The currency of these short stories is money and status as depicted by the fifty rand note that graces the cover; an inspired choice. Dip your toe into the psyche of South Africa today where the pull of glamour and glitz allure the characters into bad decisions. The settings range from urban to rural, covering themes such as land grabs, corruption of tradition and cheating men, all served with fat dollops of Niq Mhlongo’s characteristic wit and cynicism.
As with any short story collection, some stories are meatier than others. My usual frustration with this format is that when the story ends, I feel as if I am getting to know the characters and there is more to find out. The same is true of these 11 stories, some more than others. Two of the stories are a little weak but, of the other 9, it is difficult to pick a favourite.
The Warning Sign is a stark and violent stab at the ever pertinent land issue, in which an ex-Zimbabwean farmer spouts his racism and hatred to the land committee that threatens to grab his land. On a lighter note, Four Blocks Away is set in Washington DC where a gumboot dancer is on a cultural exchange; the woman he has been hoping to bed for months is in town but her rule of “no glove, no love”, sends him into the streets wearing nothing but his hospital gown and boxers, trying to get hold of condoms. The consequences are hilarious as he faces up to American police bigotry. Hilarious yet infuriating in its depiction of prejudice.
Another favourite of mine in this collection is Catching the Sun, where the Maja family who live in a village near Phalaborwa, receive unexpected visitors with unwelcome news from the Eastern Cape. They fling insults at their Xhosa visitors in very colourful language and make unreasonable demands. Superstition, cultural traditions and greed fuel their actions in this tragic tale.
My Name is Peaches, Affluenza and The Baby Shower respectively deal with how the superficiality of modern life and the shallow aspirations of many lead to heartbreak, death and destruction. These stories are laced with poignancy in their depiction of human weakness. The writer is never afraid to show his characters in the worst possible light nor does he sugarcoat their actions.
The different range of voices that Mhlongo represents through excellent dialogue makes every story unique; from the rural man who speaks in idiom to the high-flying couple who call each other ‘babe’. Every story touches in one way or another on serious issues of our times yet this is not experienced as dark and depressing. Look into the mirror of Affluenza, go globe-trotting with Niq Mhlongo and see for yourself.