Catchy title! Where am I heading to? Will I end up in the Gaza Strip in Palestine? This fictional story is written by a South African, born in Soweto in 1973. He’s a journalist and a novelist…oh dear! I am curious. That is why I bought this novel. It wasn’t the only reason. The cover says there is a mystery, a crime to solve. Crime novels are one of my favourite literary hobbies. Honestly, I have already read several other novels by Niq Mhlongo which I really enjoyed: Dog eat Dog (2004), After Tears (2007), Way Back Home (2013), Black Tax (2019). I’ll have to read Affluenza (2016) and the set of short stories Mhlongo recently edited in the collective work Joburg Noir (2020).
What can we learn about the author of Paradise in Gaza? Commended as a writer of the new Kwaito generation (South African popular music, a local variant of house music, blending sound samples from different African music. The Mhlongonian writing style is based on this musical genre, as well as Afro pop and rap). His preferred topics go beyond apartheid and racism (although they are part of the referential context of Niq Mhlongo’s literary texts). They address contemporary issues such as unemployment, AIDS, poverty and crime, strengthening democracy, respect and fairness. Some reviews highlighted the link between his 2013 novel Way Back Home and Paradise in Gaza in terms of the author’s overall theme, historical setting and style. Interviewed in 2014 about his novel Way Back Home, Mhlongo said:
The novel talks quite a lot about displacement. Many people don’t understand how rooted African culture is. I’ve realized that within the Indian tradition, for instance – well maybe I’m just making a superfluous kind of comparison – people also live a very communal life. When people marry, they don’t go far away from where they come from. Like I live in Jo’burg and my mother comes from Limpopo, which is in the north-eastern part of South Africa. Every time she calls me – I’ve never stayed in that place – she’ll ask me when I’m coming home. And the most important thing that makes a place home is that your ancestors are buried there.
What can we learn about Paradise in Gaza? The setting of the story is undoubtedly that of South Africa in Apartheid-era. The story begins in 1977. Relationships between the African communities and the white characters of the story echo the country’s past. At the same time, the reality of the experiences and the underlying concerns are equally those of contemporary era. Reading this novel is a multi-level literary experience: from the trope ‘the villager coming to the city’ to seek a better life and wealth. The main character moving from the village of Gaza in the Eastern Cape, to Soweto in Johannesburg, in search of a better life, while going through the trials and tribulations of apartheid as well as its challenges, its conflicts, to end up in a daily life within communities and families that are polygamous, etc.
What about the story of Paradise in Gaza? When Mpisi Mpisani, accompanied by his eight-year-old son Giyani, travels to his home village, for his mother’s funeral and also to pay a visit to his first wife Khanyisa, he knows he must hurry back to Johannesburg. His second wife Ntombazi, is jealously waiting for him in Soweto, because she’ll give birth in few days. Under the existing apartheid law, he might be denied the right to return to the city if absent for a very long time. Consequently, he will lose his job in the city. When Giyani gets missing and is nowhere to be found, Mpisi decides to stay in the village to find him. Worried, he tries to ignore villagers who are blaming the witches and their magical sources for the missing boy. Meanwhile, Ntombazi gave birth to a boy whose birthmark seems to be a harbinger of things to come (read the novel, hihihi! I will not reveal more).
What about the style of Paradise in Gaza? In terms of style, writing, language, I noticed that Mhlongo decided to leave some sentences in his mother tongue isiZulu. These are epigraphs in 12 of the 75 chapters of the novel namely chapters 12, 13, 20, 21, 22, 23, 36, 37, 44, 56, 63 and 64 as well as songs, poems and other short texts (pages 79, 82, 85, 118, 119, 173, 222 and 259). While some may argue that this prevents the non-Zulu-speaking reader from linking these nuggets to the larger text or to the sections where they appear; in my opinion leaving some sentences in isiZulu language shows the author’s willingness to take an intercultural sharing approach. The interested, motivated and curious reader will do his or her best to find the translations, examine different aspects, unknown words, poems in ‘foreign language’ (which is – even if the quality of the translation will be questionable – possible online. I will not name the sites here, hihihi again!). This will make the cultural discovery more pleasant.
What about some of the themes in Paradise in Gaza? The dedication of the novel to Credo Mutwa, the author of Indaba, My Children: African Tribal History, Legends, Customs And Religious Beliefs (1964) is a clear indication that the novel deals with African tribal history, legends, customs and religious beliefs.
Dedicated to Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa (1921-2020) from whose books I have learnt a lot about African mythology and folklore.
Mhlongo succeeded in bringing together various customs and beliefs in his novel. He depicts the proverbial and cantankerous tokoloshe (water-related evil spirits in the Zulu mythology), the Ukuthwasa (being possessed by ancestral spirits), traditional healers or Inyangas, who make characters’ lives difficult. But we can read about their sacred powers and knowledge here (such detailed description is still a rare phenomenon in popular novels, but highlights the desire to share knowledge). The fact that the novel spans a wide geographical landscape – from the Gauteng and Limpopo provinces to those of the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, to South Africa’s neighbouring country Mozambique – exposes the connected nature of African religious and belief systems, as well as their pervasiveness within black African populations and communities.
What about the genre of Paradise in Gaza? Historical, sociological, ethnological novel, magic realism, crime novel, collection of legends and beliefs, love story… I am convinced that as a reader, one can chip in other literary categories, genres and registers to this list. It only describes some of the feelings, readings, opinions that I express after reading. Here are some words of empathy in this strange Covid-19 era:
Nothing can acclimatise us to death and eternity as human beings. ‘What can we say? We live in borrowed and dramatic times. Death and time are what give life meaning.’ (p. 275).