By Carolyn Meads for The Times:
“The life of an ordinary man usually affects only a few people, but so what?” Khalil muses.
“Who’s to say that, when a man lives his life in a small community tucked away in a far corner of the world, the world is left unchanged by his having been there?”
The book opens in 1983 when the elderly Khalil is lying in Groote Schuur Hospital, trying to gather his memories to “make a good yarn”, although no one is there to hear it. He believes his story will somehow make it onto “pages that lie waiting for them in another time”.
After this prologue, the tale starts in 1903, when Khalil is still in his mother’s womb. What follows is his “journey” from birth to childhood, adolescence and adulthood in the Cape Muslim community, returning in the end to the scene at his deathbed.
Kagee is not the first to write about the Cape Muslim community, but he certainly provides extensive detail about both the Cape Malay and Indian cultures, with reference to language, food, clothing, history, religious practices, name-giving ceremonies, weddings and funerals. He also touches on gender issues and prejudice with regard to skin tone in these communities.
Anecdotes from different stages of this “fairly ordinary” man’s life form the narrative. These are often humorously told. For example, there is the incident when the teenage Khalil is leading a group of men in prayer and is plagued by a bout of flatulence.
Kagee’s is a rich prose, packed with lists and adjectives, alliteration, rhyme and rhythm, and makes use of an extensive vocabulary. Referring to an imam who insisted on greeting women with a kiss, the narrator says: “Pretending piety, he would pivot petulantly, pursue his next prey, petrify her with his improper pounce and proceed with impertinent puckery.”
Khalil’s story is told in the third person by an omnipotent narrator, which allows the perspective to occasionally shift from Khalil to other characters.
However, this can create an unnecessary feeling of distance between the reader and the action. The reader is further removed from the tale by the fact that much is told by the narrator and less is shown through the characters’ interaction and dialogue.
As he enters adolescence, “European youths, just a few years older than he were wallowing and dying in the trenches” of World War 1. Khalil’s uncle dies and leaves him his corner shop, and a great amount of debt. He sells the shop just before Black Thursday and the Great Depression hit.
Khalil enters a bleak period in his life as his wife endures four miscarriages, a stillbirth and the death of a six-day-old baby. As World War 2 breaks out, he feels that his “personal demons had been exorcised”.
Even as the historic events of apartheid and the struggle for freedom from oppression are under way, Khalil’s life remains somewhat removed from it all.
He does experience the forced use of separate amenities and he even goes to a secret meeting where Nelson Mandela is the speaker. But after this meeting, Khalil decides, “political activism could not compete with the daily demands of family life”. For him, “the struggle was to keep his business going and to make a small profit here and there from selling his wares”.
Khalil’s Journey will open a new world to readers who are not familiar with the Cape Muslim community and its history. Those who are will find plenty with which to identify. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why Kagee’s manuscript was awarded the prestigious EU Literary Award.
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