Ezekiel Mphahlele

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Ezekiel Mphahlele 1919–

(Also writes as Es'kia Mphahlele and under pseudonym of Bruno Eseki) Black South African novelist, autobiographer, essayist, short story writer, editor, and poet.

Mphahlele is a major African author and a provocative critic. Both his writing and his life have been marked by the alienation and pain he felt as a citizen within his own country and the anguish he experienced in his self-imposed twenty-year exile. Mphahlele was born on a reserve and raised in an urban ghetto but managed to receive a higher education. He began his exile after his teaching was banned due to his opposition to apartheid.

Although his autobiographical novel, The Wanderers, describes the plight of exile, most of his writing is set in South Africa. Down Second Avenue, another fictional autobiography, is highly praised for its compassionate and realistic treatment of urban ghetto life, also the subject of his short stories. Many of these first appeared in Drum, a South African magazine for black readers, which Mphahlele helped edit.

Mphahlele's critical writings form an important part of his work. The African Image traces the portrayals of blacks in literature and discusses the cultural problems inherent in societies based on racial oppression. In Voices in the Whirlwind Mphahlele reaffirms his humanistic commitment to the for mation of an indigenous literature based on Western aesthetics. He explains that his wariness of Negritude derives from his belief that cultural isolation would deprive the African of realizing his individuality within a world heritage.

Unable to forget his African roots, Mphahlele returned to South Africa in 1978, even though his works continue to be banned.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

The Times Literary Supplement

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Mr. Mphahlele is the most interesting writer to emerge from South Africa for some time. It is not that he possesses a high degree of technical accomplishment; the essays collected … [in The African Image] are loosely woven and the longest and most ambitious of them bears too many marks of its origin as a postgraduate thesis. What he does possess, to an extent unusual at the best of times and especially perhaps among exiles, is a capacity for combining passion with scrutiny….

[For] all his anger he refuses to fall into fashionable African attitudes. He reveres Monsieur Senghor but pays no homage to négritude; he is carried away by President Nkrumah's oratory but remains sceptical about the African personality; he is a nationalist if nationalism means anti-tribalism, whether the tribe be black or white, but not if it means black fascism or chauvinism. He is against the ghetto, whatever the colour of the persons consigned to it, and for free communications and the interaction of cultures; and he is for and against these things equally passionately whether he is confronted by class distinctions in London, tribal distinctions in Ibadan or racial distinctions in Johannesburg.

It is this theme which pulls the various essays of The African Image together.

"Passionate Scrutiny," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3139, April 27, 1962, p. 279.

James R. Frakes

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If anger, first-hand experience, outrage, compassion, and topicality were the sole requirements for great literature, The Wanderers might well be one of the masterpieces of this declining part of the twentieth century. Ezekiel Mphahlele has been there and knows and cares. He is in charge of his emotions and convictions, and ofay doubters can step aside….

But passionate involvement is simply not enough in itself, at least for fiction. What is sadly missing here is firm narrative line, convincing and full development of character, structural control. The reader wants very much to be swept along by the...

(This entire section contains 269 words.)

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sheer urgency of subject and theme, to care deeply about teacher-journalist Timi Tabane and his family and friends, to read for more than information about what is still an exotic country to most Americans. And there is a lot to admire here: harrowing scenes of farm prison-labor in South Africa; hard discussions and dramatizations of "the creed of power," tribalism vs. nationalism, the plight of the liberal, the enigma of the Indian in Africa, caste and class, the inexorable influence of politics on every social and human relationship, withering cultural roots, mob fickleness….

[However], Mphahlele introduces too many characters, both native and white, most of whom remain cartoon-ghosts, names without substance, largely indistinguishable. There must be at least twenty different dialects, most of them mystifying….

What works best is the strange smoky atmosphere that permeates the prose, creating an almost kinetic effect of choking, gasping bewilderment.

James R. Frakes, "In South Africa," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), April 11, 1971, p. 2.


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Because Mphahlele has established himself as a major African literary critic, cultural commentator, and short story writer, we awaited his first published novel with hopeful expectations. But we were somewhat disappointed [with The Wanderers].

