Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda (Global Reading Challenge)

Here is my African entry in the Global Reading Challenge, which marks the halfway point in the challenge for me. The author is South-African and the book takes place during the period of transition in the 1990s when Apartheid ended. I am not knowledgeable enough about the recent history of South Africa to be able to tell if it happens after or shortly before the racial segregation ended, but I am inclined to think it’s before.
Although this is a first novel, it was not written by a novice writer – the author had already published poetry and several award-winning plays when he wrote it.

Year published: 1995
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: South Africa, an unnamed city and a village, 1990s with flashbacks to the 1970s and 80s.

Toloki, a homeless man living on the street, has carved out a niche for himself as a professional mourner. Paid by relatives of the deceased, he goes to funerals and grieves for the dead. One day at a funeral he meets Noria, a woman from his home village, which he had left about 2 decades earlier. He has good reason to avoid her, but feels drawn to her and she to him, and as their stories unfold we see how people’s lives can turn out in the strangest ways, how people can change over time and the power of forgiveness.

We are also given a glimpse into the life of people living in an illegal settlement, with the threat of both official bulldozers and an invasion by an illegal militia hanging over their heads, and the casual violence of life in the shantytowns of South Africa. All around is death and the many ways in which it strikes, natural and unnatural, of children, women and men, old and young. Toloki mourns for them for a living, so in a way the story is as much about ways of living as it is of dying.

This is a beautifully written novel about two people living on the edge of great events and making a living as best they can. Both have been broken, in one way or another, but have picked themselves up and started over, and are determined to live their lives on their own terms despite the poverty and violence that surrounds them. Finding each other after a separation of many years begins a process of healing and coming to terms with past events for them both. The characters are well fleshed out, realistic and for the most part likeable and the story, while a simple one, is very readable.

What stands out most is the beauty of the language. It’s like listening to a unified group of storytellers , which is no wonder as the narrator is the collective voice of the community, composed of many voices speaking as one and falling into the rhythm of the traditional storyteller.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Mda’s novels and would quite like to watch one or more of his plays. 5 stars.

Awards: The M-Net Book Prize; The Olive Schreiner Prize for prose.

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