If it's hard to know exactly how much irony to read into the first sentence of South African writer Zakes Mda's latest novel -- "All these things flow from the sins of our mothers," he begins -- it's only because by the time 100 pages have gone by, Mda has so gloriously complicated the whole notion of sin, weaving it inextricably into a big messy tangle of race and religion, repression and exploitation, that he is able to locate desire in its rightful place at the center of history, that all-too-human affair.
In both of his earlier novels, Mda, also the author of many plays, explored the overlapping perimeters of hope and despair in a South Africa in transition, mixing an almost journalistic attention to political detail with a leisurely narrative style owing at least as much to African oral traditions as to Dickens and Balzac. His gorgeous and haunting first book, "Ways of Dying," brought a lovingly folksy tone to the thoroughly postmodern horrors of township violence in the early '90s, his main character a self-anointed "professional mourner" in the years when, "with funerals taking place daily, the mortuaries are bursting at the seams, and the cemeteries are always jam-packed." "The Heart of Redness," a parable of the legacy of colonialism and its contemporary offspring, global capitalism, takes place a few years later, "in these days when peace has returned to the land and there is enough happiness to go around." There's a bit of a wink in those words, but it's a relatively jolly one.
If the shadow of apartheid looms large over his earlier books, "The Madonna of Excelsior" is the first of Mda's novels to be set (partially, at least) when that system was in place. It tells the tale of an outbreak of interracial carnality -- "A free-for-all. Open season. A feast of miscegenation" -- that briefly shook South Africa when -- after all the mixed-race babies became too numerous to ignore -- a group of Afrikaner men and black women were tried in 1971 for violating the apartheid-era Immorality Act in a provincial corner of Orange Free State.
Mda takes the bold strategy of pulling on the slippery string of sexual desire to unravel the knot of apartheid-era race relations. Despite his opening sentence, Mda begins every chapter, like any good jurist, with the presumption of innocence. Each chapter starts with a description of a painting by the real-world artist Father Frans Claerhout depicting a vital sensuality of color and light, yet untinged by grasping and cruelty: "Colour explodes. Green, yellow, red and blue. Sleepy-eyed women are walking among sunflowers. Naked women are chasing white doves among sunflowers. True atonement of rhythm and line." Mda's characters emerge from these bright canvases into a spiritually dimmer world. Young Niki, proud and beautiful, is raped by an Afrikaner farmer ("He just lay there like a plastic bag of decaying tripe on top of her") before marrying a man she loves. But her husband goes away to mine the "white man's gold" and comes back drained and mean, and less and less often as time goes by.
Niki's own work is little kinder. The wife of her boss at the village butcher shop humiliates her, so Niki avenges herself by bedding the boss, eventually joining the rest of the town's most prominent white men and their black maids in cherry liqueur-fueled orgies in a barn cleared of cattle for the occasion. But Niki gets pregnant, and so do the other women, and the authorities' curiosities are aroused by a sudden host of mixed-race infants. Seven men are arrested, and 14 women. Niki's lover shoots himself, and the town's Calvinist minister attempts suicide, blaming it all on the devil, who "made the Afrikaner to covertly covet the black woman while publicly detesting her."
Fearing arrest, Niki tries desperately to brown her insufficiently pigmented daughter, Popi, over a brazier but succeeds only at charring her a bit, leaving her with highly symbolic scars that never fade. Niki is arrested with the others, and it's not long before the international press catches wind of the case. The resulting scandal, Mda writes, "rocked the Afrikaner nation to its foundations." When it all gets too potentially destabilizing, the governing party has the charges summarily dismissed, and Niki is released, impoverished, unemployable and embittered, unaware "that a whole government was under threat because of her body parts. That a whole nation was shaken to its foundations by her orgiastic moans."