Ndebele’s Art of Redemption:
(The Continuity of Michael Jackson)
In two stories “Uncle” (53-123) and “The Music of the Violin” (124-51), from his collection Fools and Other Stories (1986), Njabulo Ndebele explores the subject of sociopolitical redemption through the art of music, painting, and the theatrics of magic, among others. Where many South African writers portray art as marginal in the conflictual thrust of apartheid, Ndebele centralizes it. He also differs from other writers in persistently unveiling the burden of racial oppression on blacks as opposed to squaring whites against blacks in a fratricidal strife.
The same child protégé Vukani is the protagonist of the two stories. In “The Music of the Violin” Vukani is an apprentice violinist; in “Uncle” he is an apprentice trumpeter. Whereas the earlier story explores self-destructive tendencies in the black community, the latter explores the ways of escape from communal immolation. Where the first story describes black escapism in the plague of white fantasies, the second story illuminates the redemptive sublimities of artistic beauty. “The Music of the Violin” is a denunciation of the abuse of art through foppish posturing; “Uncle” is a panegyric of the saving grace of art through the pursuit of excellence. Vukani, the apprentice school boy, becomes a symbol of the competing forces of good and evil which overdetermine the salvation of his cultural milieu. This is what David Maughan Brown describes as the “conservative aesthetics underpinning” Ndebele’s cultural program (Miller 215). Ndebele’s exploration of the intrusion of evil and violence in the consciousness of the child-protagonist shows the thematic affinity between his fiction and the work of such fellow South African writers as Hennie Aucamp, Pirow Bekker, Breyten Breytenbach, Roy Campbell, J. M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Alex La Guma, and Can Themba.
In their book A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader (1982), André Brink and J.M. Coetzee note the “peculiar significance” of literary portrayal through the eye of a child, as is seen in the work of Ndebele. They particularly remark on the Afrikaners’ recent rural past in which childhood reminiscences always formed an important part of Afrikaans literature (13-14). Yet their claim is not altogether persuasive since the trend lacks a large scale application to Nigerian and Anglophone West African literature, which has a much more recent rural past. The practice is, however, entrenched in Francophone African literature and Anglophone East African literature, as is evident in Camara Laye’s The African Child (1953), Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy (1956), Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala (1957), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child (1964). This also draws attention to the link between the literature of South, East, Central, and Francophone West Africa. Barring shared linguistic (expansive Kiswahili), cultural (mythopoeic Earth-Mother), and environmental (temperate climate) affinities, volatile colonialism, imperialism, and settler colonies were more deeply rooted in these zones, which are variously marked by such policies and conditions as the French assimilation, the Mau Mau Revolt, and apartheid.
In “The Music of the Violin,” Vukani’s father is represented as an intelligent man and school inspector whose wise social commentaries are shortchanged by his debilitating inaction. He explains how cheating and laziness are sabotaging the elevation of blacks, but he proffers no solution. When Vukani’s mother objects to the visit of her sister in-law, arguing that extended relatives constitute the kind of material nuisance that the whites have done away with, Vukani’s father counters that “Whites are whites: Africans are Africans” (148). Yet he does nothing and his sister’s visit is cancelled. It is not until the very last paragraph of the story that this self-flagellating model of a father intervenes – that is, after their two children have been subjected to disturbing verbal and physical abuse and their daughter Teboho has been forced into physical violence with her mother in defense of Vukani.
Conversely, Vukani’s mother is represented as an imposter. Her character aids the narrator in the exposition of class charade through the tea-drinking habits of hosts and guests; through Dr. Zwane and Beatrice’s use of Kleenex to wipe their eyes during conversation; and through the two women who hunger after the Jewish recipes of Mrs. Kaplinsky. Vukani’s mother is a psychosocial specimen of phantasmagoria. When Teboho mistakenly breaks a china plate, her mother yells: “What a costly mistake! Oh my God … I gave Mrs. Willard three hundred rands to bring this set from Hong Kong” (145). She also calls Teboho “the bloody street girl” with strange ideas from the university. Like her husband, Vukani’s mother is more easily seduced by the wild dreams of producing a Mozart in Vukani than in making the hard sacrifices of investing five hundred and fifty rands on her son’s practice violin. For refusing to play the violin, she calls Vukani “a little flea” and “cheeky brute.”