Although Timi Tabane, the black exile and first person narrator, tells us, near the beginning of the novel, how his life and that of Steven Cartwright, the white South African exile, are "twined around each other", and although Mphahlele uses Steve as a first person narrator for some fifty pages, the story is primarily concerned with Timi's life as a reporter in South Africa and with his years in exile in Nigeria and Kenya. The shifts in narrator, using Timi, Steve, and an omniscient third person, seem contrived to show different points of view that might be expected to lead to a more complete picture of the exile's life. But they fail to do so.

The reader who has some knowledge of Mphal lele's life cannot avoid seeing the novel as largely autobiographical…. [We] feel certain, early in the work, that Mphahlele must have something to tell us of the life of the exile. And he does, but it is somehow not enough. We are kept waiting for something to happen in the story. We have the vivid sketches of life for the black man in the South African ghetto of Jericho township (which remind us much of Mphahlele's autobiography, Down Second Avenue); we have the episode concerning the reporter's mission to photograph the Goshen potato farm and investigate the fate of one of the prisoners sentenced to work there "for not being in possession of identity passbooks"; we read of and understand the situation which causes the central characters to leave South Africa; we feel with them the insecurity and rootlessness of the exile; we have portraits of other characters who live under conditions of apartheid in Johannesburg and social unacceptance or ostracism in Nigeria and Kenya. But the action and plot of the story still leave us wanting. (p. 41)

In Jamesian terms, Timi is not "interesting". But the life around him is. The book is certainly worth reading for the reportorial view it gives of life as an exile. It is also worth reading for Timi's philosophical discussions and Mphahlele's short digressions somewhat thinly disguised as Timi's musings on his condition. They remind us of Mphahlele's The African Image; here again we see the critical humanist, but in the character of Timi Tabane. Also, many of the episodes could stand by themselves as good short stories. (pp. 41-2)

The Wanderers is a curious mixture of a picture of life continually interesting, if appalling, to the westerner combined with an obvious failure to maintain a narrative to a point where we would unqualifyingly call it a novel. (p. 42)

Barney C. McCartney, "Book Reviews: 'The Wanderers'," in East Africa Journal (© East African Cultural Trust), Vol. VIII, No. 7, July, 1971, pp. 41-2.

Saunders Redding

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Reading Down Second Avenue and The Wanderers, one finds it easy to understand why the author, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and his books are banned in his native South Africa. Down Second Avenue is autobiography which covers Mphahlele's life down to his flight into exile in 1957….

From the pen of another, less talented, less sensitive writer, Down Second Avenue could easily have become a sociological analysis of apartheid and/or a psychological explication of the effects of this "political" system upon its victims, black, white, colored and Indian. It is neither. One is made sharply aware of the operating sociological and psychological phenomena, not by the explication of them, but by the development of real life situations and especially by the presentation of striking real life characters…. (p. 78)

But it is impossible to do critical justice to a book that, while it meets the universally recognized literary canons, is at the same time meant primarily to serve a social function…. No work out of Africa since Tell Freedom by Peter Abrahams, which was published in 1954, has said so clearly that life for all people in South Africa is lived under social circumstances and in a spiritual temper so degrading as to destroy the hopes even of those who have been taught to believe—and do believe—that their salvation lies in the perpetuation of the "political" system called apartheid. This is the unstated thesis and the unspoken preachment: the world must save South Africa in spite of itself. Perception of this comes through the superb artistry of Mphahlele's storytelling, and the story itself, personal as it is, affirms man's common humanity and bridges the gap between one culture and another.

Though The Wanderers is presented as a work of fiction, the reader coming to it directly from Down Second Avenue suspects that many of the experiences it relates were the author's own…. But the similarity, which, anyway, is more apparent than real, does not erode the interest that the first page of The Wanderers arouses. Indeed, the interest grows and grows, though not because of the central story line, which works itself out in simple and dramatically logical ways.

The Wanderers takes its title from a group of rootless people, black and white, who, alienated by the social realities of South Africa, are forced into exile…. They seek more than refuge; they seek life—in Nigeria, in Kenya, in Tanzania. Recounting the wanderings of his characters provides an opportunity for the author to explore the milieu of these African countries, and what, among other things, you get is a panoramic view of almost the whole of the "dark continent."

