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Book Review

Links to a Boy Maturing in South Africa

June 06, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Fools and Other Stories by Njabulo Ndebele (Readers International: $14.95)

Intricate and subtle, these five long stories set in Charterston Location, Nigel, are an extraordinary example of Western literary techniques skillfully applied to African experience. The author, who spent his childhood in one of the "native townships" ringing Johannesburg and later moved to Nigel, earned his master's degree at Cambridge and his doctorate from the University of Denver. He has taught African, Afro-American and English literature at the University of Lesotho and at Yale, a background lending his fiction unusual depth of field.

Though his publisher specializes in literature from Third World nations and Eastern Europe, emphasizing books written by exiles or censored in their countries of origin, "Fools" does not seem to fall into either of these sad categories. The collection has not only appeared in a South African literary magazine devoted to the work of black writers but in 1984 was given Africa's most prestigious literary prize, the NOMA award.

Craving Callouses

"The Test" is an engaging version of a young boy's first significant gesture of autonomy. Thoba is a middle-class child, the son of a nurse and a schoolteacher, intensely aware of the economic differences separating him from his less-fortunate schoolmates. Remembering the three pairs of shoes in his closet, he yearns to have cracked, calloused feet like the older, tougher boys who grudgingly allow him to join their soccer games. Cracked feet would make him truly part of the brotherhood. Though Thoba envies Mpiyakhe, who donates his shoes to be used as goal posts, so far Thoba has only dared to play barefoot when his parents are away at work. Brief and basic, this digression about shoes dramatically defines the social organization of the community and the child's place within it.

When a sudden storm interrupts the soccer game, the other boys gleefully strip off their shirts and continue to play. Thoba's mother has repeatedly warned him to run home at the first sign of rain, saying "I will not nurse a child who has said to illness, 'Come on, friend, let's hold hands and dance,' " but this time he finds the courage to defy her by pulling off his shirt, an act meant to distinguish him once and for all from Mpiyakhe, the taxi driver's son and an outsider like himself.

The two boys are locked into an involuntary partnership of privilege--bullied by the others because of their houses, clothes and sandwich lunches. After a long and frightening race through the downpour, drenched and shivering, Thoba falls into his bed. "No, he wouldn't make the fire. Let his mother do whatever she liked with him"; a contemporary version of a tribal rite of passage.

Clashes of Culture

In equally positive ways, the other stories confront culture clashes in modern Africa. Though "the boy" in "The Prophetess" is unnamed, he seems to be Thoba, the nurse's son, sent to the house of a native medicine woman for a bottle of blessed water, an errand the nurse is reluctant to do for herself. On the way home, he is again taunted by older boys and, in escaping from them, collides with a man on a bicycle and breaks the water bottle. Unwilling to face his mother's disappointment and anger, he finds a cast-off bottle in the yard, fills it from the street tap and hands it to his mother, who is telling her friends, " 'Take it from me, a trained nurse: Pills, medicines and all those injections are not enough. I take herbs too, and then think of the wonders of the universe as our people have always done.' . . . As the boy slowly went out of the bedroom, he felt the pain in his leg and felt grateful. He had healed his mother." In the process, he has taken a giant step away from superstition.

By the end of the third story, "Uncle," Thoba's mother has been widowed and her worldly younger brother is visiting. He's a trumpet player; a self-made scholar and philosopher, eager to impress his nephew with the radical notions he's acquired during his travels. The boy is awed and fascinated; the uncle seems invincible until one Sunday in church when a swarm of bees disturbs the service. The deacon and warders catch the village boy who upset the hive, kicking him brutally as the churchgoers watch. " 'Do something,' Mother says to Uncle. I can see Uncle is not sure what to do." The boy and his mother escape in a taxi; the uncle is left behind.

"You should have done something for that poor boy," the mother says later, but the uncle's answer is " 'There are too many problems in the world,' . . . and as he talks he does not look at Mother who has accused him; he looks at me who has not accused him. 'One has to choose which ones it would be useful to be involved in,' " the uncle says.

The boy learns an adult lesson, and still another direct connection has been made between growing up in Africa and growing up anywhere else. "Fools" unobtrusively forges these links as it beguiles the reader with the freshness of its imagery.

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