IMAGE: JR Korpa jr-korpa.com
Thirteen Cents, the debut novel of the late K. Sello Duiker, uses the extremely upsetting reality of street kids that are forced to give up being playful and imaginative children and become hardened yet broken adults, to drive the message of a post-1994 South Africa that has lost the glow of hope and promise of a happy ending. The book itself ends with an invocation of the ultimate cleansing that some feel should’ve marked the transition out of apartheid. The book makes an anthropological comment on the savagery of human society in a similar way to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies; by seeing the world through the eyes of the child.
Azure is a three-syllable name belonging to a boy who lives on the streets of Sea Point just outside of Cape Town’s city bowl. He originates from a Johannesburg township but trekked and hitch hiked to the Cape upon the murder of his father and mother. His story is sad. Pre- his parents’ deaths he’s the victim of school yard bullying by kids who don’t like the blue of his eyes. Post his parents’ deaths and his relocation to the sea views he’s the recipient of even more sinister abuse. Statutory rape. Physical beatings by adults. Stealing of his property. Terror. Duiker’s detailing of the grit in this young man’s experiences leaves the reader thoroughly depressed. The categorisation of the book as fiction is your only refuge initially, until you realise that the author’s inspiration came from spending time with Cape Town street children. An experience harrowing enough for him that it led to his temporary institutionalisation. It’s a lot. But it’s also magical, in that way that art tends and often needs to be.
The book has a good dosage of magical realism. This is a writing technique that adds fantastical elements and characters into an otherwise realistic context. All without explanation of any oddity from the author. It’s usually the kind of thing that makes you page back a couple of times to see if you haven’t missed anything. The first such weird encounter is a confusing conversation between Azure and his only friend in the story, Vincent. Azure has, at this point, suffered serious beatings and abuse from the city’s lead gangster; the violent, merciless and characteristically insecure Gerald. The crime committed by the boy seems harmless enough. Azure mistakenly calls Gerald by the name of one of his lackeys Sealy. The coloured Gerald takes serious offence to being identified even mistakenly as a black man. The punishment is gruesome and offensive and ends with Azure in a leg cast. The whole episode is also a baptism of sorts, with Gerald giving Azure a new name – Blue – and effectively co-opting him into the gang. After the whole ordeal Blue meets up with Vincent and has a conversation puzzling to both himself and the reader, wherein Vincent reveals Gerald to be a clairvoyant dinosaur:
“Vincent: T-rex, he’s hungry. He’s always hungry.
Blue: What do you mean? What is that T-rex shit?
Vincent: I mean T-rex is hungry.
Blue: But who is T-rex?
Vincent: Azure, this isn’t hard man […] If you’ve got enough voetsek in you and you know the right people, with a bit of money you can do anything. And that’s what Gerald did. He’s T-rex […]
Blue: What does T-rex want with me?
Vincent: Don’t ever mention T-rex when you talk about Gerald again
Vincent: Why? You ask stupid questions sometimes you know. You must ask questions that go somewhere. You see that bird over there? […] That’s right. He can hear us. So you see, don’t fuck with Gerald. He’ll destroy you.”
The confusion of this dialogue is followed by a surreal moment between Gerald and Blue in which the gangster takes on Sangoma powers and re-tells intimate details to Blue about his abused mother, his aggressive father, their murder and an early childhood incident that even us as readers only got a hint to earlier in the book. Gerald seems to be some guardian angel (or whatever the evil equivalent of an angel is) that’s been with Blue since before his mom gave him the name Azure. It’s at this point that you realise that Mr. Duiker is no ordinary post-apartheid South Africa story teller.
The themes of the book seem centred on identity. The young South African democracy pops out as a proxy protagonist, especially at the time of the book’s publishing. In fact, Azure approximates some of the struggles of the country’s emergence from its wicked past. There’s the confused identity of a seemingly African boy with Aryan eyes; a metaphor for the nation’s forced identity as a rainbow nation, even though rainbows have neither black nor white in them. The insensitive looting of Azure by non-white gangsterism. The prostitution of Azure to white capitalist society as represented by the wealthy married men in who’s lofty Sea Point apartments and bathrooms Azure finds himself earning most of his living. Then there are the magical meet-ups that also act as symbols of the state of the nation. Azure ascends Table Mountain after extended abuse from Gerald, where he meets (in his dreams this time) Saartjie who is married to an actual T-Rex, and who has as a father an old man named Mantis who dies from eating the sun. Saartjie is “…a woman who looks like she lived a very long time ago. She is short and her bum is big…”. By all accounts this image speaks to Saartjie Baartman; the encounters she has with the two peculiar males in Azure’s dreams speak to the long standing and apartheid-surviving abuse and suffering of African women.
The story’s progression marks the growth of a quiet violence inside Azure. There’s a consistent obsession with water which in the beginning seems to be a yearning for cleanliness and purity, but in the middle of the story becomes about quenching a kindling that’s happening in the boy’s soul. No doubt from all the incendiary experiences. By the end, the water comes to a boil as Azure summons fire to what becomes an apocalyptic climax. The whole affair is a saddening fate of a society that eats its young. Mr. Duiker’s point is on the corruptions and inconsistencies that adults expose children to, a problem Azure laments on throughout the book in his interactions with adults, and a subject also explored in similarly lyrical and energetic prose in Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” and the Roots’ “Singing Man”. In both songs, a young’n is corrupted by an adult and then bares the brunt of the authoritative wrath that comes thereafter. The imagery from Black Thought’s verse in the “The Rising Down” album is fitting for Azure’s loss of peace and purity:
“13-year-old killer, he look 35
He changed his name to little no man survive
When he smoked that leaf shorty believed he could fly
He loot and terrorise; he shoot between the eyes
Who to blame? It’s a shame the youth was demonised
Wishing he could rearrange the truth to see the lies
And he wouldn’t have to raise his barrel to target you
His heart can’t get through the years of scar tissue”
Around the time K. Sello Duiker wrote the novel, South Africa still minted a one cent coin as part of the currency. The book, being published in the year 2000, preceded by two years the discontinuation of the coin. The tail end of the currency depicted two sparrows on a branch, which is said to be a reference to a bible verse invoked by the women of one of the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War. The quote from the good book is in Matthew 10: 29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” The symbolism on the lowest currency denomination in the country is an affirmation of the worthiness and significance of even the smallest of our humble existence. I don’t know if Duiker was a religious man (although he seems to have definitely been a spiritual being), but it’s uncanny that the symbols of the one cent coin; particularly the loss of this coin by Azure to leave him with thirteen cents; tie up with the struggle against disregard and abuse and the fight for worth and hope that imprint the nearly-thirteen-year-old protagonist’s life in the novel.
BOOK: Thirteen Cents, 978-0-79570-49-25
AUTHOR: K. Sello Duiker
PUBLISHER: Kwela Books
PRICE: R205, Takealot, Exclusive Books