Author Archives: Penny de Vries

About Penny de Vries

Book worm. Book lover. Raised on Enid Blyton but have progressed to sterner stuff. Only read real books. e-Reading does not work for me as I immerse myself in the book, I live in its pages and I need that to be physical even though it is virtual in a way. I love reading especially SA fiction. I now write reviews on the books I read. My other major hobby is birding which gets me into our beautiful outdoors.

The Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni


The first three weeks of State of Disaster Declaration, and then Lockdown, were bad for my reading because I was obsessed with the news. In the last 6 months I have also found myself reading escapist page turners (crime fiction mainly) due to difficult circumstances that affected my concentration. Then I noticed a change, which was precipitated by The Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni; a book that has been lurking on my shelf since 2018. It took me on a journey which lasted 2 weeks in this real world but centuries of journeying through time. I’m not sure who wrote this statement on the back of the book; “When James Baldwin said that the responsibility of the writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him, he may as well have spoken The Broken River Tent into existence. This is spot on.

The mid-19th Century in the Eastern Cape and its battles between the Xhosa, the settlers and the British government are well documented by academics and historians. Even the garbage I was taught at school in the 60s and 70s has been corrected. But this is so much deeper. The perspective is unique and not only re-tells historical events but also immerses a reader in the culture, language and morals of the Xhosa people. It does not shy away from the internecine conflict nor mince words about the colonial power. I have never hated a man like I hate Sir Harry Smith now. If the town called Harrismith were in the Eastern Cape, its name would have been changed long ago.

Phila, the protagonist, lives in PE in 2007. He has recently returned from studying architecture in Germany. He has come home to SA but feels like a stranger and has been struggling to make sense of it all. His father dies and this triggers a visitation on him from Maqoma. I knew very little about Maqoma, having heard more about Makana (Makhanda Nxele) and Nongqawuse. This is a fascinating device. Maqoma is unearthed from Phila’s analeptic memory and he almost becomes him and speaks in his voice. Maqoma takes him over and he cannot prevent it. Yet he also enters into dialogue with him. I have never heard the word analeptic before but I gather it is an awakening, an unearthing.

The narrative switches between Phila’s current life and Maqoma’s narration of the events he wants Phila to know so that Phila can tell the truth about the River People, the Xhosa. Phila embarks on a journey throughout the Eastern Cape, his route driven by the stories Maqoma narrates. The slices of contemporary life are chaotic in a different way from his internal life. He meets a colourful cast of characters such as the pompous professor in Grahamstown who switches him off instantly with the use of the phrase, ‘you people’, the German tourist who is curious about sex with a black woman, herd-boys in the mountains still living the old way and many more.

Whether in the present or the past, the diction is pitch perfect. As a reader, it is very important to me that a writer captures the language of a period. If contemporary words sneak in, it dismays me. This is because, when I read, I immerse myself in the world of the book and if something jars, it jerks me back to reality. It puts me off the book. This is difficult to accomplish but Ntabeni achieves it seamlessly.

The formal, lyrical language, the archaic construction of the sentences that Maqoma speaks are beautiful. I know the terrain of the Eastern Cape and the descriptions were so vivid, it was if I was there. The descriptions of the battles had me filled with suspense as the action unfolded, in some cases, hoping against hope that the inevitable would not happen, tearful when it did.

The intertextuality is something I really enjoy in books too. Although some of the references were quite erudite and sometimes beyond me, there were also more familiar references such as T.S. Eliot and Leonard Cohen. The philosophical reflections and interiority of Phila, his waywardness and yet resolute fixation on his journey make him an unforgettable protagonist.

I could not read this book in one go as I often do. The words had to be savoured and absorbed until I could return to it. It is very detailed, dense and descriptive. This would have been difficult if it weren’t for lockdown as I have nowhere to go nor any pressing matters that require my attention.

