbelievers' unbelief. The chief Believer is Zim; his rival, the chief Unbeliever, is Bhonco. The white store owner, Dalton, whose ancestor killed Zim and Bhonco's forefather, Xikixa, is on the Believers' side in the village's current controversy over whether or not to allow a casino in the village. The Believers oppose the changes they foresee coming to the village's traditions. The Unbelievers want economic development. Camagu originally comes to Qolorha looking for a woman whose memory haunts him. He ends up being associated with the cold, beautiful Xoliswa Ximiya, Bhonco's daughter, whose scorn for tradition eventually drives her from the village. Secretly, however, Camagu lusts for Qukezwa, the squat but sexy daughter of Zim. Mda's sympathies are with the Believers, but his eminent fairness forbids mere didacticism, and his joy in the back and forth of village politics beautifully communicates itself to the reader through poetic language enlivened by humor and irony.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Writing from the heart of the new South Africa, Mda tells his country's stories through beautifully realized characters whose search for love and connection takes you up close to the black experience, past and present. In Heart of Redness, protagonist Camagu (like the author) had left South Africa during the apartheid years, but now he's back. Camagu has trouble finding his place in the new system until he lands in a coastal village in the eastern Cape, where a "black empowerment" company wants to develop a tourist heaven with casinos and theme parks. The villagers are split between those who welcome "progress" and those who fear it. With the present conflict, Mda weaves in the infamous history of this place, where the savage white conquerors came with "civilization" and a Xhosa prophetess told the people to resist by destroying their cattle and crops. Then, as now, the community was split, and the questions remain. The constant weaving together of past and present slows the narrative, but Mda does a great job of subverting the heart-of-darkness stereotypes, and he does it without romanticizing the "primitive." Today's villagers want electricity, running water, literacy. But they also want to conserve their Xhosa culture and the natural beauty of their place, not as tourist fodder, but as a dynamic contemporary community. Can Camagu help find a way? The parallels with the Native American experience will grab readers, as will the personal search for home. 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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In his 2002 novel, The Heart of Redness (the title being an allusion to Conrad's classic novella) Zakes Mda, a South African, novelist, poet and playwright, not only recounts the true story of Nongqawuse, a young prophetess, and her supporters, the Cult of the Believers, but he also imagines the effect they had on modern day citizens of Qolora, her legacy to the amaXhosa. Bhonco belongs to the Cult of the Unbelievers, he follows the tenets of Twin-Twin, the original Unbeliever, who lived during the time of the great Xhosa cattle slaughter of 1856/1857 (see Jeff Peires' book The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7 which Mda cites as the prime resource for this work). His distant cousin, Zim and his daughter, who live nearby, are Believers. They follow the philosophy of their ancestor Twin (Twin and Twin-Twin were brothers, son of the beheaded Xikixa) who were faithful to the prophecies: kill all your animals, cattle sheep, goats, and the great ancestors will rise from the ocean bringing fresh livestock and blessings for a fortuitous future.
The two, Zim and Bhonco, as were their ancestors, are at odds; to join the modern or to respect the old ways, that is the question. Mda never really tips his hand, as he excavates this old debate. He instead wisely inserts an anti-coagulant into their festering wound, the worldly Camagu, an South Afrrican ex-pat who has returned to his homeland after thirty years from, among other places, America. Camagu blunders into Qolora-by-Sea on the scent of a woman he knows only by the common Xhosa name of Noma Russia, but soon he becomes taken with another, inexorably entangling himself with the diametrical elders.
Like Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe before him, Mda, explores common themes of African literature like cultural divide, colonialism, and gender roles. The amaXhosa are patriarchal, however they greatly value women, hence the allegiances to the young prophetesses; yet we do get a sense that behind them, their uncle, Mhlkaza, pulls their strings. Zim seems lost without his wife, NoEnglish, dead this past year, and Bhonco depends heavily on his mate, NoPetticoat. Both have daughters, Qukezwa and Xoliswa respectively, who are also opposed, both with their eyes on the stranger, Camagu. The author describes the two eloquently thus: "She is so beautiful. Xoliswa Ximiya. So staid and reliable. Qukezwa is not burdened with beauty. She is therefore able to be free-spirited." And then there is the white man, merchant John Dalton, who provides a bit of irony, as he supports the preservation of the village perhaps in atonement for the infamous deeds of his legendary ancestor of the same name. Mda allows his characters to learn and grow, and we get a sense, dynamically, of their growth. Camagu, in conversation with Believer Zim and the skeptical Dalton, has this to say about the power of belief:
"There is nothing foolish about belief... It is the same sincerity of belief that has been seen throughout history and continues to be seen today where those who believe actually see miracles. The same sincerity of belief that causes thousands to commit mass suicide by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana, because the world is coming to an end . . . or that leads men, women, and children to die willingly in flames with their prophet, David Koresh, in Waco, Texas."
Over the ten years since its publication, The Heart of Redness has gained near classic status, being included in the popular literary reference, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die compiled by Dr. Peter Boxall (that is how yours truly learned of its existence). Besides its historical ken, the novel is funny, romantic and hopeful. Mda's style is innately African, if there is such a thing; the use of understatement and subtlety seems key to achieving this. It is these qualities of writing which help to sustain the novel's powerful and very unsubtle message into the heart of its own redness.
Strong female characters in this book as well.
With this as a background, Mda follows a modern South African who travels to Xhosa land in search of a beautiful woman who he met at a bar in Jo-burg. He becomes wrapped up in the local struggles between Believers and Unbelievers, and between those who want the development of a modern resort, and those who don't. Mda also novelizes the struggle in the 1800s between the factions, represented by two brothers: Twin, and Twin-Twin. Descendants of those two brothers are the modern-day Believers and Unbelievers.
It's all told believably, but with a touch of magic. Other than a rather flat ending (perhaps my ebook cut off the end?) it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip to a different time and place with an articulate and passionate guide.
Using the historical prophetess Nongqawuse and the horrific Cattle Killing of the mid-nineteenth century as his jumping off point, Mda constructs a fantastical novel that freely flows between the historical struggle of South Africans with colonizing Europeans and the late twentieth century struggle between modernity and tradition. In the mid 1850's, South African natives were torn into two factions- the Believers and Unbelievers- after a young girl prophesized that, as a solution to the problem of European invasion, the ancestors of the Xhosa people would return from the dead and herald in an age of prosperity, but only if all Xhosa cattle were slain. One hundred and fifty years later, the descendents of these original factions are still at odds, only this time it is over whether or not the Xhosa people should willingly move into the modern age or hold firmly to their traditional ways.
With the names identical both then and now, Mda's movement between these two eras can be confusing, yet ultimately highlight the similarity between the two struggles. While it seems clear that Mda stands against the European intrusion into South Africa, he never clearly sides with the Believers or the Unbelievers, presenting both sides on equal terms and letting the reader decide for herself how she feels. Mda's writing is poetic yet forceful, hinting of magical realism without abandoning reality altogether. The book can be depressing, as is the nature of any book about South Africa, yet ultimately hopeful thanks to Mda's prose.
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