We Kiss Them With Rain by Futhi Ntshingila

An excerpt from my review of We Kiss Them With Rain by South African writer Futhi Ntshingila, which can be read in its entirety over at Necessary Fiction. It might be the mood I’m in, but I’m finding subtle allusions to the Victorian-era in quite a few of the books I’ve been reading. Frankenstein In Baghdad is the most blatant call-out, but there’s also The Governesses by Anne Serre,  Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefroy… and, of course, this novel. The writing in these books feels more-than-a-little old-fashioned, with a hint of a moral/life-lesson at the end. Of course this might all be entirely in my head, but it’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about as I look back on 2018.


We Kiss Them With Rain is a social novel, more in line with the works of twentieth century writers like Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Richard Wright,* than crusaders of the modern era. Like those earlier works, it is written with a dual purpose – to both entertain and inform – and relies on a series of somewhat far-fetched coincidences to resolve major plot points. The tone can be, at times, a bit earnest, but that earnestness is in service to highlighting institutional poverty, social inequality, victimization, and sexual assault. The virus is a palpable presence (the text is seeded with acronyms – HIV, AIDS and ARVs) and exists in the same room as the characters, like furniture. For Mvelo, who watches both Zola and Sipho die of AIDS, it is an obsession.

It was that day, when her mother’s disability grant was discontinued, that Mvelo stopped thinking any further than the day ahead. At fourteen, the girl who loved singing and laughing stopped seeing color in the world. It became dull and grey to her. She had to think like an adult to keep her mother alive. She was in a very dark place. One day she woke up and decided that school was not for her. What was the point? Once they discovered that her mother couldn’t pay, they would have to chuck her out anyway.

This is a charming book. Ntshingila’s writes simple prose, keeping comfortably within a young adult reading level. Her characters are awkwardly written, — as in one scene where Mvelo’s friend and neighbor attempts to read a Dylan Thomas poem over Zola’s grave and what is meant to be a poignant tribute becomes a belabored, if sincere, performance. What initially appears to be a flaw is ultimately a strength. The awkwardness covers the project with an unexpected blanket of authenticity. We Kiss Them With Rain is narrated in the third person, but this lack of polish on the final text makes it easy to imagine fictional Mvelo being the book’s actual/model author, writing her own story as if it were someone else’s. Little life lessons are sprinkled throughout, balancing the instructional (characters are constantly visiting clinics to be tested for HIV) with an aspirational happy ending. The final chapters are downright Dickensian, with an ending which encourages Ntshingila’s readers in their childlike hope that these characters – specifically Mvelo, one of the many orphans left alone in the wake of a terrible disease – will find happiness if only they follow the correct path. Not because everything is guaranteed to work out, but because she is given the gift of a future.

*Dickens was left off this list, because I didn’t want too long a string of names. But I do  call him out later in the review. His fingerprints are all over this particular book. Specifically, his way of weaving social issues into his plots without allowing them to take over or keep the story from being entertaining.

The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws & the Author

Title: The Elusive Moth
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Translator: Iris Gouws & the Author
Publisher: Open Letter, University of Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 77 1

 

The Elusive MothThe Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the Author, is set in Free State, South Africa.  The heroine,
Karolina Ferreira, is a lepidopterist staying in the town of Voorspoed – a place she’d visited as a child with her father.

Free State is one of nine South African provinces. The terrain consists of grasslands, large agricultural tracts and mountains. It’s considered the “breadbasket” or “granary” of South Africa.  2.8 million people live there, the 87% majority of whom are black Africans.  The primary language is Sesotho, a Bantu language. Afrikaans is spoken by the white minority. Voorspoed is home to a diamond mine owned by the De Beers family.

None of this is stated in the novel, but the clues are everywhere. Winterbach is describing a place and, in the process of doing that, telling a story.

Karolina is in Voorspoed to study a rare species of moth.  She spends most of her day in the veld with her companion, Basil.  Him collecting plants and her studying insects. Their evenings are spent in town observing the locals – particularly the Afrikaner community that gathers at the hotel to drink, socialize and play snooker. She studies them with the same clinical intensity as the insects.