When I closed this book, I realised that its writing had been a brilliantly executed labour of love. I doubt it could have been written by anyone but a writer whose first language is Xhosa.

The Yearning by Mohale Moshego



There are many young black people caught between a world of achievement, consumerism, fast-living and the world of their ancestors. There is a yearning to add meaning to life, to tap into the old ways and find a spiritual home. Western values dominate and the party is not stopping. Whispers from the shadows of a whirlwind life insinuate into the subconscious; memories and dreams and snatches of a different culture make their presence felt.

This subconscious struggle between the spiritual and material worlds is skilfully laid bare in The Yearning. The protagonist, Marubini, Maru or Rubi to her friends, works in the marketing department of one of the oldest Cape wine farms in the country. The narrative shifts between memories of her childhood and snippets of her current life. The diction shifts with the context, in that the adult Rubi uses slang and contemporary speak while the narration of her childhood memories are more formal. Both are sprinkled with isiZulu and Sepedi and sometimes Afrikaans which adds colour and texture to the novel. One of the delights of this novel is the writer’s use of language, such as her description of Marubini’s physical sensations when she is feeling turned on by her lover;

There is a visitor making her way to me, and I can’t wait. She packs her bag at my stomach and slowly slides down to where she knows she needs to be. She pulls the rope and the bell in my heart starts ringing, beating faster and faster. The visitor starts unpacking her bags and I smile with anticipation.

As is often the case with daughters and mothers, Maru’s relationship with her mother is a little fraught; her mother still lives in Soweto, where she grew up, and places many demands on her. She expects her to drop everything and visit home for a family wedding and does not seem to understand the pressures of Maru’s job. Maru pays for her brother’s expensive boarding school but her mother still thinks she is selfish if she does not prioritise family affairs. She misses her father who she says she loved “before and after he became a snake”. This type of remark gives the reader clues that there is something special about her father but it is only revealed later. This device adds to the dramatic effect of the novel.

Maru begins to have strange episodes; dizzy spells, nausea and the sound of children singing in her head, in Sesotho, to the tune of Frere Jacques. This continues while she is presenting to sales reps about the new emerging market. Later at home she experiences strange sensations, glimpses of another place, other voices penetrating her consciousness until she awakes in hospital. The doctor suspects a seizure but she begins to question her own sanity. She knows there are secrets in her past but she cannot grasp them.

Her mother “is MoPedi and her father is umZulu”, so there are trust issues between the different sets of grandparents. Both are very  important in her life and care for her when her mother is not able. Although she is seeing a psychologist to assist with her strange episodes, it will be her family who are best able to help her heal.

As the parallel stories of childhood and adulthood unfold, the pieces eventually come together and much, but not all, is explained. Healing cannot occur without memory and love cannot flourish if aspects of self are denied. During the narrative there are memorable scenes that will remain with you long after you have closed the book. Whether describing racism in the workplace or sacred rituals, the novel is candid, convincing and a beautiful read.

Tjieng Tjang Tjerries by Jolyn Phillips



Tjieng, Tjang, Tjerries is a short story collection that lives up to its intriguing name. Yet all is not as it seems. The reader discovers in the title story from which language the phrase ‘tjieng, tjang, tjerries’, is derived; or do they? The stories have a large sprinkling of the colloquial variant of Afrikaans that is spoken by Cape ‘Coloured’ people.  If you know what this accent sounds like, it is difficult not to hear it in your head as you read.  Language is indeed akin to being a character in these interlinked stories.

The stories centre around colourful characters that live in Gansbaai, a small coastal town in between Hermanus and Agulhas, where the author grew up. Her intimate knowledge of the community is evident, as is her insight into what lies beneath the surface. Tough lives give people tough exteriors that belie the love they have for one another. Small triumphs seem to outweigh the hardship in families that experience violence and sorrow.

