Jacket Notes: Nthikeng Mohlele on the inspiration for his new novel Pleasure - and why he almost abandoned it
Published in the Sunday Times
Nthikeng Mohlele (Picador)
The genesis of Pleasure was an inability to comprehend disturbing and morally reprehensible acts of brutality. The inspiration was in many ways also a form of paralysis, a personal quest to try to understand and articulate stories that fall between the cracks during historical events and transitions.
The narrative is shaped by both historical and fictional characters, as I found the interplay fascinating. The manuscript presented opportunities to examine universal themes (war, love, desire, dispossession, pleasure co-existing with strife) and how these echo in the personal space.
I also wanted to bring to light that the Holocaust is perhaps the most recorded and analysed of historical mass killings – but it is by no means the only one. There were, in fact, equally tragic conditions of enslavement and mass murder in the Congo Free State and German South-West Africa, for instance.
Seeds of Goebbels’s propaganda during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich developed in part from racist “science” about the Herero in what is now Namibia. These sentiments would find their way into Mein Kampf and later Hitler’s murderous policies.
But that is hardly inspiration. It’s perhaps more apt to say it was inspiration via belated moral outrage and the contradictions that define historical time.
What went into the writing of the novel? A plethora of emotions: short-lived moments of blissful artistic creation; insight into slippery themes of life and living; and streaks of profound sadness and despair at the capacity of human beings to be brutes. Then there were the in-between moments, those that hovered between bliss and the horrors unearthed by my research – anecdotes, Third Reich letters, ledgers, images and general paraphernalia.
The surprising thing, bordering on shocking, was the realisation of how much pleasures associated with the Original Sin seem to trump other pleasures, and how, despite centuries of scholarship and human evolution, little is understood about why carnal preoccupations seem to dwarf other pleasures. It was also concerning, alarming, but amusing that this writer, 100-odd pages into the manuscript, despite mountains of research and careful planning, threw in the towel (thrice) because the imagined artistic work could not be tamed.
The greatest eye-opener was that although the theme of pleasure inadvertently lends itself to human anatomies and copulation, these were but midway beacons pointing to more profound insights and interpretations of the theme – only worth tackling if explored in their contradictions and varied manifestations.