Christopher Lloyd, the narrating protagonist in Julian Barnes’ 1992 published novel Metroland, spends some time in Paris indulging himself in a bit of loafing during his post-graduate research for his thesis. A friend rebukes him, noting the economic folly of such idling. In defence of his search for happiness, he notes the following response to his friend in a letter:
“Happiness depends necessarily on the unreality of one plane of your life: in one area (emotional, financial, professional), you should be living beyond your resources.”
For Christopher, there is a cost to happiness – an overextension. There is this same over expenditure in each of the first-person narrators in South African author Nthikeng Mohlele’s 2021 collection of stories, The Discovery of Love. The ten individuals overextend themselves in one area or another. The result is a net loss linked directly or remotely to a love story. It seems to be the point of the collection that to love is sometimes an act of giving more than you have, or losing so the love can live. The discovery and exploration of that classic four-lettered emotion involve sacrifices that can leave a lover lost. The question is whether or not, in the end, this loss is worth it all.
Mohlele’s approach to fiction sits slightly juxtaposed to contemporary South African short stories. The latter is severely attached to storytelling as a prime mover. Imagined faces, places, and spaces are used for subtle and subliminal adventures into the topics that unsettle us as humans. When Fred Khumalo highlights the realities of gender-based violence in the short story “Smooth Operator,” published in his 2021 collection of short stories, A Coat Of Many Colours,he creates an intricate femme fatale story that ends in castration. When Niq Mhlongo addresses issues of infidelity and paternity in “Johustleburg Prison Cell,” published in the collection of short stories Joburg Noir, he concocts jail scenes in a story about reckless teenagers. Mohlele is more direct in his interactions with philosophy. “A Man Named Moses” explores the dissonance a contract killer wrestles when he is in his own company. “Man In A Mercedes” is about the self-pity expressed by a privileged upper-class male facing life imprisonment for manslaughter. Rendered in the stream of consciousness style, this collection places the reader in an engaging albeit discomfited vantage point within the thoughts of troubled souls. It also positions Mohlele in a class of his own in the South African literature scene.
To be in the mind of the protagonist of the short story “Kissing Widows” is to be struck with sympathy and a weird amusement. Mohlele introduces us to the narrator at the end of what seems to have been an epic love affair. His lover, a world-famous musician named Melba, has decided to end her life. The narrator looks to start his next love story in the wake of that death. He assembles the wreckage left by Melba and parades it in various spaces where women who have lost their husbands may be found. The narrator takes the reader through the sensitivities of courting at funerals and the strategies of working against the natural inclinations of the bereaved to detach from society: “…the business of widow hunting is fatally limited by her need for privacy and the antisocial tendencies triggered by her grief.” And when he finds a widow whose half-full glass matches his own half-empty heart, she dies. His contemplation is that death and grief are not only spaces of discovery but also logistical nightmares for romance.
Mohlele extends a hypothesis on death as a catalyst for the discovery of love. In “I Am a Woman,” the author voices a female protagonist who is three years into a romance fast. Having experienced relationships on terms dictated to her either by normative culture or men (if the two can be separated in any meaningful way), she resorts to taking control of her sexual experience by denying the male gaze its expectations. She identifies women’s positioning in games of eroticism as sans agency, their roles merely to feed others’ fantasies.
“How unkind the unbearable weight of womanhood through the eyes and senses and thoughts and doubts and preludes and expectations and perversities of other people – of men. It is as if womanhood is not a state of being, as if it is something that can be watched, admired or condemned from a distance, the way one pays for a circus ticket and expects the elephants to stand on hind legs and monkeys to ride bicycles on ropes” (p. 75).
The temptation to break her fast comes in the form of one eligible suitor whose magnetism scrambles the coding of her newfound philosophy. But he dies before either of them can consummate the attraction. Thus her monologue also becomes a musing on how principles are, at their base, zero-sum games in which one must sometimes accept losing.
In “Maria Claudia and Me,” the Grim Reaper gives the protagonist a free pass when his wife and daughters die in a freak train accident, granting him clearance to approach his work crush. For most of his marriage to Maria, he resists a chink in his “good husband” armour, avoiding what he terms an awkward friendship with Claudia:
“Ours was an awkward friendship, a caged love, one that required superhuman effort to withstand, to deny, in order for me to be a present husband to Maria and father to our offspring. I never mentioned her name at home; in fact, I doubt the twins ever knew there was a Claudia, whom their mother instinctively knew could, even involuntarily, cause instability if left unchecked” (p. 111).
