Pieces of a Man
By Darran Anderson.
Tsotsi, Athol Fugard, Canongate 2009
It comes down, in the most rudimentary sense, to style. Whether it’s the disenfranchised taking defiant pride in their appearance, pseudo-uniforms for pseudo-tribes or the natural peacock displays of sociopaths, style has played an integral part in the history and culture of dissenting youth. From the Zoot Suit Riots to Mods and Rockers mounting pitched battles on Brighton beach to the Bloods and Crips, the style supposedly defines the man since time immemorial. It’s not simply what clothes are worn, it’s unique continually evolving strains of language, attitude, music, weapons, territory, a swagger even, everything from Yakuza and Russian prison tattoos to the flamboyance of pimps, dandies and pirates to Neo-Nazis/Russian Futurists/Straight Edgers shaving their heads or hippies/Wandervogel growing their hair long. They are badges of belonging and status and warnings to outsiders. In South Africa, the Tsotsi were the thugs of choice and Fugard offers a stunning uncompromising glimpse into their world. With its depiction of the tribulations of a gang of petty criminals and their laidback espousal of robbery, rape and murder, you start thinking the book is some kind of apartheid Clockwork Orange, a township Brighton Rock but such antecedents should be brushed aside. Tsotsi deserves to stand in glory as its own reference point.
Somewhere between antihero and antichrist, the main character Tsotsi is a man without a history, a man who never dreams and has cut himself off from emotions, creating a stone-cold doppelgänger of himself in order to survive and leading a gang of reprobates and violent criminals through a series of chilling crimes. Before the end of the first chapter, you realise the author Athol Fugard is a true master of the art, namely through his depiction of a brutal murder that the gang carry out in a packed train. Rarely have I read a more gripping scene in any fiction, terrifying in its casualness and absence of feeling and carried out with almost ingenuous skill. They are like doctors harnessing their anatomical knowledge to destroy life rather than save it. And he also demonstrates how the simplest decisions (smiling, wearing a tie, buying a ticket with cash) can condemn or absolve a man, setting off a chain of events that will end in death or salvation. We are at the mercy not simply of fate but the infinite resonance of every insignificant decision.
A kind of Mack the Knife character (in his original nightmarish Brecht form), Tsotsi is not an aberration but rather an inevitable product of a debased society. He is a living breathing embodiment of Newton’s Laws of Motion, ”To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” Apartheid is the action, Tsotsi is one of the reactions. State violence and the savage corruptions of so-called neoliberal economics trickles down where wealth never does. This is where the lie runs out. Poverty is everywhere in this book. One character constantly rubs his eyes needing glasses, a distant exotic luxury. “Children were despondent because there were no more games to play, busy women found themselves with empty hands, dogs stood around on awkward legs, old men dozing in the sun felt the sun go and awoke to find their bodies cold.” Similarly, Apartheid is always present though never mentioned by name; in the omnipresent drone of squalor, in the ever-shrinking ruins of the Sophiatown ghetto tended by the outside demolition squads, in the cemetery that springs up by accident with it’s deformed cypresses squatting next to the tumbledown streets. The prevailing Afrikaan National Party of the day, in shutting down all legitimate opportunities for the black citizens of the country and confining them into segregated townships, created the food chains and the predators that haunted the place. Hence the grim inevitability to the activities of Tsotsi and his cronies.
One astute touch of Fugard’s is that he focuses not solely on the degradation and the anger of the poor but crucially also the boredom of poverty, how idle hands can easily be swayed to the devil. Drink offers some refuge in the shabeens, a blessed and dubious harbour that only postpones the misery. When the factors of rage, desperation and boredom mix all kinds of reactions are set off. It can produce the greatest artists, the most fervent and righteous political movements (as in the case of the ANC who after all were the political wing of the terrorist/freedom-fighting group Umkhonto we Sizwe) and also murderous parasites like Tsotsi. “Let’s take one on the trains” goes their simple pronouncement of a death sentence on a stranger who has no knowledge that this day will be his last. Good men die quickly, horrendously and unlamented in this world. Men go out to find work and never come back and those loved ones waiting never find out why or how. Virtue is a weakness that will get you killed quicker than anything else. “Food first, morals later” as Brecht once wrote. The book is fuelled by a sense of increasing menace in the face of societal inertia, the tension ratcheting up with each chapter; when a woman is left with the group hopelessly drunk, when they share tales of how they killed a prison guard or of “the white woman whom he caught alone in the house.”
There are no easy answers here. No trite explanations or utopian solutions. No dialectic remedy or sociological excuse. Tsotsi and his kind prey on their own people, on themselves. The class war for them only runs downwards. Fugard’s book is true to life, remarkably so, and thus is as messy as life. And it goes beyond politics into a deeper exploration of the soul, a study of the human condition. And that’s precisely what Tsotsi is. It should be ranked alongside Camus’ The Stranger and The Fall, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground and Sartre’s Nausea as a supreme existentialist classic, “in the cruel confinements of their lives they had grown awry. The very effort of living was a pain… it was true of all life. The only trees in the township, those around the cemetery, had expressed it in their stunted growth, drawing out the full meaning in their misshapen silhouettes seen against the windy sky. It amounted to the basic horror of existence.”
