Illumination, by Nthikeng Mohlele
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Illumination, by Nthikeng Mohlele


Kind of blue

“…the music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me” – Sleep” by The Roots  

One of the best lines I have ever read in a book is from Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being

The line, a moment of contemplation by the main character Tomas on the imagined nudity of a clothed woman he fancies, reads: “Between the approximation of the idea and the precision of reality there was a small gap of the unimaginable, and it was this hiatus that gave him no rest”. Nice. The most significant takeaway from the cerebral book is that life is light. Being lived only once and in only one direction, “we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come […] There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning…”.

Most of the work of Nthikeng Mohlele, comprising six major novels (and, seemingly, counting still), conducts similar ontological explorations. The main characters in his novels – of which I am familiar with three, being Rusty Bell (2014), the award winning Pleasure (2016) and Illumination (2019) – solliloquise on philosophical fragments of lived experiences. From passions around women and sexual encounters with them (which have featured in all three of the above) to contemplations of purpose and motivation and fame and greatness. [bctt tweet=”Human interactions in their many pretzelled structures are unravelled and examined at all societal arrangements – romantic, familial and even interspecies such as in the case of the talking cat in Rusty Bell.” username=”BKOLitMagazine”]From each you walk away with a deep consciousness around the fragility of perspectives and social strictures around morality, careers and the matters we’ve deemed of importance in life. As reflected by Michael – the lawyer character in Rusty Bell – “…the search for the fullness of existence does not have a name.” This is a notion illuminated well in Mohlele’s sixth novel “Illumination”.

Life is not as remarkable a thing as most people have concluded and believe”. These are the opening words.  From the Grammy award winning, world renowned jazz trumpeter narrator, who has a beautiful intelligent wife, a huge house in Mandela’s Houghton and three fish named Allan Poe, Machiavelli and Abraham Lincoln. The seemingly manic-depressive protagonist speaks from a vantage where his life is becoming undone. [bctt tweet=”The novel is a collection of ruminations on his lived experience across the themes that he considers “… life cannot be without: spirituality, women, marital love and the love fished for in extramarital affairs, science, espionage, technology, boredom and suicide, laughter and madness” ” username=”BKOLitMagazine”] As exhaustive as this list is, Mohlele explores all of the themes in the plus 200 pages of melodic prose.” 

The musician struggles with serving two mistresses – his music and his muse. The former has served his soul since he was birthed into the cool of “…saxophonist uncles, drummer aunts, clarinet nieces and trombonist cousins”. A spiritual journey is transformed into a world of fame and greatness which is halted by a freak explosion accident at a friend’s house that takes away a chunk of his top lip. This renders his primary instrument, the trumpet, manageable to him at times of courage and optimism and useless at times of depression. “…I might as well donate the trumpet to pre-schoolers to fill up with sand and urine, stuff with orange peels, tie to a string and drag along dusty earth” he mopes on an occasion of questioning the universe’s intentions in gifting him with the fateful injury.

The incident prefaces a cascade of losses. The relatively minor of these losses being the cut-off of the last of his circle of friends – one of whom is an obtrusive chain smoker who saved his life in the explosion; the other a disgraced public servant living his days driving a hearse in the company of coffins and autopsy reports. The philosophical precepts interrogated by Mohlele in these losses involve the terms and conditions of the debt owed to one to whom you owe your life (in the former friend) and the extent to which you are the company you keep (in the latter, corrupt and sociopathic, friend). The major or dominant of the losses is that of his missus. After jetting off to France for medical school, she fails to return to her beau and is spotted by a random and nosey South African hotelier in amorous embraces with a lover. This bit – the loss of a muse – is the straw that the musician humps in a creative slump rendering him unable even to coordinate a band for one last swansong meant to “…give musicologists heart palpitations and outlive my legacy by six hundred years”. What is a last surge of motivation and the remaining semblances of fame and greatness wane to intense depression and seclusion, which brings to Bantu a moment of enlightenment encompassed in the stoic closing thoughts of the book: “I am ageing and fading, but nurturing a new found piece of existential arithmetic…life is, in and of itself not as remarkable a thing  as most people have concluded and believe”.     

A takeaway from the book is the concept of the untethering of the soul from convention, material and the physical. Perhaps not quite a detachment, as the biology of that is admittedly difficult, but rather a ranking of the soul and its energy first. The maestro consciously examines and manages his reactions to the betrayal by his muse. In a telephone conversation with a music producer (who brings the bad news that the record label will not fund his proposed album, despite his track record) he nonchalantly discloses his wife’s actions. The producer is shocked at his lack of emotion.

You sir are missing the point. You cannot measure or judge my response on the basis of what is expected of [the] conventional […] I am choosing to turn what is potentially a catastrophic event into a source of great power. It takes balls to do that – steel-plated balls…which is not to say I am untouched by it…I am mad…but mine is a medicinal madness, madness with a purpose”. There’s a Taoist transcendence to that trope.

Mohlele is also one for beautiful quotables. His ardent observations and photographic recollections of even the miniscule of daily life become tributaries into rivers of words with differing currents, like:

…smoking, that protracted suicide…ruining lungs with measured gestures, timed self-destruction.” – from Pleasure, and

What did years of roadside urine stops, to the music of chirping birds and speeding cars, the absent minded inspection of his penis, shrivelled and sweaty, at times suddenly hard at the thought of what awaited in Alexandra, the trucker’s dictatorial rod, randomly terrorising ant and termite holes with coffee, Coca Cola and watermelon water that had become urine, a salty puddle, discharged with vigour and relief, much to the terror of unsuspecting insects?” – from Rusty Bell, and

I find it beautifully strange that these songs do not exist. Every note. Every melody. Every fragment of an implied note…were I to be hit and mangled by a bus, killed, none of these songs would ever be known…for even the pathologists’ scalpels cannot cut deep enough, and even if they did, art resides not in brain matter or the heart and yet, in truth, it does!” – from Illumination

This man is heavy.

BOOK: Illumination
AUTHOR: Nthikeng Mohlele
PUBLISHER: Pan Macmillan
PRICE: R229, Exclusive Books,

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