The abrupt removal of competition, however, leaves him questioning the propriety of death as a justification for pursuing the initial errant thoughts. Unlike the guy who sets out to kiss widows, this widower doesn’t quite see death as having the facility to unearth love:
“…death could not be the reason why I sought to examine my heart anew, to rinse it with vinegar to rid it of funny smells, to impale it on a pike and watch it twitch and murmur almost muted confessions. Death…cannot be reason enough to wonder what colour knickers Claudia favoured, whether she slept with the lights on, if she was a creature of darkness” (p. 114-115).
Mohlele’s collection links love to loss. It asks: is it better to not have loved at all? In “Grape Picker,” the narrator tells us of a great love that he let go on account of the books that need to be balanced when it comes to such mergers. Being a worker at a grape farm, his situation in life does not guarantee him the ability to give his inamorato basic things, such as “…a brick house, a television set or even a constant supply of food,” let alone the moon and the stars. Romantic scenes of making ends meet are countered in the grape picker’s mind by the pressure to raise the generational economic bar. The story shows how politics and the economy affect how people on the fringes of society choose to love. “Were these concerns, in their essence a South African tragedy, that of stillborn loves, or were such loves synonymous with poverty everywhere, with crippling lack?” questions the anxious narrator.
Stream of consciousness is the general technique of choice in the Mohlele oeuvre. In most of the author’s previous works, the reader becomes a Craig Schwartz of sorts, stumbling into the heavy traffic of a John Malkovich-esque mind. The main characters in his novels soliloquise on philosophical fragments of lived experiences. From passions for women and sexual encounters to contemplations of purpose and motivation and fame and greatness, music and its illuminations to language and literature in all their sweetness, all the way to the crises of consciousness that oxidise internal monologues. Human interactions in their many pretzelled structures are unfolded and examined at all societal arrangements. From each reading, you realise how some of the things we deem important in life, like morality, together with the systems that uphold them, are so fragile that they can be inconsequential in practical terms.
What is always interesting in engaging with Mohlele’s work is whether you can call his texts “stories” in the traditional way of a plot propelled directionally by prose. As an example, his 2018 novel Michael K: A Novel (which re-imagines the philosophies of the vagabond in JM Coetzee’s 1983 Booker Prize-winning creation) is as much a long-form character analysis essay as it is a story about a guy who struggles with quitting his job to follow his dreams of becoming a poet. The Discovery of Love highlights this question of what exactly is a story. The collection has no moving plot, and the short length of the texts brings to an abrupt end any semblance of a storyline. What you have are pure contemplations on the topics over which the author seemingly broods.
In fact, the pieces in the collection that try to have some overarching narrative, a story per se, tend to unravel a bit at the seams. Three stories with an interesting backdrop – “A Man Named Moses,” “Like a Cocked Pistol,” and “Man in a Mercedes” – start with what seems like the makings of a plot. However, this soon vanishes as the narrators go into their internal monologues and existential crises that render all other characters (and plot consistencies) accessories to the context. In some instances, the introductions fire off from intriguing settings that soon fade into the background. The story of a private investigator in “Like a Cocked Pistol” starts with the man lying naked next to his mistress, her nipple likened to a cocked pistol. The narrative then zooms out – this man is going through a tough divorce, but one which delivers him from a boring wife. “Matrimony can be some purgatory, I tell you – or at least mine is. Or was,” he laments in the opening scenes. From here onwards, the associations spiral, hopping from the “morning’s coital symphonies” with the mistress to the characteristics of his vocation, to specifics about a cold case that keeps him up at night. The violence of infidelity intimated by the title doesn’t quite materialise. There is also a bit of confusion around whether the killer in the cold case is a meticulous intentional perpetrator of murder or someone who just overplayed their hand. These points – random associations and disjointed plot elements – may be characteristic of the stream of consciousness technique, but they also suggest that the author’s fidelity lies more with prose than plot.
And that prose, it must be said, is liquid gold. Any inconsistencies in storylines are but a small cost relative to the richness of Mohlele’s language. Consider this description of the true nature of divorce, beautiful in both observation and delivery:
“It has now come into crystal-clear focus that divorce…is a life stain, one that hollows you from within, that comes alive and haunts at the slightest of reminders: a particular film, some restaurant or music video, something as innocuous as cranberry juice – reminders of a life that was, a life that even with the best of intentions and the most admirable behaviour still impales the soul, lays rust on any sense of wellbeing, of spiritual completeness” (p. 88).
The Discovery of Love stands out from recent South African short story publications and reminds us how different and eloquent Mohlele is in his own brand of telling tales.
About the Author:
Thulani Angoma-Mzini is a South African aspiring creative non-fiction writer with a passion for reading and a desire to write more.
Feature image by News24