If this makes it sound as if The Wanderers is some sort of travelogue, forget it. It is a carefully constructed work of fiction that brilliantly and imaginatively dramatizes man's irremediable alienation from the family of man and incidentally supplies insights into political, social and economic problems to which Africa is presently seeking solutions.

Ezekiel Mphahlele is one of a half dozen living South African writers, including Nadine Gordimer, Peter Abrahams, Bloke Modisane and Alan Paton, the value of whose work is vouched for by its rejection at home. (pp. 78-9)

Saunders Redding, "Out from Second Avenue," in Africa Today (© Africa Today Associates; reprinted by permission of Africa Today, Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208), Vol. 18, No. 4, October, 1971, pp. 78-9.

The Times Literary Supplement

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[Ezekiel Mphahlele] writes a clear and serviceable, if unexciting—and sometimes too baldly didactic—prose, has a zest and a fair talent for the creation of a wide variety of characters from all races, and an occasional flair for narrative suspense which gives his story pace. Yet [The Wanderers], if always authentic and well-meant, remains too ordinary to make much that is new out of his range of bitter, touching or ironical experiences.

It gets off to a good enough start…. But two-thirds of this long novel of repression, discontent and wandering seem diffuse in their sheer documentary attention to political and racial situations. The Wanderers is too skilled and varied to be any kind of manifesto, but the novel interest—plot and character, insight into inward experience—loses the contest with the author's desire to render African realities with the very fidelity in which he excels.

"African Exile," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3654, March 10, 1972, p. 265.

Emine Snyder

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Mphahlele's life has been constantly uprooted, a constant wandering over the earth as the partly autobiographic novel, The Wanderers, attests….

For Mphahlele, the recalled nightmare of his early adult years in South Africa is synthesized in the image of the South African land scarred with terror…. (p. 260)

This image of South Africa becomes for the wanderer of the novel the symbol of his own interior landscape of desolation. The fate of a people is once more internalized in the drama of a single consciousness, that of Timi, the journalist-writer forced to exile himself from South Africa and to live an uprooted life in West Africa and East Africa. The historical conflict between traditional and modern society, between permanence and exile, are catalytic agents to the private conflict between Timi and his equally uprooted son Felang. Thus Mphahlele's The Wanderers is not only a powerful evocation of human imposition—the bestiality of the Apartheid system—but a study of the ensuing human alienation lived at a more private level, in the everyday life of one of its victims. Timi's problem is the possibility—or perhaps impossibility—of the transmutation of moral values in a world grown indifferent to all moral values. He is trying, he reflects, "to understand the forces I feel inside me, the relevance of the teaching of my forebears and of the reverence I have for them." But the very situation of exile transposes geography into ethics and metaphysics; for it is the human land, the human heaven, the final purification for modern man (as in Soyinka, Armah, and Awoonor) which Timi and Mphahlele seek. (pp. 260-61)

Emine Snyder, "New Directions in African Writings," in Pan-African Journal (copyright © 1972 Pan-African Institute, Inc.), Vol. V, No. 2, Summer, 1972, pp. 253-61.∗

Addison Gayle, Jr.

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[The series of essays included in Voices in the Whirlwind] were written over a period of years. As a result, the statements concerning the Black Aesthetic, the Negritude and Pan-Africanist movements, the possibilities of detente between Black and white, and the possibilities of freedom under the Western Aesthetic, now appear to be outdated. However, when [Mphahlele] writes of the African situation, when he draws upon his own experiences while analyzing poets and novelists, when he throws over them his own personal—and he will not like the word—angst, he is most solid. He reveals here the spiritual anguish of a Black man who is both captive and admirer of Western culture. (p. 41)

This dualism leads Mphahlele to search for a synthesis, to attempt to bridge the gap between the old cultures and traditions of pre-urban Africa and the new cultures and traditions which result from urbanization. The bridge between the two is the culture of the West…. (p. 42)

What is there about Western culture which makes Black men forget those many thousands gone, the rape of Africa by major Western powers, the atrocities committed during the voyage through the Middle Passage, the holocaust undergone daily by Blacks in America and abroad, if not the mistaken idea that the West is, truly, the romanticized Canaan depicted in the verse of its poets: the birthplace of humanism, where men are concerned not with the parochial, but with the universal, not with man, but with mankind, and that this Eden, this mini-paradise offers man's only hope for liberty and freedom? To accept this thesis is, of course, to turn from one's own prophets, to deny one's own truth, to forget the admonition of Franz Fanon: "Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience."

