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Madonna of Excelsior

Madonna of Excelsior

by Zakes Mda

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"A generous, patient, wry and intelligent voice...[that] suggests not just a writer who can seduce us through beautiful language and unfailing humor. We also encounter a writer who has the power to shock and frighten us, to astound and anger and unsettle us...In short, his is a voice for which one should feel not only affection but admiration." --Neil Gordon,


"A generous, patient, wry and intelligent voice...[that] suggests not just a writer who can seduce us through beautiful language and unfailing humor. We also encounter a writer who has the power to shock and frighten us, to astound and anger and unsettle us...In short, his is a voice for which one should feel not only affection but admiration." --Neil Gordon, New York Times Book Review

Selection, Summer Reading, New York Times Book Review

In 1971, nineteen citizens of Excelsior in South Africa's white-ruled Free State were charged with breaking apartheid's Immorality Act, which forbade sex between blacks and whites. Taking this case as raw material for his alchemic imagination, Zakes Mda tells the story of one irrepressible fallen madonna, Niki, and her family, at the heart of the scandal.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A marvelous work, rich with 'beautiful madness.'” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

The Madonna of Excelsior has the captivating symmetry of an altarpiece.” —Peter Campion, San Francisco Chronicle

“Graceful...Sharp and unsparing...Mda refuses to undermine his nation's problems with cheap melodrama. Yet his gift, in addition to being an extraordinary writer, is to infuse the past with meaning, to make urgent the challenges of the present, and to reveal the gentle, often stinging, human comedy in both.” —Boston Globe

“The extraordinary social and political transformation of South Africa as it affects the residents of the village of Excelsior...Zakes Mda, a canny writer, knows that sometimes the best way to approach history is to view it through the lives of people at its periphery...[Mda is] a subtle and evocative writer who can range from lyricism to satire with surprising effect, and never descends to the formulaic.” —Charles Matthews, The Tallahassee Democrat

Publishers Weekly
In vibrant prose infused with equal parts satire and social criticism, Mda (The Heart of Redness) charts new emotional terrain exploring the Madonna-whore complex in a South African setting. Readers catch their first glimpse of protagonist Niki in the burnt umber brushstrokes of a Boer priest's canvases. Father Claerhout's models hitchhike from surrounding black townships to earn a pittance shedding their clothes for the artist-priest. While his intentions are innocent, those of the Afrikaner farmers Niki and her friends come into contact with are more prurient. Niki spends time in prison after her daughter, Popi, is born with the flowing locks and blue eyes of her Afrikaner father. Based loosely on true apartheid-era events and the notorious "Immorality Act," which outlawed miscegenation, the novel mercilessly examines the twisted mores of the times. A severe though often amusing social critic, Mda at turns belittles and exalts the women who bear dozens of "coloured" children by their employers while reserving his harshest characterizations for the Boer men who relentlessly pester African women. And Niki is a sympathetic-though sometimes frustrating-protagonist, who is thrilled by her power over the husbands of the Boer women who humiliate her. Mda's folkloric prose is filled with bitterness. As Niki is forced to submit to a white man's sexual demands, Mda writes, "[H]e just lay there like a plastic bag full of decaying tripe on top of her." Readers follow the lives of Niki, Popi and Popi's politically active brother, Viliki, for more than 30 years, into the post-apartheid era. While their anger simmers beneath the surface throughout the narrative, Mda's captivating characters ultimately find an uneasy peace in the newly free state. (Mar. 18) Forecast: Mda's take on his native South Africa is a welcome alternative to the more established perspectives of Gordimer and Coetzee. The author picked up steam in the U.S. with The Heart of Redness, and this new novel has a good chance of being his breakout book. Mda will receive additional attention this month-Picador is publishing another original novel by him, She Plays with Darkness ($12 paper 224p ISBN 0-312-42325-X). Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his best work to date (Heart of Redness), Mda continues his clear-eyed and compassionate portrayal of the new South Africa and the legacies of apartheid. During apartheid, sex between whites and blacks was forbidden by law, yet it was not unusual to see mixed-race children in the villages. In the early 1970s, protagonist Niki was charged with violating the Immorality Act, along with 18 others. Although no one was convicted, Niki, black son Viliki, and mixed-race daughter Popi have had to face the consequences every day thereafter. Through Popi, Mda shows that beauty can come out of even the darkest oppression and that freedom without reconciliation is an empty victory. Throughout, the author masterfully fuses descriptions of paintings with depictions of daily life, achieving with words what is usually possible only on film and making the novel itself a work of art. Recommended for all libraries.-Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Resplendent images of emerging African independence, in a busy third outing from the native South African author (Ways of Dying and The Heart of Redness, both 2002). The story is based on a 1971 trial in which white Afrikaners and blacks were prosecuted, under the notorious Immorality Act, for mixed-race sexual relations. In Mda's retelling, the focal characters are Niki, a beautiful black woman who is raped by one white farmer and becomes the lover of another, producing a son (Viliki) and a daughter (Popi), the latter looking "almost like a white woman's baby" but then burdened with a discolored skin caused by Niki's desperate attempts to "brown" the infant over of a fire, to protect her from racist insults. There's a lot going on here. Every chapter begins with a detailed visual image ostensibly created by "the trinity," an unnamed "man, priest, and artist" for whose "madonnas" both Niki and Popi sit as models. There's a tense account of the trial of "the Excelsior 19," brought to an end when 14 black women are persuaded not to give evidence against the 5 whites they "seduced." Mda traces the sad history of Niki's marriage to Pule, who labors in mines far away and stores implacable resentment over her "infidelities." The story's political dimensions intensify when Viliki joins an "underground" liberation "Movement" and then later its army, and when he and Popi (whose awareness of her "difference" has fully radicalized her) are elected to their local council, seated with the black majority among three sullen Afrikaners. But "liberation" is imperfect. Viliki and Popi are voted out. The concrete-block house she builds for herself and Niki remains unfinished. Aging Niki becomes "the BeeWoman," communing with her creatures and dispensing honey, and Popi's conflicted freedom is beautifully encapsulated in a climactic conversation with the brother who grudgingly acknowledges her. A gorgeously colored picture of personal and cultural metamorphosis. Exhilarating stuff. Agent: Isobel Dixon/Blake Friedman Agency