The sense of place is ever present; the fynbos, the ocean, the fishing boats, ‘kapstyl’  cottages and the weather. The writing appeals to the senses in the sound of “seagulls swearing and “the smell of fish guts”, the morning mist, ‘bak brood and moer koffie’. Most of all, the characters are real, flesh and blood people, depicted through their dialogue and relationships more than through their appearance.

There are thirteen stories, none of which are very long. The focus is mainly on different family relationships and how tragedy, secrets, alcohol and poverty affect their lives. Even though most of the stories are about different people, nevertheless, they seem interlinked through their proximity to each other. The matter-of-factness and humour inherent in the dialogue counters the sadness of the different events. The stories range from the death of a loved son to the ‘dronk verdriet’ of a runaway husband; from the girl that schoolteachers thought was stupid because she could not see, to the girl whose parents die and those who look after her, abuse her; to mention but a few. The one that pulls at my heartstrings the most is The Fisherman. It tells of Andrea, a young woman who did not want to be relegated to working in the fish factory because her calling was to be a fisherman like her Pappa, not a fish packer.

Quite a few of the stories are from the perspective of a child. The naivete of children who are exposed to much that they do not fully understand exposes the goings on of the adults. There is Mollie who is ‘n bietjie mal’ (a bit mad), Hennie who ‘murdered all his brain cells with the papsak’ (box wine) and Ouma, who loves funerals and gives funeral crashers ‘the stink eye’.

Trevor Noah said in an interview that Coloured in South Africa says more about a culture than it says about a race. I know this is a highly contested area as it speaks to identity; some reject the use of the word ‘Coloured’ while others use it with pride. These short stories celebrate the expressiveness of the language, a bearer of the culture, and are an absolute delight.

‘Kinna Reads’ Africa Reading Challenge


This is a fun yet easy reading challenge.  See Kinna’s post for the ‘rules’. 5 African books in 2017. I might have reached it already. Let me see.

My African reads in 2017 so far:

1. Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubukar Adam Ibrahim

2. Cold Case Confession by Alex Eliseev

3. Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle

4. Refuge by Andrew Brown

5. Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo

Indeed I have reached the goal. Still I’ll be reading a whole lot more. Next is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

What African books will you read this year? Click on link to Kinna’s blog below and comment.



My Top Reads in 2016

I am trying to figure out my top reads of 2016 and it is tough. I read so many amazing books, not all of them published in 2016. Without intending it that way, most of them are written by African writers with the exception of two. Here are the absolute gems in no particular order:
Drawn in Colour by Noni Jabavu
And They Didn’t Die by Laurette Ngcobo
Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle by Sindiwe Magona
I’m so happy I read these three books within a few months of each other. They all speak to similar topics and focus on racial issues, land issues and the role of black women as upholders of culture despite their oppression by that very culture. Fraught relationships occur between women because of patriarchy; women are shamed for being raped by a white man; women are forced to prejudice themselves for the sake of family; these are some of the themes explored in all three books. I loved the way all three books simultaneously celebrated and critiqued their culture.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

I did not realise when I read Tram 83 that the writer had been influenced by Alain Mabanckou, but once I read Broken Glass, it was clear. Inventive, creative writing like nothing else you have read before. The discarding of conventional punctuation makes the reads a roller coaster ride, breathless and unpredictable. Both set in the Congo and translated from French, they critique neo-colonialism, explore power relations in original, witty language that satirises everyone and everything.

The Search Warrant (Dora Bruder) by Patrick Modiano

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano was virtually unknown to the English-speaking world of letters until he won the Nobel Prize in 2014. Suddenly publishers were scrambling to publish his work. His work reads like literary crime fiction and is highly autobiographical. In The Search Warrant, he investigates a young Jewish girl of 16 who went missing in about 1942. He had stumbled across an old newspaper article where it was recorded. The book chronicles his obsession and research as he tries to find out what happened to her. He explores old maps and archives as well as visiting the area on foot. It is as if by resurrecting Dora’s history he is honouring all those who died and are unknown. A very poignant book. As is Missing Person; in this novel the narrator is an amnesiac and has been for at least 10 years. He decides to find out who he really is / was. Scraps of memories, names and articles take him from one possibility to the next.  The writing is sparse yet sufficient.


Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Yes, I know, I’m late to the Lauren Beukes party. The wait was worthwhile. I love the off-beat, impossible to believe yet highly believable, dystopian Johannesburg of Zoo City where people are assigned animals that they have to carry as burdens. These animals are indicative of the type of crimes they committed and give them psychic powers. Zinzi, the protagonist, uses her powers to discover missing people. The Shining Girls is about a time travelling serial killer who becomes hunted by one of his victims. Marvelously imaginative, it is set in Chicago and delves into its history across the decades, beginning in the 30s. Both books are delightful in their craziness and imaginary worlds.


Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

 I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

These three books were each written by African women though, apart from that, they have little to connect them. Ghana Must Go is possibly my top read of the year. It explores a family from Ghana whose children are raised in America; neither of the parents know how to stay with each other and when the father, a medical doctor, is framed for a malpractice, his world falls apart. The writing is rich with similes and psychological insights into a family where everyone is troubled by secrets and the heritage of hardship.

I Do Not Come to You By Chance is a hilarious take on the world of Nigerian 419 scams, the title being lifted from one of these nefarious emails that lure people to part with their money. Cash Daddy is a marvelous, larger than life character and disreputable brother to Kingsley’s highly respectable yet poverty stricken father. He involves Kingsley in the business which leads to some very funny situations. Despite the humour, it also makes a serious point regarding how difficult it is to get anywhere in life by following the straight and narrow.

Dust is set in Kenya, from Nairobi to the northern desert around Lake Turkana, an area of which I previously knew nothing. The plot delves into a family’s secrets in the context of Kenya between WWII and 2007. The writer uses an unconventional narrative style; many short sentences which convey a sense of the immediate experience of the particular character. Odidi is an innocent, principled character who is murdered. His sister is devastated and cannot accept it so she scours Nairobi trying to find traces of him. She is an artist and I really liked the way her art helped her express the inexpressible. Odidi’s death sets off a chain of events which unearth the secrets that have plagued this family for decades. The narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present. The lyrical highly descriptive writing conveys the anguish that consumes a nation as much as it does a family. I found it a beautiful read.

3 african women writers.jpg

The Return by Hisham Matar

I usually prefer fiction but I read so many glowing reviews of this book that I felt compelled to try it. It helped that his style approximates that of literary fiction. He writes poignantly about exile and his mixed feelings when returning to Libya after the demise of Gaddafi. His father disappeared after being imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime and he spent many years trying to find him; his own writing was banned in Libya. I was enthralled by his interviews with many of his vast extended family, quite a few of whom were also imprisoned for many years. It deals with family, loss, leaving a place you loved and returning. Reading about the Gaddafi regime from his perspective, I do wonder why Mandela and the ANC were so supportive of him.


The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo

This is my South African book of the year although I did not read that many; I think it was a leaner year than we have had for a while. Marubini is a successful contemporary young black woman who works on a wine farm combating every day racism in the boardroom, having wonderful sex with her restauranter boyfriend and hooking up with a girlfriend for lunch. However, all is not well; she has strange episodes that no-one understands. The narrative shifts to her childhood where she grew up in between Soweto and Limpopo. Her grandparents on both sides feature prominently in her life and through these relationships she learns about her culture. Memories that are locked up inside need to be uncovered so she can heal. Flashes break through now and again. Spirituality threads through life; dreams trouble and illuminate; her brother’s drawings also reveal much. What is this yearning? An excellent novel with good characterisation and themes that speak to the modern condition of many young people.


I simply could not choose a top 5 or even a top 10. These 14 books were all marvelous reads in different ways. How reading truly enriches my life!

