The Madonna of Excelsior: A Novel

The Madonna of Excelsior: A Novel

by Zakes Mda

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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
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
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

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The Madonna of Excelsior

By Zakes Mda


Copyright © 2002 Zakes Mda
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70823-8



A these 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.



Popi tells us that it all began when the trinity was nourished by Flemish expressionists. Theirs were ordinary subjects: sympathetic men and women living ordinary lives and performing ordinary rituals. Popi knows all these things, and shares them with all those who care to listen. We suspect that there are many other things that she knows, but keeps to herself. And there are others that she has decided not to remember.

Twenty-five years ago she saw the thin outlines that defined the concertina player and the dancers. At the time she knew nothing about Flemish expressionists. She had not experienced, through the broad pages of colourful coffee-table books, their mystique that embodied protest.

She was only five. And she was with Niki.

The strokes were not broad like today's strokes. The trinity had not started with broad strokes. They got thicker and rougher as he became more comfortable in his own style. The strokes Popi saw did not stand out. The surface was smoother. The finish was grainy. The colours were fruity. Thick fingers like bunches of bananas pressed the concertina keys. White and brown strokes marked the folds of the instrument as it breathed heavily in and out.

The musician's hat was an overripe tomato. Brown hair peeped under the brim. He was intent. The song had drawn his eyes into his skin, and they had become brown slits. His long nose was sunburnt. He squeezed the concertina. It squealed. Men and women danced. Full-figured women in Starking apple dresses. Skirts of golden pears and Granny Smiths. Pink blouses. Out-of-step men in brown hats and brown suits. Or in light blue shirts and green pants. Sleepy-eyed men with big groping hands.

The musician squeezed the instrument and it wailed a graceful wals. Men and women floated on the clouds. Then he squeezed a lively vastrap. Quicker, quicker than the wals. He was playing Japie Laubscher's Ou Waenhuis, the famous composition about an old barn. The zestful party danced in a circle. The men's arms were around the women's waists. The women's arms were around the men's shoulders. Feet close together, turning on the same spot in a fast tiekie-draai.

Rosy-cheeked girls in pink dresses screeched their laughter under the architrave. Then they ran to the lawn to make a nuisance of themselves to the boys who were playing with a rugby ball, practising throws that might see them being picked for Haak Vry-staat, or even the Springboks, in later years. There were no flowers in the garden. Just the lawn. And the small shrubs that would one day grow into a hedge along the short wrought-iron fence. The girls chased one another among the boys. The boys didn't take kindly to this. They chased the girls away until they disappeared behind the whitewashed house.

The house was an imperfect copy of an English bungalow. But it was more exuberant than an English bungalow. As exuberant as the fruity dancers. Two bay windows with ornate stained glass on each side of the brown double doors, which also had painted glass panels. Purple columns supporting the purple architrave. Pillars whose crude capitals were halfway between Ionic and Corinthian. The roof was green. It was made of corrugated-iron sheets instead of tiles. Purple gutters. Green and white chimneys on opposite ends, one with a cowl and another one with a television aerial attached to it. Television was only a few months old in South Africa. This house, therefore, belonged to a man who not only had the money for such novelties, but was also determined to set the trends.

The boeremusiek of the concertina was relentless. The liedjies, or tunes, were getting louder. The volkspele or dances were getting exaggerated, as the concertina filled the dancers with even higher spirits. It had something to do with the cherry liqueur. The circle of buoyant rounded figures danced in and out of the wide doors. Niki passed the time by trying to identify each of the revellers. Popi couldn't be bothered. She was busy sketching houses on the sand just outside the gate. She was concentrating very hard, determined that her houses would not be skewed like those she had seen at the trinity's studio a week before. Her houses would stand straight.

Niki knew almost all the revellers. There was Sergeant Klein-Jan Lombard with his voluminous wife, Liezl, stamping the ground as if they were in a military drill. He of the South African Police, who also acted as a prosecutor at the magistrate's court. She of the yellow cherry jam that had made her famous throughout the entire district. There was Groot-Jan Lombard, Klein-Jan's doddering father. There was the Reverend François Bornman, the dominee of the local Dutch Reformed Church, dancing with a woman Niki could not identify as she had her back turned most of the time. The dominee—one marble eye from a gun accident five years ago—was not in his usual black suit and white tie, but in a brown safari suit. There was Johannes Smit, a very prosperous and very hirsute farmer with a beer belly. He didn't have a partner. And, of course, there was pint-size Adam de Vries, and his strong-boned wife, Lizette. This was their house. This was their garden party.

Adam de Vries ran a small law practice in addition to being the mayor of Excelsior. Like most of the revellers present, he prided himself on the fact that his grandfather had been one of the founders of this town, back in 1911. It had been established on an old farm called Excelsior. People came from surrounding farms to settle here. And since then various members of his family have worn the dynastic mayoral chain. Except on a few occasions when there was no clear candidate from the family. Like when the late and lamented butcher, Stephanus Cronje, became the mayor.

