Lewis Nkosi, who comes across as a mild, urbane and gently humorous world citizen, says he is astonished at how at home he feels in Durban, and attributes this to the notion of “home as language”. After 42 years of living abroad he is sometimes mistaken for an American in his home town, where he greatly enjoys the Zulu he hears around him: he is able to eavesdrop on disparaging remarks made by a rickshaw man, understand a colloquial term for hobos used on the radio, and ponder the ironies of a song he heard somewhere: “I will never return to Zululand/ because that’s where my father died.”
He left South Africa in 1960 on a one-way exit permit when he was 23 and en route to take up a Niemann Fellowship at Harvard after a spell as a very junior writer on Drum magazine in Johannesburg. In the years of his enforced absence he established himself as an academic and critic in the field of African and other post-colonial literature, working in places as diverse as the United States, the United Kingdom, Zambia and Poland.
Cornelius Molapo, the protagonist of Nkosi’s new novel, Underground People (Kwela), is a poet and teacher in Soweto and a member of the “National Liberation Movement”. Lewis says this character was partly inspired by Can Themba, whose eloquence and passion he remembers from his Drum days. The plot revolves around the sudden disappearance of Molapo, taking the reader into the world of underground resistance politics, international human rights and to the rural area of Tabanyane where the comrades are trying to oust the “Chief” newly imposed by the apartheid government — a familiar scenario.
Although the action of the novel takes place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it seems to encompass the 1950s and 1960s in a sort of pastiche of attitudes and political issues that were current then, and still informing people’s decisions well into the 1990s. Pivotal to all this is Molapo’s relationship with his beautiful, estranged wife, Maureen.
Nkosi admits to having been “exercised” by certain questions that are the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of this novel, most notably the determinism inherent in the Marxist and Hegelian view of history, the role of the heroic individual as well as the effects of accidental contingencies on well-planned operations. The latter he illustrates by means of the discovery of the comrades’ mountain hideout by a pair of lovers who are only looking for somewhere to make love.
Although many South Africans attribute the gradual weaning of South African writing from its obsession with politics to people such as Albie Sachs and Njabulo Ndebele, Nkosi points out, and this has been acknowledged by these two, that “if one looks at the history of literary criticism in relation to the literature of protest, I am the first critic to have disputed the pre-eminence of the literature of protest as such”. So there is some irony in the fact that Underground People is both a celebration and critique of a life lived in “the struggle”.
Molapo, as early on as page nine, is speaking about “those nodal points where love and revolution intersect”. In an argument between him and Bulane, his movement bureaucrat superior, in which Bulane is manipulating Molapo into accepting the mission he’s been assigned, Molapo says: “How can we be free without love?” and Bulane counters with: “How can we love without freedom?” Nkosi enjoys the fact that as a novelist he can say that they are both right.
In a review of a recent biography of Chinua Achebe, Lewis comments that Achebe considers his role is to “defend African culture” (against Western cultural imperialism). There is no sense of this in Underground People; he has written about many strands of South African culture as if existing within them, and not from the outside. He is even sympathetic to the Afrikaner policeman, Adam de Kock, who is being intimidated by his English bank manager. And his most “disgusting” character, an incorrigibly racist farmer, amuses Nkosi so much that he admits to becoming quite fond of him.
Written in a swift and engaging style, this multi-layered novel moves from wonderfully observed characters and situations to theoretical discussions. Although the latter are embedded in the story they do contrast with the otherwise smooth action of the plot. But they are an essential element of Nkosi’s intention, requiring the reader to examine the idea that “men of action are able to live in suspension as if love and that type of emotion exist only for the purposes of feeding into their work … to me an astonishing way of conducting your life”.