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Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider
576 pp., $27.00
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (The Africa List)
Seagull Books, 2013
304 pp., $21.00
Filling the Void
Acclaimed South African novelist and playwright Zakes Mda's Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider begins in ruins. He is visiting his family's ancestral home on Dyarhom Mountain, the setting for two years of his boyhood before his exile in Lesotho. His time there was itself a form of exile; his parents sent him to live with his grandparents after he got involved in Johannesburg's street gangs. Now every structure on his grandfather's estate is gone, and in its place on the mountain is a beekeeping collective Mda helped to found. He wanders the mountain with his wife in the opening pages of the book, pointing out the places where buildings used to stand as they come to life in his imagination and populate the now repurposed landscape.
This same imaginative exercise underpins The Sculptors of Mapungubwe, Mda's first novel since writing his memoir. It is a much more ancient past he resurrects here. The novel is set in the year 1223, in Mapungubwe (present-day South Africa's far north), a stratified land of ancient peasants, aristocrats, and Swahili traders. Rendani and Chata are sculptors raised as brothers by Zwanga, a master carver. Rendi is Zwanga's son and Chata the son of a !Kung woman who was once a servant in Zwanga's household. Both men have a talent for carving, but it is Chata who captivates Zwanga with his sculptures of many-limbed winged creatures that exist only in the spirit world his !Kung mother has taught him to navigate. Rendani's dutiful renderings of bulls fail to impress, and his bitterness over this is unassuaged even as he marries a princess, becomes the royal carver and a member of the king's household, and moves to the top of the hill where only Mapungubwe's élite live. The resulting feud between the two brothers eventually begins to involve the whole town.
A number of obvious parallels present themselves to make The Sculptors of Mapungubwe a fantastical stage for the working-out ...