For a story that could in lesser hands be just gangland pulp, Fugard possesses remarkable storytelling skill, his writing being epic yet intensely personal and emotive. It’s immediately clear he has a striking way with words, “That is why in his passing down the crooked street, men looked the other way and women wept into the dust.” At times he has an unusual (for Western writing anyway) proclamatory style which brings to mind the stirring sloganeering of the Russian poet Mayakovsky, “he hurried to the platform and waited there. See! He was still alive!” Fugard’s writing is poetic but incredibly lean, using the simplest vocabulary range to bestow a near-biblical grandeur and universality to his passages; “mothers calling their children off the streets where shadows were running like rats after the four pipers…” “these are the first workers and in the cold, steaming morning, breathing their ghosts, they walk away into the city.”
Fugard is also gifted in his handling of the internal dialogue of his characters, the knots of thought, the dilemnas and half-known intentions of the characters, none of it indulgent or excessive. It’s one of the keys to his success; the brevity of what he does where lesser writers rabble on and spoil the illusion. We watch them write, with Fugard we watch him inhabit the characters seemlessly and completely. In the dark skewed logic, thoughts barely understood by their thinkers, we find ourselves. And by sheer accident of birth, we have been fortunately spared what Fugard’s characters must endure. What the writer has, aside from the power to move and to stun, is charisma. You warm to a man who could not only write so masterfully, with a freshness that the largely lugubrious mainstream fiction in these isles sorely lack but also so open-heartedly.
For all the horror and resignation of the book, something changes. We could even say there was a journey of sorts were that word not sullied by the Oprah-Bookclub/Booker Prize-winning tomes we’ve grown to know and loathe. Tsotsi is a bad man, a villain but no-one thinks of themselves as such, people always think they are right, a revelation in itself. That is a start. Cracks in the gang begin to appear when one of them vomits after a killing. Feeling, the thing they dread most, is seeping through. Decency detonates within the group. Decency: “that’s why I got sick!” Decency is a sickness to be purged with fists and boots, decency is a weak spot, a lame limb you drag around. It is your death sentence, “I had a little bit of it so i was sick and that big bastard had a lot so he’s dead.”
Tsotsi gradually encounters a past he’s locked away and the facade of amorality, nihilism even, that he’s built, as much an armour as a weapon, begins to crumble; a conversation and a fight, a chance meeting with someone he used to know and finally the contents of a box from a woman he tries to rape, placed in his hands by God, providence or simple desperation. Mirroring the butterfly effect that doomed their earlier victim, Tsotsi’s experiences start him on the path to regaining memory, that maddening thing that makes us human. Few are too far gone for redemption, to come back across the boundary but even if they do make it back, there’s no guarantee any rewards or clemency awaits, there are no guarantees of happy endings and Fugard is acutely aware of this. The making of a man can be his undoing at the same time. This is no happy-clappy Shawshank Redemption-type melodrama. It has teeth. Change here is painful, knowledge (“the truth of the matter was not his feelings, but the other man’s”) comes at a harrowing expense; “very sharply, and with more pain than he had ever felt before in his life, light stabbed his darkness and he remembered.” Redeemed or guilty, the world barely cares. Haunting are the words that follow Tsotsi, ”you’ll feel something one day…one day it’s going to happen. And god help you that day, because when it comes you wont know what to do.”
Tsotsi is a fiercely compassionate book, not in a lily-livered liberal way but in a way that dares to explore the mind of the damned. You come away with the characters branded vivid in your memory; Boston the troubled awakener of conscience, Soekie who writes letters to the rich family who abandoned her hoping to simply find out when her birthday is, MaRhabaste “the big soul” of the township “statuesque… on the lorry” that came to take her, Morris Tshabalala dragging what was left of his body after the mining accident through the streets. And of course the dread figure of Tsotsi. That you manage to feel so much for such a character is a mark of the skills and humanity of the writer. Political without being didactic, moving without being sappy, understanding in the only raw sense that is possible. It’s a beautiful devastating book that deserves to be widely read and one that came close perilously to never seeing the light of day.
What stays in the mind too is the question of what happened to the Tsotsis, the other ones, the real ones out there? Did they settle down? Renounce their ways and join the struggle? Did they die in prison? Did they drink themselves to death, contract Aids or be carved up in some alleyway by some younger leaner tribe? Or are they still out there confounding the fraudulent happy ever after of the end of history? The roar that gives a lie to everything the powerful would have you believe.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 22nd, 2010.