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Black blues in Marico Town: Lesego Rampolokeng revisists Groot Marico. Just don’t expect Herman Charles Bosman, writes Jo-Ann Bekker

Published in the Sunday Times

Bird-Monk Seding
Bird-Monk Seding: A Novel
Lesego Rampolokeng, DeepSouth, R160

In his third novel (and 12th book) poet and performance artist Lesego Rampolokeng inverts the “black man hits the big city” trope immortalised in the 1948 film African Jim. As the jacket reads: “Jim came to Joburg so Bavino goes to Marico. Man in the bush in quest of Bosman’s ghost.”

But it is no neat inversion. Rampolokeng’s Bavino finds little rural tranquillity in Groot Marico.

Bavino (ghetto-talk for everyman) is a child of Soweto. His family’s lodger turns out to be a serial killer; Bavino’s teenage friends gang rape his girlfriend; his MK guerrilla cousin is betrayed by a revered comrade and killed by police. “I grew up between a guerrilla and a serial killer. If I didn’t write I could have become either one,” writes Bavino.

He packs his notebook, pen and a six-pack and rents a former railway house in the small Marico town of Leseding. He documents his interactions and observations as he hangs out in the shebeen – where he does much of his writing – and goes about his everyday tasks, returning from the post office empty handed, being ignored by shop assistants, and trying to extract apologies from the family of a boy that robbed him.

Bavino’s observations are often very funny – particularly when he describes the overtures he receives from women. But the Krisjan Lemmers he encounters aren’t spinning yarns while puffing pipes on stoops anymore. They are picking up township schoolgirls for an hour while their wives debate which township boy to take home for afternoon tea. Bavino speaks to a flamboyant man who describes how fierce farmers turn to submissive putty in his room.

Apart from transactional sex, the rift between races seems greater than ever. Whites may no longer have political power, but they control the town’s stagnant economy and the new black bureaucrats and policemen. Racism is so violent and endemic and farmworkers so exploited that people believe human flesh is mixed into the protein sold by a fast-food outlet.

Nature offers Bavino no consolation. “Sad looking vegetation, here. I gaze at the scene just once in the morning, upon waking & quickly look away before the trees spot me.”

Only jazz and the poetry of radical writers help Bavino survive (the title pays homage to Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk) and the book is filled with quotes from musicians and poets about their art forms.

The novel’s 192 pages erupt with the poetic gymnastics that have earned Rampolokeng a worldwide following as a performer. And there are moments of haunting tenderness.

“The touching, the heat, the wetness. The throb & pulse of this … Our Thing. & lying there, watching you sleep. The beauty of this being. I feel deep wretchedness. Filths me down. & I sink. Into the septic tank of … my self. It flays me, rubs the skin off my bones. I feel like a psychopath. Killing you each day, over and over./The veins shut down. At the point of bursting. Eaten up & out by my inability to love you.”

It is an unflinching book. Bavino looks squarely at the violence done to him, the violence around him – and the violence he does and could do.

Bird-Monk Seding
should be read by anyone who thinks racism is over. Anyone interested in explosive writing.

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