P.S. 04 January 2017

What an oversight! I have just realised that I left The Scattering by Lauri Kubuitsile off my list. It is a fearless, heart-piercing novel about the German genocide of the Herero people in the early 20th Century. The story of a young Afrikaans woman captured and imprisoned in a British concentration camp runs parallel. The characters are warm, brave and proud; they face hardship after hardship yet prop each other up. While it is not a book for the faint-hearted, it is worth putting yourself through the pain. Fiction of this calibre brings tragedy home by humanising the cold facts of history; history that is measured in numbers. Despite the difficulty of this topic, Lauri Kubuitsile of Botswana, handles it with insight and sensitivity.


Loud and Yellow Laughter by Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese



This slim treasure of poetry is a multi-textual collection consisting of photographs, documents, letters, poems and diary entries. I found myself mesmerised from the first page to the last. It is uniquely creative and meticulously crafted.

Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese wrote the original version as part of her Master’s thesis in Creative Writing.She has also published poems in different poetry journals and has recently been short-listed for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award.

The poet explores a personal family history; a family history that is peculiar to South Africa where we often choose our family without requiring a blood tie. It begins in 1931 in far away West Yorkshire, delving into a far away childhood and uneasy family relationships. The photos are creased and dog-eared which contributes to the sense of long gone times. It ends in Durban in the early 2000’s with a funeral.

In between West Yorkshire and Durban, the poet  documents key moments, sometimes from the perspective of the child then later from the perspective of the adult. It seems as if she is attempting to make sense of her life with its mysteries and unusualness by interrogating the lives of those who formed her. The result is one that illuminates how it is the simple things that form a life. It is intriguing to decipher the different texts to pick up a narrative thread of sorts but not one that is obvious. The links between different lives are tenuous and delicate yet deeply felt.

The Mother and the Father are the two critical important figures in this work. She deftly speaks in their voices and then switches to her own. This switch in perspective adds layers of emotion and shows remarkable insight. Another switch is that between matter-of-fact relating of events to lyrical verse that grips the heart.

A sample from Mother’s Lyric (i);

This is fevered ground

this is how the earth swells

this is the soil’s hot breath meeting the chill

Another taster;


Dad, after all these years, I still roll

an orange under my foot in order

to loosen the skin for easy peeling,

you taught me that as a child.

   – You never told me who taught you.

Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese writes of absence and of presence, of love and laughter and of the questions which do not always have answers. All with a delicate and tender touch.

(The collection is available in Cape Town at The Book Lounge, Clark’s Books and Chimurenga. It can also be ordered online from Botsotso via email on




Things Unseen by Pamela Power



Beware! Once you start reading this book, nothing else will do but to finish it. It is a page-turning thriller which also tackles issues of abuse. Damaged people in families wreak havoc especially when memories are suppressed and secrets are kept.

We meet Emma at a function with friends; it soon becomes clear that her friend, Gay, hates Emma’s husband, Rick, and is delighted at the presence of Craig, the man Emma nearly married 15 years ago. The banter between the friends is lewd, catty and fun though undercurrents soon begin to surface. Emma is worried about her mother so they leave early.They get home to find she has been brutally murdered.

The police believe the murder was committed by the Zimbabwean gardener, Surprise, but Emma refuses to believe it. Her down and out brother, Ross arrives for the memorial service and the family dynamics play out between the three men. Emma is torn between conflicting emotions; her mother’s death, her brother’s aggression, her husband’s egocentricity and the strong attraction she still feels for her ex-lover. Yet she also feel she has no-one to turn to as they all believe the police’s verdict.

Interspersed between the the chapters are flashbacks in which a little boy is abused by an adult man. Throughout the novel, one is never sure who this is. This adds to the suspense because potentially it could be any of the three men or someone else entirely. Emma also has flashbacks now and again but they are so quick that she cannot quite grasp them.

