Niq Mhlongo is making waves. Way Back Home, his third novel in not even a decade, is out. His local publisher Kwela has reissued Mhlongo's two previous novels, Dog Eat Dog (2004) and After Tears (2007). To most South African authors a second imprint in itself would be a great achievement. But Mhlongo's work is being translated and published overseas, which is a rarity for local writers of his generation (one can count the others on the fingers of one hand). Hailed as one of the front-runners of the "kwaito generation" (a label he himself expresses doubts about, although he sees its marketing value), Mhlongo is a popular guest at literary festival worldwide, and no wonder: his gutsy outspokenness and mischievous attitude not only impress, but also inspire.
Is the hype around his books justified? Critics say yes. Vibrant, street-wise, witty, hilarious, must-read, high-spirited – are all terms that reverberate through the reviews. Thousands of books sold reaffirm the author's popularity. Personally, I had some reservations about Dog Eat Dog, occasionally cringing during dialogues about HIV/AIDS and women, yet I understood that it wasn't Mhlongo speaking, but his characters, reflecting some common views, no matter how misguided. It was undoubtedly a feisty debut, and despite the rough spots, the novel captured something vital about the New South Africa. The talent was unmistakably there, and the book intriguing enough to let me look forward to the follow-up.
After Tears did not disappoint. Whereas Dog Eat Dog focused on the student life of a bunch of friends at Wits around the time of the first democratic elections, After Tears followed Bafana, its main character, through the shock of post-graduation life, which he attempts to tackle with a fake law degree and booze, ending up – predictably maybe – nowhere.
In his latest novel, Way Back Home, Mhlongo's characters are all grown-up but none the wiser. On the surface, Kimathi Tito seems to have it all: glowing political credentials, power, money, and a villa in the right part of town. And yet, his life begins to unravel. His wife divorces him, his bid for a tender goes awry, his comrades and the police are on his case, and on top of it all, he begins to see ghosts. Corrupt to the core, Kimathi tries to save his skin any way he can, but there are some things that cannot be undone or forgotten, and not all dreams and visions are what they seem.
Mhlongo has a penchant for creating characters that are highly unlikable. Kimathi might be the most despicable of them all. It is no small feat to tell the story of a character readers will hate and yet to sustain the narrative tension to keep them interested. And that is because Mhlongo is not afraid to speak truth to power. Strikingly, he chose a quote from Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks for one of the epigraphs of Way Back Home: "Why write this book? No one has asked me for it, especially those to whom it is directed. Well, well, I reply quite calmly that there are too many idiots in this world. And having said it, I have the burden of proving it..."
Mhlongo does as well. He is fearless in confronting the worst present-day society has on offer, and because it comes from the pen of a thoughtful young black man (he is turning only 40 this year), his message is even more powerful. His novels depict a world not many readers, whether here in South Africa or abroad, have had access to before. There are no sugar-coated endings, no easy solutions, for Mhlongo. In Way Back Home, he gives us a world of bling (the list of brand names in this novel is endless), power-abuse, violence, chauvinism and cronyism. It is a dangerous world, rooted deeply in an even more dangerous past that refuses simply to go away. And it seems that what Mhlongo is telling us is that we need to confront that past again, not in the ways we have been doing in the last decades of our flawed transition, but in a more holistic, accepting way that combines the best of all our problem-solving tools, whether indigenous or Western, modern or traditional, black or white.
Way Back Home shows that there is enough time to come clean about the past, to heal and forgive, but that window of opportunity is not going to stay open forever. The "way back home" of the title can still be travelled. South Africa as a country, and individually, many of her people cannot afford to miss it. And readers should not miss this daring and insightful novel.
Way Back Home
by Niq Mhlongo
Cape Town: Kwela, 2013