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“The Wanderers”: A meditation on history, the prodigal nature of human souls

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Homer, in the Odyssey (The Book of The Wanderer), tells us words have wings. Our favourite
author’s next book is about an absent father (a wanderer) who uses the power of winged words to reach out to his daughter from exile. This prompts her to look back at her life and his by reading and commenting on his Pillowbooks (journals). This is the basis for Mputhumi “Mpush” Ntabeni’s follow up book, The Wanderers published by Kwela Books.

Ntabeni also leans on the history of amaMfengu (The Wanderers), amaHlubi in particular, because, as he says: “when I grow up I want to tell the real story of how my ancestors were dispersed by Portuguese slave traders and Mfecane wars from the bank of Thukela (Tugela River) and the foot of Ukhahlamba (Drakenberg Mountains) to end up in the Eastern Cape just as the European settlers were also pouring into the region.” This is a fantastic piece of ambition and historical writing.

This book – much like his first book, A Broken River Tent – is difficult to categorise but someone said in a synopsis: The Wanderers is a triptych novel that follows the life of a South African girl who, after losing her single parent teacher-mom, is determined to finish her matric and study to become a medical doctor. Later on in her life a work related incident unhinges her life. She resigns and travels to Tanzania to find out about her father’s life who died there; in exile.

In a small Tanzanian town of Morogoro she meets up with her father’s Rwanda-born common law wife (another ‘wanderer’) who settled there after fleeing from one of the Rwandan genocides. They cultivate a mother-daughter relationship and find some semblance of a normal life. She also develops other deeper work-life relationships that convinces her that her life at the time is in Tanzania. This she feels is her fate wished also by her father who, educated in Classics, refers to her on his journals as the wondering goddess, Proserpine.

The Greeks of ancient times called the state of being foreign or being in exile, Xenetia. The name of the author’s last born girl child is Xenia. As the goddess of the wanderers Proserpine reigns over ghosts from her sacred lake of Avernus that gives the world its seasons.

This book is a meditation on history and the prodigal nature of our human souls. The novel has a tripartite narrative structure, told through three voices: main character’s father’s journals, their younger selves growing up in different decades at the South African townships, and her mature self in Tanzania and South Africa.

Her father gives us a glimpse into the life of a global peripatetic during the eighties and nineties, also an eye into the townships of the eighties that were burning.

Most literary journals written in our era turn to map the descent into bitterness and pessimism. This one moves in the opposite direction by recording the tentative steps where hope invades a soul that is lucky enough to have come into deeper contact with other people’s kindness and unselfish love, especially during their last days on this earth. We see how his agnostic mind climbs towards tangible belief and faith in love, which makes this a book of loving intensities that counteracts the violence of history he grew under. It enacts how individual lives are affected by what, in retrospect, we call history.

Rather it depicts history through individual lives by introducing us to a world imbued with individual and collective internal essence of moods, beliefs, memories and cultural attitudes of being African in southern Africa during the 20th and 21st century.

This is a novel of absorbing expressions, terrific events, wonderful insights; of parable-like profoundness about the experiences of life, from ancient literary sources to the present. It is a quest for meaning told in both the father and daughter’s voices communicating across geographical and different time-frames through the power of literature. The novel makes for an eloquent mélange of genres and inter-sectional analysis into Goethe’s idea of weltliteratur (world literature). It’s a literary journey, physical and metaphysical, into the genius of of African lives that throws a rippling stone into the pond of the new African literature direction, bringing with it also a new way of seeing world’s universal values.

The book takes a leaf from Simone Weil, one of its intellectual anchor: “We must be rooted in the absence of a place. We must take the feeling of being at home into exile.” By this she reckons that is what shall help us in the end, to become wanderers that are at home everywhere, especially when we’re not in our geographic homes. A lesson our xenophobic world is in desperate need to relearn.

*The book will be published by Kwela in July 2021. Suggested retail price – R250. Available in all good bookstores nationwide.

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