The cast of characters are fairly typical middle-class white people living in Johannesburg with the requisite servant and comfortable lifestyle. Despite this the characters are real as they fluctuate from being hilariously funny to making wrong decisions to behaving badly.  I liked the awareness Emma showed with regard to her privileged lifestyle and the criticisms she made towards her husband when he spouted racist comments. The dialogue throughout the novel is so natural that the reader feels like a fly on the wall. So are the sex scenes which are raunchy and passionate.

The plot is very well-constructed with various twists and turns that drive the action forward. One is never quite sure who to suspect or what will happen next. Is Rick just a bombastic idiot or is it more sinister than that? Is Craig really as good a guy as he seems? Is brother, Ross just a loser who does not pay maintenance and cannot hold down a job?

Once the truth unfolds, the question is asked regarding who to blame; or is everyone complicit in looking the other way? Things Unseen combines humour, darkness and normal life very convincingly. An excellent read.

Should you wish to order it online, use this link:


After Tears by Niq Mhlongo



Niq Mhlongo has a wonderful knack of writing about important themes with a light hand and wicked wit. After Tears is no exception; I find myself switching between laughing out loud, wringing my hands, hurting and being appalled. He is not afraid to show the worst of people yet this is done with an affectionate touch as well as insight into the context of their actions.

Bafana, the ostensible protagonist of the novel, returns from Cape Town in November 1999, without having passed his law degree. He is met at Park Station, Johannesburg, by his uncle and three friends. Before he is able to divulge the bad news, Uncle Nyawana or Jabu, who calls him Advo, is already attempting to trade on his future success, a fait accomplit as far as Uncle is concerned. Bafana also fails to be honest with his mother and tells her the results have been withheld due to non-payment. She decides to sell their house to pay the fees and Bafana is stuck in his lie. Throughout the rest of the novel, this action sinks him into an ever-deepening hole from which he cannot extricate himself without further lies.

Despite Bafana’s actions driving the narrative, I refer to him as the ostensible protagonist, because he has so little agency. His role in the novel is as a foil to the other characters. He is merely buffeted about by the decisions that others make. The uncle and his three friends, dominate the novel. They are brilliantly characterised both in descriptions and through their dialogue. The funniest thing is that Uncle has a dog called Verwoerd who he regularly tells to ‘voetsek’,  a stroke of genius. He has one leg because he was pushed off a train when trying to steal a woman’s money and he plays fah-fee, using dreams to determine which numbers to play. His three friends, Zero, PP and Dilika are respectively a taxi driver, a carjacker and a teacher. If you want to understand what rape culture is, these four men typify it. According to Zero, “there’s a minimum of five chicks for every dick in Soweto”. Their reprehensible behaviour is counterpointed by Bafana’s Mama and her friend, Zinhle, who do their best to curtail them. Mama warned Bafana that “in Zero and PP’s universe, a man was a man according to the number of ladies he was dating.”

Although it is shocking to read about the way women are objectified, abused and disrespected, it is important that topics which are not often spoken about openly, are exposed in this novel. There are many women that have to endure this treatment, some who do not even realise it is wrong.

Another theme in the novel, is the fraught housing situation. John Sekoto visits Mama to inform her that he is laying claim to the house as he is the rightful owner. This creates a furore in the family especially as Mama is trying to persuade the other family members to allow her to sell. This reveals the different family traditions as elders have to be consulted but also exposes some RDP housing scams.

Soweto is brought to life by the characters and their daily lives. The reader rollicks from Christmas to New Year festivities until brought back to earth by a funeral. These events are vividly represented and add to the sense of authenticity engendered by the writer’s intimate knowledge of ekasi life. The older men often reference apartheid laws and conventions with cynical humour. At the ‘after tears’, PP complains that AVBOB is chosen as the funeral service; when Bafana says he thinks they have handled it well, PP explains:

Look at the name AVBOB itself. You know what it stands for? The name is an abbreviation for Almal Vrek Behalwe Ons Boere. These Afrikaners are here in the township to continue what they have been doing for centuries: killing abodarkie. The only difference is that these days they’re making a huge profit out of it because they kill you today and bury you tomorrow.”