More families of farmers and businessmen were arriving. All pillars of the local Afrikaner community. The very cream of Excelsior society. And of other nearby towns such as Tweespruit, Brandfort and Verkeerdevlei. Niki could see their old bakkies or trucks and veteran Chevrolets approach on the one-kilometre stretch of road that was lined with black iron-bark bluegum trees on both sides. Then the cars would disappear, masked by Reverend Bornman's church that looked like hands in prayer, only to appear again on Adam de Vries's street behind the church. They parked in the street and the visitors walked in through the gate without giving Niki and Popi a second glance. They joined the sitees—a much slower dance than both the wals and the vastrap. Even with the fuel of the cherry liqueur, the dances had become languid and the laughter louder.

The rugby-playing children had increased in number and the garden was becoming too small for them. A boy threw the ball too hard. The catcher failed to catch it. It dropped in the street and bounced until it stopped in front of Popi and Niki. The catcher ran out of the gate to get the ball. Niki knew him immediately. Tjaart Cronje. She had not seen him since he was seven. Since the days when he used to insist on being carried on her back, even though he was ridiculously big for that mode of transportation. She would indulge him because he was such a respectful boy. But she stopped when she realised that whenever he was strapped in a shawl on her back, he induced an erection and worked himself up with unseemly rhythmic movements. All that time the boy had been pretending to play horsey-horsey, he had in fact been in venereal heaven at her expense. Now here he was, a gangly lad of twelve.

Tjaart took the ball and threw it to Popi.

"Catch!" he said.

Popi missed it. Tjaart laughed. She ran after the ball and got it. Instead of throwing it, she walked to him and handed it back. He looked at her closely and then at Niki. It was obvious that he no longer remembered who Niki was. Five years can be a lifetime in the memory of a boy. Also, her face had changed. The chocolate-smooth complexion was now marred by black, brown and reddish chubaba patches.

"Why are you sitting here?" Tjaart asked.

"I was hoping to get the bones ... or any leftovers ... after the party," she said haltingly. "Something for me and my little girl."

"Your little girl? This can't be your child!" said Tjaart. "She looks like a hotnot child. Like a boesman. You must have stolen her."

Then he ran back to his rugby game.

But soon he came back with a slice of cake, broke it into two, and gave a piece to Niki and another one to Popi. The woman who was dancing with the dominee saw him and hurried to the gate. For the first time, Niki got a good look at her. She was face-to-face with Cornelia Cronje, Tjaart's mother. Five years had changed her. She looked old and tired. Cornelia recognised Niki too. And glared at her. Niki glared back. Straight into Cornelia's eyes. Niki did not cringe. She did not cast her eyes down as was expected of her. Cornelia laughed. It sounded hollow and crude. Not rich and full-bodied, like the laughter Niki knew when she worked for Cornelia all those years ago. Then deadly anger flashed in Cornelia's eyes.

"What the hell do you want here?" she asked.

"I can be here, Madam Cornelia," said Niki calmly. "It is not your house. I never go to your house."

"Tjaart!" cried Cornelia. "What are you doing with these people? Come back here at once!"

Tjaart looked at his mother. And at Niki and Popi. He walked back to the rugby game.



Madonnas all around. Exuding tenderness. Burnt umber mother in a blue shirt, squatting in a field of yellow ochre wheat. Burnt sienna baby wrapped in white lace resting between her thighs. Mother with a gaping mouth. Big oval eyes. Naked breast dangling above the baby's head. Flaky blue suggesting a halo. Unhampered bonding of mother and child and wheat.

Brown madonnas with big breasts. A naked madonna lying on a bed of white flowers. Her eyes are closed and her lips are twisted. Her voluptuous thighs are wide open, ready to receive drops of rain. A black pubic forest hides her nakedness. Her breasts are full and her nipples are hard. Under her arm she carries a baby wrapped in white lace. A naked madonna holds a naked child against a blue moon on a purple sky. The mother is kissing the back of the child's head. Another madonna kneels, her head resting on the ground near the child in white lace, and her buttocks opening up to the sky. Ready to receive drops of rain. The fattest of the madonnas stands among red flowers, looking at yellow fields that cover large patches of the red and brown and green land, and that stretch for kilometres until they meet a blue and white sky. The madonna of the cosmos and sunflowers and open skies. Like all the others, she is naked. Tightly to her chest, she holds a baby wrapped in white lace.

After twenty-five years, these naked madonnas still live. Popi tells us that they will live forever because such things never die. So will her memory of the excited trinity surrounded by canvases of naked madonnas on easels, with a naked Niki sitting on a stool holding a naked Popi. Popi thought these madonnas looked nothing like Popi-and-Niki of the flesh, even though Popi-and-Niki of the flesh had modelled for them. They were distortions of Popi-and-Niki of the flesh.


Excerpted from The Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda. Copyright © 2002 Zakes Mda. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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