By Diane Awerbuck for the Sunday Times
“Life: lived forwards; understood backwards.” So wrote Søren Kierkegaard in the 1800s, and not much has changed. He wouldn’t have couched it in these terms, but Kierkegaard’s approach – like Nick Mulgrew’s – is peculiarly African. The philosopher was against the segregation of “the world of the spirit”: he argued for subjectivity and participation as the way to fathom any truth worth knowing about existence.
The stories in Mulgrew’s prose debut, Stations, deal with this kind of subjectivity in the flawed interactions between people. To understand the characters, Mulgrew says, the reader must realise that we do not have to be intentionally bad to do bad things. “A lot of my characters would probably think they’re perfectly good people, but they’re otherwise complacent or ignorant. The stories share themes, settings, even characters: they all intersect, although sometimes I will be the only one who sees where and how.”
The title, he explains, is a 14-story suite with each story loosely corresponding to one of the Catholic Stations of the Cross, the 14 places of contemplation that mark the progressive agony of Jesus on the way to his death at Golgotha – his dying intentionally stripped of its power because it happens alongside two notorious thieves.
Stations are traditionally places of connection and transition – consider train stations, or resting places for weary travellers, or simply received ideas about our place in the social hierarchy. Many of the conflicts that play out in Mulgrew’s fiction are the result of characters getting ideas above their station, as the terrifying story “Gala Day” reveals.
Mulgrew’s own station is a colourful and wildly decorated place, a composite of his childhood and maturity in uMhlanga, Auckland and Cape Town: never boring, “but not great for your sense of self”. For a man in his mid-20s, his ticket’s been punched into confetti: writer, poet, journalist, print designer, typesetter, beer and restaurant critic, magazine editor and publisher, Masters student and NGO deputy chair. The “origami construction” of a character in the award-winning story “Turning ” might as well apply to himself.
Mulgrew says he is “cautious of gimmicks and glibness”, and his style is mercifully free of self-consciousness and ornamentation. The stories are so affecting because they are high-concept, but their prose also delivers various bangs for your buck. Take this sex scene: “How can one deserve the way everything was constructed, from dirt and ash and rock, all to place this person here with me? How worlds and universes and stardust were broken up and subsided here, in the midst of brick and sheet-roofing and oak; how two bodies of water and carbon and phosphorous and bone fight here with all their will to inhabit the same points of space and time as the other. I hadn’t prayed in all my life until the night you fell asleep, afterwards, next to me.”
It ends in tears, of course. Ne estas kialo, proclaims the girlfriend’s tattoo. There is no why. But that’s no reason to stop prospecting. Mulgrew’s next novel is set between the KwaZulu-Natal coast and the North Island of New Zealand. “That one is about white flight, and, if I do it right, should make a lot of people very sad.”
Ever the journeyman, he ends his last story so: “This place had a geography that had to be relearned.” That’s a truth worth knowing.