Everyone laughs; it is funny and it expresses things that are truths to them. The corruption in which so many are steeped is linked to the way people had to survive under apartheid. This point is not hammered home but the link is clear.

These are real people muddling through life as best they can; in this novel the dichotomy of family life reminds us that the ones we love are not always saints, that life in Soweto is tough but vibrant and that though humour is often laced with uncomfortable truths, laughter is the best medicine.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila


Tram 83

Tram 83 is an experience; visceral, frantic, pulsating. It’s like nothing you have ever read before. The novel is set in the Congo in a mining and trading town, loosely based on Lubambashi. The town is a City-State to which rebels had retreated, seceding from the rest of the country, known as the Back-Country.

Requiem and Lucien have not seen each other for 10 years; Requiem waits at Northern Station for Lucien to arrive from the Back-Country.  Northern Station, scene of clashes between miners and students, is “the station whose unfinished metal structure brought to mind the figure of Henry Morton Stanley”. This phrase is repeated often though usually abbreviated to “the station whose metal structure…” Repetition is used throughout the novel to good effect. It helps create the eclectic atmosphere with its ongoing rhythm as well as the sense of life in this place being ‘on repeat’.

Tram 83 is the nightclub where everything happens; a place where patrons leave their empties on the table to prove the number of drinks they had ordered (so the waitresses don’t overcharge them); a place teeming with single mamas (between 20 and 40) and their “massive melon breasts”, baby chicks (girls under sixteen), child soldiers, drug dealers and for-profit tourists. The opening gambit when trying to lure a man is, “Do you have the time?” This refrain punctuates and interrupts the text at regular intervals.

Every chapter begins with an epigraph in block capitals which is a vague, often ironic clue, to the chapter’s theme. This one at the beginning of Chapter 9 is a good example of Fiston Mujila’s inimical writing style:


The City-State is a dissolute society where the one person, Lucien, who refuses to indulge in the corrupt behaviours that are the norm, comes across as the one who is in the wrong. Requiem is Lucien’s friend but he hates him and undermines him at every turn. They have been estranged for 10 years and Requiem has become cynical and disillusioned. To him, “…they were just two life forms adrift in a city become a state by force of Kalashnikovs.”

Requiem has become a wheeler dealer moving from delivering merchandise, robbing mines, blackmailing officials and screwing whoever he can. Lucien is a writer who was forced to burn his own manuscript and he is frantically trying to reconstruct it. He is encouraged by meeting Swiss drifter Ferdinand Malingeau, who promises to stage a reading of Lucien’s work at Tram 83; this is ludicrous as it is the most inappropriate setting for such intellectual material. In this theatre of the absurd, anything can and does happen.

Lucien dreams as dreams should be – illogical, incoherent, people change into something else, one minute on a stage, and the next minute on a boat leaving a misty port. Dreams are a commonly used device in many novels but often they are too obviously used to advance the storyline and are remembered too clearly.

Lucien describes Requiem by a list of different aliases that is one page long. He is “Requiem for a New World alias Local Boy alias Man and His Destiny alias Al Pacino alias…etc. The writer uses this device throughout the novel. There are paragraphs of lists that describe a thing or a thought or a place; the mere juxtaposition of certain words made me laugh out loud. In this way, the novel simultaneously digs at politics and corruption and makes you laugh. Threading through, underneath and over the action is jazz – “the music of those who built this beautiful, broken world”.

What makes this book brilliant, other than the disconnected nihilistic characters is the writing. It is fast, furious, hectic, and eclectic; a bit like music or dance. Some of the time I do not understand the allusions and references but, like watching a dance piece or listening to instrumental music, understanding and meaning exist at a level beneath (or is it above?) that of language. Unmissable and unique.

