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.