review by Danyela Demir
Lesego Rampolokeng, Bird-Monk Seding (Deep South, Grahamstown, 2017) 192pp.
Much of Lesego Rampolokeng’s thirteenth, and most recent book, Bird-Monk Seding, focuses on the quotidian lives of the inhabitants in a small township in the Groot Marico area called Seding. As the narrator of the novel, Bavino Sekete, explains Seding is:
“short for ‘Leseding’, place of light. Quite ironic given the darkness throbbing at its core and spilling out bubbling in the blackest rage when least expected. Surrounded by farmland in all directions, it is a settlement of about 700 households crammed in tiny structures. Average 7 souls per hovel. It used to be made up of ramshackle, corrugated iron shacks that seemed tossed down regardless of aesthetics. Then the new administration’s housing programme kicked in. […] The Marico River 10 minutes walk away, and no Jol’iinkomo in the air.”
But this novel is much more multi-facetted than a mere account of a poverty-scarred community in the North-West. Yes, Seding and its inhabitants form a central part of the book, but, as with much of Rampolokeng’s work, it is also about Soweto of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
This narrative strand in the novel is inextricably linked to the Seding narrative, a powerful device for connecting apartheid and post-apartheid experiences of trauma. Throughout the first narrative strand, the narrator recounts, in sometimes painful, sometimes sarcastic and sometimes humorous passages, his childhood and youth in “that slave-labour camp called Soweto”.
The second narrative strand consists of the narrator’s present life, sometime in the 2000s, during which he moves to the Groot Marico area for what seems to be a writing retreat. This part of the novel mainly consists of glimpses into both the white farming community in the area, and the neighbouring black community Seding.
The Soweto and the Groot Marico narrative strands often overlap, or they are connected through symbols and images such as the train tracks both at Phefeni Station in Soweto and the train station close to Seding, and intersecting stories of shebeens in Soweto and Seding. More often than not, these shebeen tales switch from what seems to begin as a humorous story to a tale of shocking violence and darkness in such a short time that many readers’ laughter might well get stuck in their throats.
The Soweto and the Seding narratives are, in turn, complemented by lyrical passages that make up a third, somewhat more abstract narrative level. Its themes revolve around politics both in and outside South Africa, resistance, music, literature, and quotidian life in both Seding and Soweto
The intensity and the powerful imagery, which is evoked in the passages of poetry, are what I would call Rampolokeng’s masterful lyrical jazz solos. They pay tribute, amongst various other jazz artists, to saxophonist Charlie Parker (widely known as Bird) and pianist Thelonious Monk, whose dual importance for the text is already highlighted in the title.
Besides its vivid observations and sometimes lyrical, sometimes condensed prose, the most exciting and innovative side of the book, for me, is its form. At a time where we too often celebrate mediocrity in South African fiction, which seems to be stuck in conservative conventions and a stubborn unwillingness to enter new ground, Bird-Monk Seding, a blend of many genres and perspectives, arrives with refreshing creative vigour. Its lyrical-poetic passages, although characteristic of Rampolokeng’s oeuvre, have a much more controlled, terrible beauty about them than some of his earlier prose work, which seems more frenzied. His first novel Blackheart comes to mind here.
On a formal level, the novel seems to be doing away with conventional literary devices, celebrating heroes of improvisation and defiance. As the narrator aptly puts it:
“The idea though is to take it away from the inherited form. Make a new dream. Four-pronged attack, channeled through one. Mafika Bird Monk & Me.”
The book also defies attempts at easily classifying it in terms of genre. When I asked Rampolokeng how he would describe the work he said: “I would not describe it. It is a mungrul, a bastard.”
The novel does, indeed, consist of fragments of a wide range of forms. At first glance, one might be tempted to read it as a memoir. The narrator has a number of similarities with Rampolokeng himself: born in Soweto in 1965, he grows up in various parts of Soweto, studies law at the University of the North, is a writer, and lives in the Groot Marico area for a while, to name but a few parallels. However, given the text’s complexity, it seems too simple to read it as mere memoir, since such a reading might neglect many aspects of various styles and genres: cinematic writing, poetry, passages that have a non-fiction-like journalistic quality about them, and stretches that are reminiscent of diary entries (particularly throughout the narrative strand which focuses on Seding).
These fragments of many genres and styles highlight traumatic experiences, various forms of resistance, but also instances of tenderness and hope for the characters – despite their extremely difficult living conditions – in a striking way.
Bird-Monk Seding enters new terrain in its playful use of intertextual and intermedial references. It celebrates great musical and literary innovators: especially the daring musicians Bird and Monk, and the poet Mafika Gwala. Bird and Monk have received their critical due but although Gwala’s poetry captures South Africa’s history in innovative and compelling ways, it been largely neglected by critics and academics alike. Early in the text the narrator bemoans that Gwala who “brought me to consciousness” was forgotten by the world and that he was only celebrated during his funeral, which consisted of speeches that were full of “lies & Bullshit”.
Gwala’s name runs through the text like a golden thread. In one of the poetry sections, titled Requiem, the anger at Gwala’s marginalisation and at how his funeral was handled are central:
“then Mafika died, impaled on wood-stake Hammarsdale & the government that had rejected him affected an undying affection pose. Professed live, the kind that kills.) Bloodbeats down on the gladiator head splitting, watermelon open. Flesh on meat-heat. Blade-flash cold to cool it. Cultured applause from beyond the barriers. High seats throw down perfume in buckets into the arena, the kill-zone, to drown out the deathscent…then go out to legislate on human rights.”
Rampolokeng’s defiant requiem for Gwala refuses to lay his memory to rest. It criticises the poet’s marginal existence in life by rejecting the official version of Gwala’s requiem in no uncertain terms.
Another aspect of the work that makes Bird-Monk Seding a compelling read is its depiction of township life. Contemporary South African literature often tends to either romanticise township life or to present the township in a devastating way. Bird-Monk Seding does neither. Rather, it highlights the resilience of people during and after traumatic moments in South Africa’s history. It shows, with great accuracy how they use various forms of resistance in their daily struggle with racism and injustice, at times through irony and a biting humour, at other times through the depiction of tender interactions between different characters. A poignant example is the encounter between the narrator and a couple, Pogisho and his wife Mmaphefo, who are both being exploited by their employer in horrible ways which results in a life in abject poverty. And yet they not only display great affection towards each other and their teenage son but also an incredible will to survive under dire circumstances. The book is thus an oddly hopeful read amidst moments of anger and outrage, and a militant and important refusal to forget stories and histories from the margins of society.
Picture: Lesego Rampolokeng by Delwyn Verasamy