Fiction does not always enhance or deepen our understanding of complex realities of time and place. In his novel, The Madonna of Excelsior published in 2005 by Picador and set in his native South Africa, Zakes Mda has achieved this mixture admirably. Against the backdrop of political events of the pre- and post-Apartheid, he builds his narrative around the impact of one specific event and its aftermath on one small community, Excelsior. He captures the essence of life under Apartheid and the difficulties awaiting all when the regime ends. Old prejudices and tensions remain and the transition to the new SA adds new challenges and conflicts, including among the black political leadership.
Mda uses the 1971 case of the Excelsior 19 as the focus of the first part of his account. A group of white men and black women were charged with violation of the ‘Immorality Act’ that prohibited intimate relations across race lines. The primary character is Niki, one of the Excelsior 19 women, whose life story is a symbol for this time and place. As a naïve, pretty 18 year old, she attracts the attention of a white Afrikaner who assaults her and keeps pursuing her. Escape into marriage is some protection and also results in her growing in confidence. Life is good with a husband and her son, Viliki. Never questioning her role as a servant and second class citizen, one day a humiliating incident with her white woman boss changes all that.
Her rage leads her to take revenge. Realizing her power as a black beauty and the hold it has over white Afrikaners, she applies it deliberately. The mixed-race daughter Popi is evidence of the hushed-up relationship. Despite the indisputable evidence of children like Popi, the charges against the Excelsior 19 are withdrawn. Still, those implicated and their families have to somehow work out their lives and their various relationships: within families, among neighbours, between Afrikaners, English and Blacks and Coloured. Niki and her children also suffer the consequences. As the narrative of their lives continues, the focus shifts to Popi and her extraordinary beauty. Her features increasingly reveal her parentage to everybody around. In the new SA she can play an important role in the community despite the continuing suspicions against mixed race people, who are “not black enough”.
In addition to a knowledgeable “we” narrator, Mda introduces Father Claerhout as an observer of a special kind. The (historical) Belgian priest-artist is living in the region, referred to as the “trinity” (man, Father, painter). Fascinated by black “madonnas”, he paints many local women, often in the nude. Niki becomes a preferred subject, mainly because of beautiful young Popi. In fact, each chapter opens with the description of one of the trinity’s paintings. The portraits create an imaginary world with blue or purple madonnas in lush robes or naked, sitting in yellow corn fields, among surreal bright sunflowers or surrounded by pink and white star like blossoms. The child of the heavy-set full-breasted Madonna is of a lighter shade of brown and shows delicate features. Other elements are sometimes added, creating visual renderings of life in the rural community. Semi-abstract and dreamlike, the paintings are reminiscent of van Gogh. As a lead-in to the chapter, the protagonists can literally walk off the canvas. The transition between bold imagination and reality is fluid. We, the reader, follow with curiosity and emotion. To complement the trinity’s visions, the “we” observer steps in to reflect on people and events. Assumed to be witnesses of Popi’s generation, they follow her closely and comment in particular on the attention and mixed feelings she invites in the community. Sometimes critics, sometimes voyeurs, they establish the connections between the paintings and the reality of this microcosm that represents South Africa.
Mda’s novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, is wide-ranging and multifaceted. With great skill Mda brings diverse individuals to life. We see them from different angles, we empathize with them and comprehend them as part of the larger reality being is being played out. Nobody is all “good” or all “bad”. Mda acknowledges that Afrikaners maintain their dreams of returning to power while also realistically depicting the political conflicts within the black leadership. While it moves fast through time and events, it allows pauses to ponder scenes and portraits of life and invites reflection of decisive historical events in modern South Africa. You will come away enriched and keen to read more by this remarkable author.
Friederike Knabe worked in the fields of international policy and programming concerning third world sustainable development and human rights, primarily in Africa, for some thirty years. Of German background, Friederike left Germany following her postgraduate studies in Eastern European and French languages and literatures. She now resides in Canada. She has been reviewing books, both fiction and non-fiction, since 2001.She reads books in English, French and German and has maintained a special interest in African literature. In addition to posting reviews on the various Amazon sites, she contributes to a US Bookreview website and has a monthly book reviews column with sometimes author interviews in a local community paper.