21 June 2021

American culture through South African eyes

Cion (Toloki #2)

Cion by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book of Zakes Mda that I read was Ways of Dying, featuring Toloki, who decides to be a professional mourner, and appears again as the protagonist in this book. But I read it 20 years ago, so I can't remember much of it, and perhaps I need to read it again to understand this one.

In Cion Toloki has achieved some success in his career as a professional mourner in Johannesburg and is touring the world to study professional mourners in various cultures. He does this at the instigation of the mysterious sciolist, who I cannot remember from the first book at all. 

St Chad's College, Durham
I would like to know more, because the first place the sciolist sent Toloki to was Durham in England -- more specifically to Durham Cathedral, to the tombs of St Cuthbert and St Bede. And the sciolist himself appears to be connected with St Chad's College, just over the road from the cathedral. I am particularly interested in that because I spent two years studying at St Chad's College, one of them in a room with a view of the chapel of Nine Altars at the Cathedral, and the other with a view looking the opposite way over the River Wear and Kingsgate Bridge, and the People's Gin Palace, officially known as Dunelm House, now threatened with demolition after 60 years, whereas the cathedral has stood for about 900, all of which can be seen in the picture (taken from the tower of Durham Cathedral). So I really would like to know more about the sciolist.

In this book, however, Toloki spends only a short time in Durham, apparently as a tourist, but stays for more than a year in the small hamlet of Kilvert in south-eastern Ohio, where he spends much of the time with the Quigley family, Mahlon and Ruth, and their grown-up children Obed and Orpah. And the rest of the book is about a South African's attempts to make sense of the contradictions of American culture as shown in the microcosm of one family.

There are excursions into the family's past where some ancestors had been slaves in neighbouring Virginia, and it tells the story of the escape of two of them across the Ohio River, which is the River Jordan in the mythology of the slaves. And perhaps by some strange coincidence I had recently read and reviewed Seven Days to Freedom by John Davies. who has quite a bit to say about the symbolism of the River Jordan and the Ohio River in relation to slavery and freedom.
The message of the Bible has been transmitted across the centuries, and its symbols carry a rich cargo of meaning. It tells us that there is a ‘Red Sea’ for us to cross out of our present condition, and a ‘Jordan’ for us to cross into a new world. ‘Jordan’ remains still a boundary in the Middle East – a physical, social, and political symbol of the most intransigent of the world’s troubles. But also, ‘Jordan’ is, for many of us, the boundary which we look forward to crossing when we die. But also again, the original singers of songs like ‘Deep River, my home is over Jordan’, were slaves in the southern states of the USA, yearning for an escaperoute. For them ‘Jordan’ was the Ohio, the boundary between the southern slave-owning states and the free.

Reading Zakes Mda's book so soon after reading that made both seem more real. Part of the mythology of the slaves, and their descendants, involves the making of quilts, which, according to family legend tell the story of escaping from slavery.

In Ohio, the family ends up being a representative mix of most of the ethnic groups that make up the USA -- Shawnee, Cherokee, slaves of African descent, Irish and various "Caucasians", described by Toloki with a wry sense of humour, yet he grows to love them for all their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and they grow to love him with all his.

This is not my favourite book by Zakes Mda, perhaps because the cultural setting is so unfamiliar to me. I have spent only two weeks in the USA, and saw only a small part of it. Mda has spent much longer, and presumabably knows it better. What I do know, however, is that his books set in southern Africa, where he grew up, books like The Madonna of Excelsior and Black Diamond tell the truth about South Africa. They tell it like it is, and was. And so I suspect that his observations on American culture and American history in this book are spot on too, and that what he writes about slavery and slave life are substantially accurate.

Much of the book is written in the present tense, which I found a little strange, and I'd be interested in reading the reactions of Americans to this book, especially those who live, or have lived, in Ohio and Virginia.

On a more personal note, which doesn't really belong in the GoodReads review, is that I compared the experience of Toloki in a strange culture with my own, and with a chapter of a book I have been editing. 

The book chapter is about the reverse -- people of African descent in the New World who emigrated to Africa, mainly to places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, and whose attitudes to the local African people tended to be very similar to that of European settlers in Africa. 

When I went to England to study, I left in haste, because a security policeman wanted to give me a banning order which would have prevented my going overseas to study. With 8 months to wait before the term at St Chad's College started, I worked as a bus driver in London, and lodged with a landlady from Sierra Leone for seven months. But unlike Toloki, I was rather shy and retiring, and only really spoke to the landlady, Mrs Williams, when I paid the rent each week. Even after seeing them in church one Sunday, at St Leonard's Church in Streatham, I didn't speak to them much. I was too shy even to ask how the hot water system in the bathroom worked. Only towards the end of my stay did I begin to have actual conversations with the daughter, who was finishing high school and planning to go to university, and we talked about subjects we studied and things like that. 

So reading about Toloki made me think that I had missed really getting to know the family I was staying with, and the only real human contact I had was when I crossed London to visit other people I had known in South Africa. Toloki's relationship with the family he stayed with had its ups and downs, but in the end it seems that on balance both he and they benefited.

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