Four years ago, during an oppressively hot Cape Town summer, my oldest and dearest friend vanishes. She erases herself from my life. Phone calls ring unanswered, messages unreturned. One desperate day I take a cab to the Woodstock on the fancier side of Sir Lowry Road, convince the security guard on the ground floor I’m family, and knock on her door for close to an hour. The door is never opened but I do get a stilted phone call the next day. She’s fine, she says. She’s going through something; she hasn’t the words to explain. She will vanish again and I must be patient. I must not ask for more than she can tell me.
Weeks later, true to her word, she leaves. Underwater, they say. With the snakes and the spirits. Submerging her human body, resurfacing as Dikeledi, her ancestor, her tears. She’s back now, and almost the same. Except for a nagging paranoia. The fear and scepticism that comes from having eyes that see into other worlds. As Songeziwe Mahlangu proclaims in the opening line of his debut novel, Penumbra, this is not how things are meant to be.
In the same year Dee disappears and Dikeledi reappears, a twentysomething Mahlangu suffers a breakdown. It’s this episode that inspires and breathes life into this book.
It’s dizzyingly disorientating keeping up with his mind. A fervour has gripped him, thoughts and all. You don’t know where the madness begins or ends, and neither does he. Mangaliso Zolo, Mahlangu’s main character, is losing it. He’s seeing things with an acrid clarity once hidden and obscured by sin. He’s sifting through the matrix of lies and mediocrity. He cannot find his way to the truth. In a hurried frenzy, he rushes to what he thinks is “the end”, taking only the Bible with him for guidance. But even this he doesn’t trust. “I read the Bible for equanimity. It is inconsistent.” He relies on faith to guide him out of this maze, although this is the same faulty compass that has brought him here – unemployed in Cape Town, sitting in a hospital chair opposite a doctor he suspects might be the Antichrist.
A penumbra is a partial eclipse, if you will – an almost shadow, a not quite light. Likewise, Zolo is not completely in the dark, and nor is he fully illuminated. The things in his mind are superimposed on to the real like a grid, and as he tries to unentangle what is from what isn’t, his friends wilfully dive head first into the trappings of their imaginations. As a fragile Zolo meanders through the city, occupying its offices, apartments and hospitals, the reader begins to examine the peeling layers of a facade. Things are indeed not what they are meant to be, but, then again, they never were.