Penumbra: an extract from Songeziwe Mahlangu’s debut novel
Penumbra arose out of Songeziwe Mahlangu’s MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University. Set in Cape Town, it is the story of a restless young graduate, Mangaliso Zolo, working at an alienating office job for a large corporate insurance company. He suffers from mental illness, most probably schizophrenia, and the reader follows him on the chaotic journey of his mind for several days through the university southern suburbs.
Cape Town readers will recognise many of the places, but find them utterly unfamiliar, as Mahlangu excavates a different side, but no less real, of the suburban fringe, seen through the eyes of the deeply disturbed Mangaliso and his friends – a world of drugs, petty crime, the charismatic Christianity. Penumbra stands apart from most South African fiction for its novelty and freshness, and it uniquely focuses on a seldom explored marginal territory, neither the City’s export image nor the (now almost equally familiar to readers) world of its township life.
Tongai and Nhlakanipho still drink together on the weekends. I try keeping my interaction with Nhlakanipho to a minimum. He leaves me with a bitter taste. Nhlakanipho wants to control, wants people to listen to him. And the things he says about others are negative. He disparages everyone around him, even his own brother.
Tongai came to my room in the dark. It was two in the morning. He showed me a message from Nhlakanipho on his cellphone. Mpumelelo and Nhlakanipho wanted a place to sleep. Mfundo was threatening to kill them. I told Tongai it was fine for them to come over.
We waited in the lounge. Tongai went downstairs to open for them. Mfundo’s girlfriend was also with them. Mpumelelo was wearing his grey coat. They filled the couches in the lounge. I did not know Mfundo’s girlfriend, Nokuzola, was this beautiful. She told us that Mfundo had taken everyone out to Cubaña. The guys went to the toilet to snort cocaine. Mphumelelo, worried that Nokuzola was on her own, left the guys and returned to the table. When Mfundo came out, he found Nokuzola and Mpumelelo laughing.
“No one laughs with my girlfriend,”Mfundo said.
They thought he was playing.
Mfundo’s face hardened. He grabbed a glass from the table and smashed Mpumelelo behind the head.
“Why did you do that?”Mpumelelo cried out.
“It’s not the first time you are disrespecting me,” Mfundo said.
Nokuzola ran out with Nhlakanipho and Mpumelelo. They took Mpumelelo to hospital. He was given three stitches.
Since then, Mfundo has been threatening over the phone to take them out. I wondered to myself why Mpumelelo did not ask Nthabiseng for a place to sleep.
I got weed from my room. Mpumelelo looked relieved when I have him the grass. He rolled with telephone book paper. I did not have any Rizlas.
Nokuzola shook her head when I offered to pass her the joint.
“So Mfundo was in the wrong, but we have to be the ones that run because he is a gangster,” I said, trying to make sense of things.
“I don’t know where you guys get this idea that Mfundo is a hardcore gangster. Mfundo is not a gangster. If he was a real gangster, why is he running from the boys from Gugulethu?” Nokuzola said.
Strangely, I did not see any evidence of a scar on Mpumelelo’s head. I stole glances at him. His eyes were read.
“Mfundo and his friends slept with those boys’ girlfriends. That’s how this whole thing got started,” Nokuzola informed us. “Those boys are seventeen and eighteen years old. They do not wear fancy pointes shoes like Mfundo. They wear Chuck Taylors and shoot like idiots. Mfundo was almost killed in Khayelitsha; a bullet grazed his chest,” she said.
Nokuzola’s lower lip was longer than her upper lip. She was wearing a black beanie. There was something alluring about her. I wished I could hold her.
“I find myself asking, whatever happened to normal things?” Tongai burst out. “Whatever happened to going to movies? What sort of life are we leading, where we have to be running from the likes of Mfundo? Why are we even associating with such people?”
We laughed at Tongai. He gets like this sometimes, bringing out things his grandmother told him.
“Mfundo only got himself a gun now that this thing started. The other one, Zola, he does not even carry a knife. He’s a tenders boy. In East London, Zola does not want to be seen with Mfundo; he does not want his business partners seeing him with people who are into credit card scams. It’s that cocaine that makes Mfundo act like some fierce criminal. When he’s had that thing, he starts with all this nonsense of being a gangster. Mfundo is actually sweet, but he wants people to think he’s some hairy monster,” Nokuzola said.
Nokuzola’s right palm was on her forehead. Her fingers were trembling.
“He’s hurting the people that care for him. And doing nothing to those kids that want to kill him,” Nokuzola reflected.
There was trouble in Mfundo’s home. Mfundo’s father beat up the mother and Mfundo wanted vengeance on his father. Nokuzola had to mediate. She does not know why she came back to Mfundo after the stabbing. Mfundo has a pending case for attempted murder. There is nothing that Nokuzola can do to have the charges dropped; the case is now in the state’s hands.
Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu
Review written by Brent Meersman for GroundUp.
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