A new novel by a towering presence in contemporary South African literature
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 a family at the heart of ...
A new novel by a towering presence in contemporary South African literature
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 a family at the heart of the scandal -and of a country in which apartheid concealed interracial liaisons of every kind.
Niki, the fallen madonna, transgresses boundaries for the sake of love; her choices have repercussions in the lives of her black son and mixed-race daughter, who come of age in post-apartheid South Africa, where freedom prompts them to reexamine their country's troubled history at first hand.
By turns earthy, witty, and tragic, The Madonna of Excelsior is a brilliant depiction of life in South Africa and of the dramatic changes between the 1970s and the present.
The Madonna of Excelsior is a book of huge emotions, a book with the depth, if not the breadth, of a classic like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Like his other novels, it paints a winning and irresistible picture of Zakes Mda. But here, the voice that emerges 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. The Madonna of Excelsior suggests, in short, that his is a voice for which one should feel not only affection but admiration. — Neil Gordon
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.
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.
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
Zakes Mda, a novelist and playwright, 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 writer-in-residence at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. His previous novel The Heart of Redness was published by FSG in 2002.