Vukani loves to play music. He attends music classes regularly and plays so well that his parents and teachers proudly request his services. His decision to stop playing is a consequence of his conviction that the wrong use of art is evil. On the one hand, his parents abuse his talent by turning it into a ludicrous showmanship. On the other, his talent alienates him from his classmates who mock him and hide the violin from him. In addition, it exposes him to the assault of Bhuka and his gang, who publicly humiliate him at Maponya’s shopping complex (137-141). The beauty of art is lost under the inhibitive strictures that make him feel like a caged bird. And what is the use of salt if it loses its saltiness? Many serious artists would justifiably feel compelled to abandon their trade if artistic production has to be programmed by megalomaniacs and fascist instruments. Generations of writers before Ndebele have struggled with the subject of imaginative alienation and the limiting forces of artistic denegation, from the Psalmist Israelites in exilic bondage, through Leo Tolstoy’s painter in Anna Karenina and Chinua Achebe’s palm wine tapper in Things Fall Apart. As in Ndebele’s apartheid South Africa and Tolstoy’s communist Russia, “The Music of the Violin” stresses the point that the politics and social conditions of nations overdetermine the nature and freedom of artistic production.
The second story “Uncle” explores the liberatory pedagogy of artistic excellence, which is a subject of great interest in such South African texts as Athol Fugard’s ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Ndebele demonstrates this through the youthful exuberance of the three boys who are both classmates and friends. Wanda’s description of the mixing of colors of the day highlights the race politics of Ndebele (55): “The colors rise up with the heat, and there is moisture in the air. Not yellow, not black, not brown or this or that color but all of them fighting back.” It is then clear that each of the boys, like the colors, represents the racial classifications of apartheid South Africa vis-à-vis whites, coloreds, and blacks. The pact the boys enter into and the constant bickering, jealousies, and re-alignments in their relationship depict the policies and conflicts of the apartheid system.
Ndebele engages the problematic of race through the critique of various artistic forms, each of which is either commended or discarded. The art of sporting competition, in which Vukani (who owns shoes) kicks a stone, Wanda (who owns sandals) kicks an empty tin, and Doksi (who owns nothing) kicks a ball of wool, is rejected because it exposes the boys to envy. Moreover, it is divisive since the winners tend to gang up against the loser, who is forced to pay a penalty (56). The second art of dice gambling is equally rejected because it exposes the gamblers to brutal fights and the strong arm of the law. Doksi’s brother is stabbed severely on his back and buttocks and the police chase after the boys. A boy like Nzule is notorious for gambling, fighting, and confrontations with the law. Thus the art of gang fighting, which recalls David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) starring Brad Pitt, is also rejected. It is not surprising that Nzule’s girlfriend abandons him to run after the famous musician Lovington. The art of friendly maneuvering is discarded and so is Christian religious worship. And though the art of painting is praised, it is given a secondary position, along with magical incantation.
Above all these, music is extolled. The musician Lovington is popular all over South Africa. Women flock to him and he is beloved by his family. He is the one who finally humiliates Nzule in the celebrated fight in which the whole community joins him in chasing the gangster out of the neighborhood. His stones triumph over Nzule’s cowhide shield and knobkerrie in a symbolic David versus Goliath contest. He leads the whole community and a wedding party in a carnival of singing, instrumentation, and dancing. Ndebele’s musical art project in this story calls to mind the assertion of Hally in Fugard’s ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys: “I’ll point out to [my professor] that in strict anthropological terms the culture of a primitive black society includes its dancing and singing … The war-dance has been replaced by the waltz. But it still amounts to the same thing: the release of primitive emotions through movement” (43). Despite its racial imperfection, Hally’s declaration points to the link between the African American “blues,” Jamaican “reggae,” Dominican “meringue,” and African tradition of song and rhythm, which Olaudah Equiano notes with elation in his eighteenth century narrative. The free art of music gives voice to the voiceless and shackled victims of racial oppression around the world.
In teaching Vukani (his nephew) and the other children to play the trumpet, Lovington guides them in the art of beauty and courage. He initiates Vukani into ancestral worship, into the encyclopedic extravagance of books, and into male bonding in a classic Laurentian-Layean-Betian scene (99-100). In teaching the three classmates the power of language by conjuring a coin out of the piano, Ndebele marks his artistic patrimony in the magical realism of his South African folklore. Lovington assumes a father figure in the place of Vukani’s late father. He is also an eponymous figure whose name is freely given to newborn babies. He is, in short, the Messianic signifier of a new South Africa under black leadership.
The underlying concern of Ndebele in the two stories is the explication of the subtle processes of social deprivation and fulfillment. Ndebele traces his theme in pari passu with the sexual quests of his characters. In “The Music of the Violin” Vukani dreads and desires Gwendoline. When he looks at his violin he feels “a sensation of fear in his breast” and he begins to imagine it as “something that could bring both pain and pleasure” (131). The violin then reminds him of his class mistress Miss Yende’s red dress which gives an impression of flowery fragrance. But because of the harshness of the mistress on the days she wears it to school, the possibility of pain makes the dress repulsive. When Doksi persuades Vukani to go back and look for his lost violin in the classroom, Vukani encounters Gwendoline and the other three girls sweeping.
