About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, February 23, 2009

#20 - Tsotsi

Sorry, no clever title for this one, either -- Tsotsi, by Athol Fugard, is the kind of sock-you-in-the-gut book for which it's hard to find words. Set in apartheid-era Sophiatown, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, it takes its name from the protagonist: a nihlistic gangster whose name means only "gangster" or "thug." Make no mistake, this is not a heartwarming, scrappy tough guy with a heart of gold kind of book. This is made abundantly clear in the second chapter, when Tsotsi and his gang murder a man on a crowded train with surgical precision in order to steal his pay packet. As another review aptly puts it, Tsotsi is completely primal; he has no given name, no memory of his past, and no aspirations beyond day-to-day survival:

"To know nothing about yourself is to be constantly in danger of nothingness, those voids of non-being over which a man walks the tightrope of his life. Tsotsi feared nothingness. He feared it because he believed in it. Even more than that, he knew with all the certainty of his being that behind the facade of life lurked nothing. Under men's prayers he heard the deep silence of it; behind man's beauty he had seen it faceless and waiting; inside man himself, beyond the lights of his loves and his hopes, there too was nothing, a darkness like an enormous unending night that closed in when the fires burned low and out, leavingonly ash as an epitaph to their passing warmth. The problem of his life was to maintain himself, to affirm his existence in the face of this nullity. He achieved this through pain and fear, and through death. He knew no other way."

This dark sameness begins to change when Tsotsi assaults a woman who, in her panic, thrusts a shoebox into his hands before running off into the night. In the box is a baby boy. With his fumbling efforts to care for the infant -- asking a terrified shopkeeper for "baby milk," forcing a young mother to feed the baby at knifepoint -- flickers of his own past come back to him, and he becomes desperate to remember more.

One critique suggests that it's clear Fugard is primarily a playwright and not a novelist. Both scenes and characters are described in broad strokes, leaving the reader to fill in the details for him- or herself with only a few key props to go on. While I found this satisfying in terms of the setting, I did wish for a little more depth to some of the characters: Boston, the clever but cowardly gang member who dares to break Tsotsi's rule about personal questions; the crippled beggar Tsotsi opts not to rob; Miriam, who in the wake of her husband's disappearance, finds renewed purpose in nursing baby David. Nowhere is this more true than for Tsotsi himself. Once he decides to buy milk and feed the baby, his transformation is gradual and believable. It's not an overwhelming surge of love for this helpless creature in his arms, but isolated smells and images that evoke something just outside his reach. What's not clear, though, is why he takes the baby home in the first place; certainly, it would be much more in character for the man we've seen up until that point to kill or abandon the child, shoebox and all, minutes after it's handed to him.

As I said initially, it's difficult to pick a theme or construct a summary to end on; I think this will be one to read through at least once more before it fully sinks in. The imagery is both bleak and beautiful, and it's certainly a book you appreciate rather than enjoy. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.

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