The Book: Way Back Home by Niq 'I never take off my hat' Mholongo
And it's About?
Kimathi Tito has it all. As a child of the revolution, born in exile in Tanzania, he has steadily accumulated wealth and influence since arriving in South Africa in 1991. But even though everything appears just peachy from outside the walls of his mansion in Bassonia, things are far from perfect for Comrade Kimathi. After a messy divorce, accelerated by his gambling habit and infidelities, he is in danger of losing everything. And now, to top it all, he’s seeing ghosts. Sometimes what happens in exile doesn’t stay in exile.
In a Word, it was... Explosive
Kimathi's is a character totally familiar to me. He reminds me of virtually every black man of a certain age and disposition who has benefitted handily from whatever he did or did not do as an exile, a comrade, a foot solider for the Movement. And even though so much of Kimathi's story takes place in Apartheid and in exile, it's not an Apartheid novel. Instead, it's sharply present, very contemporary and not at all hung-up on the hang-ups it explores.
I loved the vivid descriptions of Rosebank. This suburb of Johannesburg, one of its most prestigious hotels and the prostitutes that frequent its main road are principal characters in this mzanzi drama. I loved the way Niq handled the shameless, disgusting greed of those tenderpreneurs we read too much about in the daily papers. I loved that he did so without judgement and almost from the point of view of these men themselves.
Anyone who has heard the stories of witchcraft and 'calling down lightning' in Limpopo or juju in the back streets of Lagos will appreciate the unusual and totally relevant role that superstition, witchcraft and the supernatural play in this novel. It's not outlandish or unbelievable. To the contrary, it's based very much in the way that ordinary Africans live: wary that there are things beyond the natural world to fear and prepare for. It's creepy but very subtlely so and for anyone curious about what happens in the sangoma's hut, it certainly doesn't stay in the sangoma's hut in Way Back Home.
Here's the thing: there are some great South African novels out there. Modern classics told that go on to be taught in packed English literature lecture halls and win all the big prizes. And then there are novels like this: books you want to call your best friend about, books you find yourself thinking about weeks afterwards when the latest scandal of a corrupt government official breaks. These books haunt you because they are as much a reminder of your life as they are a window into someone else's. There is definitely literary value to Way Back Home and I certainly hope that some postgrad lit major takes it up for a more academic analysis than this one. But. But - this was a great novel. This book kept me guessing, left me a little chilled and made me feel so excited to read whatever Niq writes next. Highly recommended.