A Killing in the Sun by Dilman Dila


A Killing in the Sun

This short story collection by Ugandan writer, Dilman Dila, is sheer entertainment with a thick seam of seriousness. Speculative fiction, in several of its forms, is deployed to shine a refreshing perspective on  age-old themes of corruption, power struggles, western exploitation and civil wars in Africa. Aliens, zombies, magical realism and futuristic technologies skitter through the stories, reminding us that despite the trappings, there is nothing new under the sun.

The Leafy Man  is eerily topical in a time of Zika fears and conflicting stories of unintended consequences of pesticide use; a whole village is decimated. Only Japia, traditional healer, holds the key and it lies with oranges.

The Healer is a story of two tribes that hate each other based on the usual arbitrary reasons. The Twa were enslaved by the Cuku but only Benge, the healer remained free. He hides himself using magic and the leaders of the Cuku visit him in secret. A boy goes missing and the hunt is on. Benge uses his juju,  and with the help of Acii, a young girl who can turn herself into a parrot or a  Marabou stork. This story conjures up genocides all over the world with its  exploitation of  superstitious beliefs and the power struggles between leaders.

Itanda Bridge is the scene of a disaster and the militia turn to Obil, a diver, to help them solve the riddle of how three vehicles had crashed off the bridge and disappeared. He is forced to help knowing he may die in the process. There is poignancy too when he contemplates what clothes to wear when he is plucked from his home. What lies beneath the water is startling.

A Killing in the Sun is the story of a court martial that cannot begin until the doctor arrives. Mande stands in the sun contemplating death though hoping for life as the reasons for his sentence flash through his mind. Civil war, rebel gangs and militia destroyed his life long before this moment arrives and all the while the sun beats down relentlessly.

In The Doctor’s Truck, a ghost occupies Okot’s truck and kills a child. A mob blames the doctor until a mzungu (white person) comes to his rescue and offers the assistance of an exorcist.

Lights on Water, a sad yet touching story in which a father tries to reach out to his daughter. She has been indoctrinated into believing that her skin colour, tawny brown instead of sooty black like everyone else, makes her an outcast. He has access to the natural world in his job as a painter who paints demons at the request of the Emperor and he smuggles her into his spaceship to show her the truth.

A Wife and a Slave reveals more indoctrination, this time an Emperor who wants all Africans to return to ‘what was supposed to be life in Africa before the Europeans came’. Sex was only allowed for procreation and wives had to treat their husbands as lord and master, bowing down before them and obeying their every command, except if they want sex. Any adherence to anything white whether music, books or names is regarded with suspicion, shows the African mind is still enslaved and requires re-education. A fugitive white escapee disrupts everything. Tyranny of one kind simply replaces tyranny of another; leaders have rules based on manipulations and mass brain-washing. 1984 meets Heart of Darkness? this is one of my favourites.

In The Yellow People,  meet a serial killer with a difference; Dunningan encounters an old man with no thumbs dressed in a strange yellow costume buying insecticide and he fears he will be found out.Societies with weak law and order and high levels of corruption are  a magnet to the evil of this world which is why he lives here.

Okello’s Honeymoon, a tale of two men who fall in love with zombies, thus risking their very existence. This is a warning tale regarding womanly wiles disguised in other-worldly attire.

A Bloodline of Blades – a man’s gift is his music, as an assassin by trade it was the only way to attract a wife and he wanted to pass this gift on to his son. His son is ashamed of this and aspires only to be an assassin and rejects his father’s gift. This story is really about loyalty and family bonds as both father and son secretly try to save each other.

The beauty of these stories is that each in their own way shows a human side, of people who love, hate, fear and yearn. Dila’s wonderful imagination lifts this collection into  an alien yet familiar space, where the ‘other’ is lampooned in a fantastical way.