A similar pattern recurs in the story “Uncle.” The first time Vukani sees his uncle’s girlfriend lying naked on his bed he is disconcerted. His heart beats fast as he trembles. When he subsequently goes to his class he declares that, “I can see only Gwendoline, and can only feel the pain inside me” (87). The only time he has the opportunity of a private meeting with Gwendoline outside the classroom, he loses her in the crowd that has gathered to watch the fight between his uncle and Nzule. The fight between Nzule and Lovington is a struggle over the “big black woman.” On the night after his defeat of Nzule, Lovington makes Vukani look at his nakedness in the bathroom. When Lovington drives him out of the house during his trumpet practice the following day, Nzule reports his sadness to his consoling mother, holding her “around her waist” in an Oedipal embrace (113).
In his deployment of music and the musical instrument as metonym, Ndebele explores the Lacanian schema that “woman is a symptom” (168). But the woman undergoes as much castration as the man. Gwendoline constantly looks at Vukani and she suffers from his inability to make advances to her. The first time she runs and kisses him, he calls her a “bitch” (87). The big black woman dreads abandonment and Vukani’s mother shares in his pain. It is this shared experience of the castration complex that Lacan refers to when he says that the phallus is not a phallic jouissance. In other words, there is no jouissance of the other. In the conflict between Nzule and Lovington, the terrified woman is caught in the circle with both men. Vukani and Doksi are also terrified by the possibility of humiliation. After his release by the gangsters, Vukani gets up and timidly hurries away, occasionally “glancing backwards.”
In the context of postcolonial African literature (and the slave narrative), the painter Amandla (in “Uncle”) aptly captures the phenomenon of the Orphean gaze in his description of Nzule (80): “He is a tragic reminder. The lost glory and the emptiness of the present. I accept him, without becoming him.” Ndebele’s fiction demonstrates that it is through the redeeming quality of art that black people can overcome the debilitating hold of the past, the tragic night of their communal soul, the dreadful “backward glance” which marks the woeful discontent of Lot’s anonymous wife and the bane of the lyrical wife hunter Orpheus. Art, especially musical art, is the eternal melancholy of the feminine.
Njabulo Ndebele’s vision of redemption through the art of music would remind one naturally of the genius of Michael Jackson, particularly in his insistence on interpersonal love, interracial harmony, communal reconstruction, earthly peace, and global transformation. My forthcoming project on “The Invagination of Neverland” proposes that Jackson’s discovery of the “Moonwalk” dance and his construction of the “Neverland” architectonic are both physical significations of his engagement of musical composition as a regenerative sublime. Indeed, Jackson’s utopian pilgrimage to “Neverland” had been replayed in the lives and work of some well-accomplished artists before him, as epitomized in S. T. Coleridge’s dream-work “Kubla Khan,” D. H. Lawrence’s retreat to the Kiowa Ranch (now “D. H. Lawrence Ranch”), and Elvis Presley’s designation of “Graceland.” His invocation of Charlie Chaplin’s evergreen song “Smile” and Peter Pan’s eternal childhood is part of his abiding faith in the redemptive power of the imagination as repeatedly enshrined in his greatest songs, including “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Will You Be There,” “I Will Be There,” “Rock with You,” “You Rock My World,” “Heal the World,” “We Are the World” (with Lionel Richie), “Earth Song,” “Human Nature,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Black or White,” and “Thriller.”
The two stories “Uncle” and “The Music of the Violin” illustrate that the burden of race and the empowerment of art equally impact the artist and the community at large.
Brink, André, and J.M. Coetzee, eds. A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Fugard, Athol. “Master Harold”… and the Boys. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Jackson, Michael. Number Ones. New York, NY: Epic Records, 2003.
Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.
Miller, Christopher L. “A Review of Literary Theory and African Literature / Théorie littéraire et literature africaine. ” Eds. Josef Gugler et al. Hamburg: Lit Verlag, 1994. In Research in African Literatures 29.4 (1998): 213-216.
Ndebele, Njabulo. Fools and Other Stories. New York: Readers International, 1986.
Obiwu studied at universities in Nigeria and at Syracuse University, New York. His books include The Unspeakable Protocols of the Great Injunction (2009), Tigress at Full Moon (2009), The World of Barack Obama (ed., 2009), Igbos of Northern Nigeria (1996), and Rituals of the Sun (1992). He won the Charanjit Rangi Leadership Award for Faculty Professional Excellence from the College of Arts & Sciences, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio (2008); Resolution Recognition from the Greene County Board of Commissioners, Ohio State (2007); and “Applause” Award from Xenia Daily Gazette, Xenia, Ohio (2007). He was a fellow of the International School of Theory in the Humanities (1998). Contact: Obiwu1@gmail.com.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence