For the record Silent Valley (published in 2012 by Macmillan) is a book about the murder of a beautiful nubile young thing called Amahle, the daughter of a local chief. She was about to be married off when she was found killed and her father grieves, not so much for the dead girl but the loss of the herd of cattle she was going to fetch in dowry. Amahle’s death means the chief can no longer take another wife, his sixth.
The second murder adds to the suspense and helps the plot.
The twist and turns that lead to the identity of the killer – and the reasons for the dastardly act – compensate for the barrenness of Nunn’s research.
Someone in my Creative Writing class introduced us to the literary phenomenon he labelled ‘faction’ – fiction based on fact. But when you think of it, fiction itself is not totally pie in the sky, a figment of the imagination of the writer, however fertile. It is writing based on some form of truth or reality.
I tried to read Malla Nunn’s Silent Valley with this concept at the back of my mind. Two days later I arrived at this conclusion: I am either a cynic or Malla Nunn, who grew up in Swaziland, was not writing for me. Her version of black South African faction is scant and porous. Had she not relied on her aunt Lizzie Thomas for help with the language of Shaka, (isi)Zulu, perhaps the Zulu chief could have been spared the incongruity of being a Matebula – that Nunn spells without the crucial ‘h’. She gives her rural Natal character the nickname nyonyane – bird, when a bit of research could have told her this is Setswana. In the era she writes about, the natives, especially the proud Zulu, speak a pure unadulterated dialect with no borrowed words from other ethnic tongues.
In her insouciant writing, these ‘little’ matters are glossed over. But for a readership – if she hopes to cultivate any – at the southern tip of the African continent, these slips are jarring.
For someone who nearly lived all his life under apartheid, I consider myself pretty au fait with the machinations of the heresy that turned South Africa into a pariah state. My knowledge may not be encyclopaedic but it is definitely above average. Samuel Shabalala, the kaffir detective in her book does not drive – because the system did not allow black police officers to so much as keep custody of car keys. Really now!
As hewers of wood and drawers of water, the menial vocations blacks were expected to master included driving. The dark hue completed the profile of ‘chauffer’ in those days.
I will read another Nunn only if it promises not to stretch poetic licence to the point of incredulity. Based in Sydney, Australia, Nunn bears the authorial responsibility to be credible, even to South African émigrés Down Under – our ninth province.
If she abdicates, she has lost me – and a horde of others.
Have you read Silent Valley? Let us know what you think….