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Heart of Struggle Hero’s Darkness: Diane Awerbuck Reviews Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo

Niq Mhlongo

Way Back HomeBy Diane Awerbuck for The Times:

Kimathi Fezile Tito thinks he has paid the price for his position in post-apartheid South Africa. Born in exile in Angola, his struggle credentials are impeccable; his present behaviour less so. In fact, things are so bad that the only two people he cares about – his gold-digging wife Anele and his pampered daughter Zanu – are leaving him.

Tito spends his days alternating between ruinous deals and expensive drunkenness, and now it seems he is running out of both friends and Johnnie Walker Blue. We are treated to a vile scene where, after he bribes his own way out of a situation, he hands over a prostitute to two policemen. He understands she is about to be gang-raped, but sacrifices her without a flicker.

Discipline? Dedication? Integrity? Solidarity? He could not be further from his original pledge, made in Angola in 1986, as “a soldier of the South African revolution” and “a volunteer fighter committed to the struggle for justice”. He has discovered the Great Lie of the resistance narrative.

To make matters worse, Tito has undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He is plagued by nightmarish visions of women he half-recognises. When he tries to engage with them, he finds himself in houses he does not know, in scenes reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis, trying to explain his behaviour to people he has never met.

He finally understands he must return to Amilcar Cabral camp to exorcise the girlish phantoms. To help him on his journey, he sets about consulting friends, the family of a particular missing girl and a sangoma.

Niq Mhlongo sets up parallel narratives – one in the present, the other in 1988. The dissonance in the conflicting sets of circumstances reflects Tito’s fragmented consciousness and his inability to assimilate the more traumatic aspects of his history.

Similarly, the prose simulates the anguish, narcissism and anhedonia of Tito. The sentences are bloated and self-congratulatory, but also fearful and serrated. They are the words of a character who has no way to mediate between his awful past and his equally unbelievable present.

There are lapses, erasures and repeated phrases, as the reader understands that language has also failed Tito. His freedom is a terrible one because, like [Joseph Conrad's] Mistah Kurtz’s, it has been bought at the cost of others.

Tito dedicates himself not to the people he swore to protect, but to the things his status has brought with it. His materialism is so pathological that it is bitterly funny. Less amusing is the idea that people like Tito exist – many of them are in positions of power.

Mhlongo’s novel explores one man’s mid-life crisis, but it is also a sharp-eyed social satire, a kind of wish fulfilment that hardly happens in real life: in fiction, at least, the truly immoral may be punished, and their victims avenged.

Ultimately, Tito must abide by the promise he made when he joined The Movement years ago: “A tooth for a tooth; an eye for an eye.”

It’s an appealing idea but not practical. As Tito is forced to discover, it leaves the whole world blind and toothless.

Book details

Image courtesy The Times

 

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