Of beauty and raw pumpkin


NTHIKENG MOHLELE WRITES like an angel. His material flows so smoothly that you just cannot stop reading it, drinking in all the rhythm and song of the concatenation of the words he’s chosen and how they juxtapose and interface. But there, also, lies the rub. This work, premised on a character devised by JM Coetzee in 1983 sails away on its own sense of possibility and as a result, the read, while abstractly beautiful, doesn’t offer much in the denouement department.

Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K gave voice to a socially-disabled character, born with a harelip who travels alone and with no resources through the harshness of South African landscape to visit his mother’s birth place in the off-the-beaten-track Western Cape village of Prince Albert. It’s a kind of a take on some of the premises informing William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, as it offers an important foray in what it means to be poor, disabled and alone in a country riven by racism. It was also the novel that won Coetzee the coveted Booker Prize that year.

Mohlele’s character Miles, who is written in the first person, meets “Michael K” at the other end of his life, eating raw pumpkin and subsisting with birds, but the focus of his prose slips in and out of sharpness in this text, as “Miles” contemplates the dementia of his father, his desire to have sex with his young maid and his relationship with a man who was once his university professor. On a level, the give and take between mentor and mentee might remind you of the dialogues in Leonhard Praeg’s Imitation, but that is where the similarity ends.

You emerge from this text feeling like you’ve just returned from an immersion in beautiful poetry, but you’re less haunted by the idea of narrative than you might like to be. Mohlele’s Michael K teeters toward the self-indulgent, the self-consciously meditative for meditation’s sake and the overly reflexive. Names are dropped all over the place and if you don’t recognise them, or appreciate their value, no mercy is offered by way of context. His references to Coetzee as “the laureate in the Land Rover” smack of sense of writerly self-deprecation that is both bitter and jealous, and while there are astonishingly powerful ideas informing this literary novel, they’re not drawn out and given the kind of attention or voice they warrant.

Thus, Michael K becomes a bit of a hollow read filled with gem-like experiences in which you reach at and discover snippets of South African values in small interregnums along the way.

  • Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele is published by the Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2018).

Undone: a play that defines a universe

Undone: a play that will change you. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

Undone: a play that will change you. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

Very seldom does a piece of writing have the ability to reach into your heart and soul, not because you are strung along by your own inner realities and there’s a way in which you respond to the story, but because it is conceived and written and created with such wisdom and power that it sucks you into its reality. And leaves you changed.

It is not every day that you can encounter as sophisticated a theatrical voice as that of Wessel Pretorius, in his immensely visceral, utterly magnificent production, Undone – or Ont, in Afrikaans (in different performances, the main calibrating language of the work is either English or Afrikaans).

A young performer – he’s not yet 30 – and a relative newcomer to the professional stage, Pretorius conveys a tale of the loss of a parent that brings in everything from childhood nursery rhymes to driving lessons to the horror of witnessing a stroke and the sadness of a love that never has the courage to be articulated. It’s about the concatenation of age and youth and the manner in which empathy is faced with cruelty at every turn. The tale has the potency of William Faulkner’s As I lay dying, and the give and take between English and Afrikaans lends it a texture that you want to consume and embody and hold onto and not allow yourself to forget it, it is so rich and magnetic.

It begins with the young man bathing in a tin bath. There’s a candid bareness about everything, from the soap and the well-thumbed poetry book on the floor, alongside his teacup and cigarette, to the suitcase and the record player that constitute the whole theatrical ensemble.  Pretorius has a stage presence that is nothing short of mesmerising: yes, there’s nudity in this work, but the manner in which the play evolves and is constructed and the finesse and muscularity with which it is delivered is such that the nudity slips out of relevance or notice.

The texture of the play’s script digresses and caresses the language and its meaning without becoming maudlin. It’s an angry play, which has moments of dark humour as it embraces belly-deep sadness, with the whimsical rhythm of comforting children’s poems that ensnare you in a magnificently subtle mix of values, good and bad, complicated and simple, transient and permanent.

Undone is the kind of play that celebrates Afrikaans culture for its inherent beauty, but doesn’t flinch from exposing such deep ugliness in social interaction that it touches on all the emotions, from humour to tragedy. Unforgettably. If you see one play, in your life, make it this one. And, remember the name Wessel Pretorius.

  • Undone/Ont is written, directed and performed by Wessel Pretorius, features translation by Hennie van Greunen and lighting and set design by Alfred Rietmann. It performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, until September 20. Call 0118321641 or visit co.za