Nthikeng narrates loss and love in Johannesburg
We’re all somewhat familiar with the stereotypical figure of the romantic and struggling artist of the city. He’s (because they’re oftentimes portrayed as male) the creative dude who resists working for the man or being a slave to society. More often than not, he’s got a sharp tongue for social commentary and is bursting at the seams with unfiltered passion and despair. We’re familiar with this character through countless portrayals in film and literature, real life figures like Van Gogh and more recent ones like Basquiat (and if we’re pushing it) Kanye West.
Of course, struggling/starving artists vary in their portrayals. The extent to which they’re willing, for example, to give in to ‘working for the man’ differs with social context and restrictions. In Nthikeng Mohlele’s Small Things, the author offers us a hopeless romantic poet and musician, whose aspirations are quelled by the trauma of the forced removals Sophiatown’s demolition (1955-1960), a life-long unrequited love and eighteen years as an apartheid political prisoner.
These three life events form and structure the experiences of Nthikeng’s starving artist and unnamed protagonist in the city setting of Johannesburg. Sophiatown and it’s history becomes the way in which we understand the struggles of our main character, his resentment towards an oppressive system and the way in which it deprived people of their humanity.
Known back then as the ‘Chicago of Africa’, Sophiatown exemplified the possibility of a metropolitan lifestyle, middle class aspirations and (most importantly in this book) a reclamation of humanity through the arts. This is surely a one-dimensional view of the place (what with all the violence, constant harassment of residents by the police and the poverty). Small things is reminiscent of the way that many writers of the time romanticised Sophiatown, but it still brings these opposing realities together to exist in tension in the city and through the main character, during and after apartheid.
“How was it that amid open sewage, such laughter was possible? That self-taught pianists, painters, writers and unassuming philosophers saw and expressed life with such devastating clarity? It was as if skulls were not being cracked with batons, torches not shone on naked lovers during planned and impromptu raids. Happiness, I found, was a strange creature. While the gramophones wailed, while wedding songs filled romantic summer nights, rumours abounded that Sophiatown would be demolished.”
Through this image, we sense how police invasion, forced removals and Apartheid in general wreck the idea of Sophiatown residents being able to fully embrace the ‘wholesomeness’ of values such as love, romance, happiness or even just a sense of normality.
Like any portrayal of a struggling/starving artist, the protagonist of Small Things has a muse, known as Desiree. It is through, Desiree, that our artist projects the trauma of Sophiatown’s chaos, destruction and beauty. Our protagonist holds onto memories of his youth spent being mesmerized by Desiree singing jazz songs and church tunes at Sophiatown’s popular Odin Cinema, but his dream to be with her is ruined first by the forced removals which separate them and his arrest after being a suspected conspirator in the resistance. It is through music, jazz and poetry that he finds meaning. It interlinks with Desiree, home and Sophiatown.
The idea of home is a central theme to many pieces of literature which explore ideas of belonging and identity, and it’s soon clear that his separation from home is the reason for his shaky sense of self. It’s no wonder that we’re given a character with no name or why his quest to find stability and meaning in life is continuously unfulfilled and unattainable.
The idea, then, of the stereotypical figure of a struggling artist who goes off on an individual quest to find himself gains more depth here. The notion of finding oneself becomes a little less romantic and much more tragic and trauma-filled. Here, finding oneself is not just an individual quest backed by narcissistic tendencies, but is more of a reflection of systematic failures that affect the individual.
“It will never make sense to me why the eighteen-year punishment. I admit: I am not Desmond Tutu. Or a Nelson. I have come to realize that underlying my apparent indifference is irresolvable anger; anger in search of meaning”
Nthikeng’s novel invites us to revisit the concept of the personal being political, a concept that the protagonist draws our attention to. “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you”. Indeed, Sophiatown’s demolition and his arrest as a suspected conspirator in the resistance separate him from his home and love interest, crushing his desire to reach a sense of normality.
“The soul is a temperamental thing. Once tainted, there is little to be done to restore it’s tranquility.” Even after his imprisonment, our struggling artist is unable to try and live a normal life again. Plagued by loss and heartache, he becomes a vagabond in the city of Johannesburg, moving in and out of homelessness while occasionally working as a street musician.
The book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some may view it as depressive, and some may find the main character too complacent within his despair. Still it encourages discussions about systematic failure and its impact on human agency. It also recognizes art as a form of therapy, while also revealing it’s limitations in a society that undermines creativity as a profession.