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the routine of Karolina’s days.  Mornings in the veld, evenings that begin in the Ladies Bar and end in the billiards room.  Afternoons she has lunch in the hotel’s dining room beneath murals that depict the history of the region.  On Saturdays she goes dancing.  Occasionally events interrupt the pattern – a controversial play is performed, tourists arrive, lovers are observed in a cemetery, protests lead to violence in the black settlements, murder, a suicide – but by the next day everything resets. The plot, in this sense, is simplistic. The bumps – the interruptions to the town’s routine – are what imbue the story with unexpected richness and texture. Karolina is always watching from the edges, never at the center, and seldom privy to the inner thoughts or motivations of the key players.

The man sat on the opened-out back flap of the police vehicle. He was covered with a blanket that was wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He seemed to be wearing nothing underneath it but a vest and a pair of trousers. Even though it was a warm night, his teeth were chattering, which made it difficult for him to speak coherently. He had been given a warm drink, for now and again he swallowed some liquid from the cap of a flask. Two black women stood a little apart from the rest, one draped in a blanket, occasionally weeping quietly into a corner of it. Kieliemann spoke for the police. Although he seemed impatient, he was allowing the man to tell his story  without interruption. The scene resembled a photograph – the action frozen, white and black equally stark in the unnatural yellow light.

Karolina stood at some distance, making sure that Kieliemann did not see her.The yellow light penetrated everywhere, eclipsing even the bountiful light of the night sky, etching the scene in hellish desolation.

The next day Karolina will ask questions and try to understand what she has seen.  But her outsider status limits her. The Elusive Moth is narrated in the close third person, keeping readers at an arms length from Karolina and creating another layer between them and the action. The writing is dense and self-conscious – in some places a little fussy (particularly  when Karolina’s love interest, a dharma bum named Jess, is in a scene).  The structure of the novel is based on the repetition and patterns, and Winterbach sometimes extends that repetition to her characterizations.  One lecherous police officer is always described as having a bulge in his pants when Karolina is around; another character is “aquatic” and shudders (both verbally and physically) incessantly; a friend of Jess’ never seems to be without a smirk on his face and a bottle in his hand.   The effect is that the supporting characters become two dimensional.  It feels like a flaw, but in truth I only noticed it when I was away from the book.  Here it works, where in another book it might not.

The heroine is perhaps the one fully realized, psychologically complex character in the novel. Winterbach maintains a balance between Karolina’s self-involvement / inner-thoughts and her outward reaching curiosity. There is a lot of activity in the story to act as counterweight to moments of introspection. The town’s Afrikaan community is a veritable Peyton Place of tawdry affairs and political intrigues.  Even the larger national picture creeps in, though so subtly as to seem like an afterthought. There are hints of the shifting balance of power occurring in South Africa.  “After the string of boycotts last year, Sarel advised the lads in town to reconsider their options, and to consult with the ANC and the township leaders. Some have begun to do so…”

But I would not call it a political novel.  Nor would I call it a relationship novel. Or even a novel about the human condition. What struck me is that it is concept-, rather than plot-, driven.  Voorsoed is an ant farm – isolated and contained.  And if asked to describe the book in one sentences, I would say “A woman studying the town of Voorspoed and its inhabitants from a distance.”

Except that’s not entirely right.  There’s a passage towards the end of the book. Like most everything else that occurs in The Elusive Moth, it’s unobtrusively inserted into the narrative. Karolina and Jess go away for the weekend. They travel to a nearby town.

At dusk they reached the Dis Al Motel where they had tea in the lounge. There was a large painting on the wall depicting Mabalel and the crocodile, painted by the proprietor… There were large animal skins on the ceiling. Antelope heads on the walls. In an adjoining room people played snooker – Afrikaner couples on the brink of suicide and dissipation. Homicidally depressed. Some national leader came on the television. Karolina and Jess went to their rondavel.”


You’re left with the sense that across Free State (perhaps across South Africa) there are dozens of towns like Voorsoed. Inhabited by people going about their lives, behaving in ways identical to the characters we’ve just met.  The same diversions, the same dramas, the same patterns are being repeated.