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


ATHESE THINGS flow from the sins of our mothers. The land that lies flat on its back for kilometre after relentless kilometre. The black roads that run across it in different directions, slicing through one-street platteland towns. The cosmos flowers that form a guard of honour for the lone motorist. White, pink and purple petals. The sunflower fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. The land that is awash with yellowness. And the brownness of the qokwa grass.

Colour explodes. Green, yellow, red and blue. Sleepy-eyed women are walking among sunflowers. Naked women are chasing white doves among sunflowers. True atonement of rhythm and line. A boy is riding a donkey backwards among sunflowers. The ground is red. The sky is blue. The boy is red. The faces of the women are blue. Their hats are yellow and their dresses are blue. Women are harvesting wheat. Or they are cutting the qokwa grass that grows near the fields along the road, and is used for thatching houses. Big-breasted figures tower over the reapers, their ghostly faces showing only displeasure.

People without feet and toes—all of them.

These things leap at us in broad strokes. Just as they leapt at Popi twenty-five years ago. Only then the strokes were simple and naïve. Just a black outline of figures with brown or green oil paint rubbed over them. Men in blankets and conical Basotho hats pushing a cart that is drawn by a donkey. Topless women dancing in thethana skirts. Big hands and big breasts.

That is one thing that has not changed, for Father Frans Claer-hout is still a great admirer of big hands and big breasts. He is, after all, still the same trinity: man, priest and artist. The threeness that has tamed the open skies, the vastness and the loneliness of the Free State.

Twenty-five years ago Popi peered from her mother’s back at the white man as he warmly and masterfully daubed his broad strokes. At five she was precocious enough to wonder why the houses were all so skewed. And crowded together. She thought she could draw better houses. Her people, those she sketched on the sand in the backyard of her township home, were not distorted like the priest’s. They were matchstick figures with big heads and spiky hair. But they were not distorted. Yet his very elongated people overwhelmed her with joy. She saw herself jumping down from her mother’s back and walking into the canvas, joining the distorted people in their daily chores. They filled her with excitement in their ordinariness.

“Popi, we must go now,” her mother said.

“Awu, Niki, I am still watching,” appealed Popi. She always called her mother by the name that everyone else in the township used.

“The Father has no use for me,” said Niki as she walked out of the gate of the mission station. Popi was sulking on her mother’s back. She had wanted to stay with the distorted people in their skewed houses.

“We cannot waste time with your silliness,” said Niki.

She had a long way to go. She was going to hitch-hike all the way back to the black township of Mahlatswetsa in Excelsior, thirty kilometres from the Roman Catholic mission in Thaba Nchu. Traffic was sparse on these roads. She knew that she would have to walk for miles before a truck would stop to give her a lift. Truck-drivers were really the only people who felt sorry for hitchhikers.

But trucks were few and far between on these provincial roads. She would have to walk for miles with only cosmos, the qokwa grass and sunflowers for company. Popi would be fast asleep on her back.

Although her visit to Thaba Nchu had not been a success, she was grateful that the priest had given her a few coins for her trouble. But she was disappointed that he had no use for her. She had heard from the women of his congregation that he painted naked women. In all the neighbouring townships and villages, women walked out of their skewed houses to pose in the nude for him. He paid his models well. Niki had hoped that she would also be able to pose for him.

But the priest had no need of a model. He was not in his nudes-painting mode. He had a few canvases of distorted people and skewed houses and donkeys and sunflowers to complete. Then, in a few weeks’ time, he would be painting the madonna subject. If Niki and Popi could come back then, he certainly would use them as models.

The priest was captivated by Popi. He loved all children. Even those who were emaciated and unkempt. Though Popi stayed on Niki’s back all the time they were in his studio, he played with her, making all sorts of funny faces. Then he tore out a page from a magazine and shaped her a donkey. He gave it to her and pranced around the room, braying like a donkey. The stocky trinity with his broad face and snow-white mane brayed and brayed, and Popi laughed and laughed.

All this time Niki was nervous. She knew that the priest must have been wondering why Popi was so different from other children. Why she was so light in complexion. Why her eyes were blue, and why she had flowing locks.

We who know the story of Excelsior do not wonder.

As Niki trudged the black road until she became one with it, Popi’s mind wandered back to the man who loved women, donkeys and sunflowers. And to his creations.

Woman and girl melted into God’s own canvas.

Meet the Author

Zakes Mda has received every major South African prize for his work. Born in 1948, he has been a visiting professor at Yale and the University of Vermont. He is now a dramaturg at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, and a Professor in the Creative Writing Department at Ohio University.

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