I didn’t enjoy the novel and perhaps the dice were loaded from the start. The book was written by a Zulu man so we were culturally at odds before I turned to page 1. Why do I say this? Because Zulu culture is heavily patriarchal, and there is nothing about patriarchal systems that sits well with me. But: I read widely, and experimentally, so I gave the book a try.
I finished the book, but in order to write anything meaningful, I had to think long and hard about what I had read.
The saying “No two persons ever read the same book.” (Edmund Wilson) could not be truer in this case. The back cover blurb said “Beautifully poetic, funny and highly relevant, Nkosinathi Sithole’s debut novel highlights the ongoing plight of many rural South Africans and the power of a community working together to bring about change. “ I couldn‘t find anything poetic about the writing, except maybe the very last paragraph in the book. Which, unfortunately did not follow on from the words THE END, but was marooned on the next page, where I discovered the final two paragraphs purely by accident.
Funny? No, not to me. At a stretch I could see the humour of school principal Bongani Hadebe’s inordinate pride in owning the only house in Canaan that has a staircase leading to the upper storey. Any other humour completely escaped me. Maybe the cultural divide manifesting itself again.
Highly relevant? Yes. Finally I’m in agreement. The book shows the desperate plight of South Africa’s rural, neglected poor; the rampant greed of the ruling classes; the sexual abuse against women and children; and the effect of patriarchy uneasily placed side by side with a democratic system.
There’s a sub-theme of the exploitation of the rural poor by the white farmers. The 1994 elections may have ushered in the so-called Rainbow Nation but in the rural areas, not much changed. And not to overlook the exploitation by the black overseer of the desperate workers. There’s much to be said on both sides of this issue.
Of value to me were the insights into the African mindset. How violence and mob action seem to be an instinctive response to challenges e.g. The Grinding Stone, the local women‘s collective, rushes off and castrates two men in the community who’ve been guilty of child and elderly abuse (in addition to bestiality!) and cut off the men’s testicles. The collective is led by Nomsa – wife of school principal Bongani Hadebe; she’s a modern woman with modern ideas in that she is unwilling to have children and takes the contraceptive pill; and although she’s a moderating influence, she’s stirring up the women against patriarchy.
Another insight was how important Ancestor worship still is to black people. They may belong to Christian churches but Ancestor worship exists right alongside Jesus et al. Tied in to this ancestral thread, is the urgent need for black men to have children, as many as possible. Regardless of their female partners’ personal, economic or social wishes.
And then there’s the vexed feature of black life, urban or rural: the on-going belief in the power of the sangoma*to heal, to remove (or deliver) spells and curses. But always at a price. A high price. Thousands of rands, and/or livestock. All this within the context of people driving BMW cars and glued to their cellphones, or those living in hungry, dusty rural poverty. When worlds collide yet again, in South Africa.
I found the plot difficult to follow, and felt there were loose ends dangling all over the place. But after considerable thought when I’d finished reading, I realised that in essence Pastor Gumede’s fall into poverty and loss of faith in both God or politics provides the contrast to school principal Bongani Hadebe’s successful life – he has a job, money, a car, a house in the prosperous nearby area of Canaan. Bongani is a dimwit, who had to buy his university degree and is unqualified for his job. Pastor Gumede, on the other hand, is educated and intelligent, hardworking and principled. But he’s unemployed, and starving. The story of SA in a microcosm.
I didn’t like any of the male characters, and but did feel empathy towards the women – a sort of sisterly solidarity, if you like.
And then there’s the factor of Pastor’s son’s story which we are told arrived to him in a dream state at night. The story is mentioned in the blurb on the back cover of the book, but after a brief mention early in the book, only reappears in the last chapter of the book and I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it intended as a portent? A threat? A nightmare? A call for community unity and action? A revolutionary warning? I remain baffled.
To me, only one thing about the novel really worked, and that was the title Hunger Eats a Man. It’s accurate and clever, and perhaps it could be said that it’s the underlying theme of the novel. Literal physical hunger and other more psychological hungers e.g. the yearning for immortality via one’s children.
While I did not enjoy the novel, both from the perspective of my reading comfort zone, and due to its obscure plotting, in fairness I must say the novel offers more to me in retrospect than it did during the reading. In my case, that is. Others may well feel differently. As I said at the beginning : “No two persons ever read the same book.”
*sangoma – at best, a traditional herbalist, a healer; at worst a witchdoctor who may well trade in human body parts