And thus Mphahlele's dilemma: the woman is beautiful, stately, desirable; she is also diseased. Does one court her, hoping for immunity from the disease, or does he search elsewhere for satisfaction? (pp. 42-3)

For Mphahlele is, after all, a Black man…. Wherever he goes in the West, he will be an outsider, an alien, never able to sing the songs of his fathers in any of its strange lands. The freedom he seeks from literary and racial restrictions are no more available to him outside South Africa than within. For what, after all, does freedom mean for the writer? It is not, as Mphalele seems to suggest, some metaphysical thing outside of any reference except the determination of one man to recognize the humanity of another. Instead, it is a shared experience, which, unless it be the experience of all men, is the experience of no man. And in a world where some Black men remain in bondage, freedom for the writer, as I have written elsewhere, is based upon an absurdity.

But Mphahele understands all of this. He recognizes the danger inherent in the "élitism" of Negritude and its companion movement, Pan-Africanism. The problem is that he deems these movements more capable of mind-enslavement than those of the West…. (p. 43)

Despite our own reservations about some aspects of the Negritude movement, we must not allow Mphahlele, like the overzealous prosecutor, to stack his case against the absent defendant. (p. 44)

[Predictably] Mphahlele demands of the Black Aesthetician a Hammurabi Code of literary conduct. Tell me, he asks of them, what you would reject in the Western Aesthetic. There are seven items which he wishes answers to, ranging from the question of "form and structure" to that which embodies "the enriching of the reader's emotional experience out of the metaphorical or symbolic presentation of fact…." The questions are challenging and demand attention. However, at this point in time, they obscure the real issue: is there a necessity for a Black Aesthetic, and, if so, what is the major demarcation line between its literary emphasis and that of the Western Aesthetic?

To answer this question means to drive to the heart of Mphahlele's spiritual dilemma, for the answer which we give cannot comfort either him or those who seek a synthesis between the Western and the Black Aesthetics. We will not acquiesce in his attempt to render the Black Aesthetic Movement little more than the stepchild of the West…. (pp. 45-6)

For here is the problem in microcosm: The Western Aesthetic has created a system in which Blacks have either been left out or rigidly circumscribed. (p. 46)

[Finally], after long centuries of doubt and questioning, we have arrived at what we believe to be the great truth: that one cannot separate Zola from Napoleon, Goëthe from Adolph Hitler, Tolstoy from Joseph Stalin, or Henry David Thoreau from Richard Nixon; that we cannot dissociate the beauty of the Chartres Cathedral from the holocaust of the Middle Passage…. Look into the Western Aesthetic, if one will, for symbols and images of beauty and grandeur; search as one will for proclamations about the freedom and nobility of man. We, however, prefer to look elsewhere, and to pride ourselves that, as Imamu Baraka notes, we are not nationalists or Black Aestheticians because of the devil; we would be so if no devil existed.

We claim no moral superiority over Mphahlele. His spiritual quest in many respects is but a duplication of our own. He does not reject the concept of a Black Aesthetic, although he raises serious questions concerning it. He does, however, leave the major thesis untouched. The Black Aesthetic movement is the first literary movement in history dedicated to constructing images and metaphors which are meant to free men, rather than to enslave them; to elevate rather than to subjugate them. (p. 47)

I have read Voices in the Whirlwind twice; I will read it again. This, in addition to the fact that I have spent as much time arguing with Mphahlele as I have in evaluating his book, indicates something, I suppose, of how interesting and moving a document it is…. [But] the problems which face mankind are not to be solved by the Europeans, old or new; and the Black writer, if he is to begin the arduous task of creating a just and humane world, must step outside of the cultural history of the West, move away from literary and critical theories which enslave instead of liberate.

I believe this to mean nothing more than that I exercise the right to formulate my own truth—a truth which is in no way binding upon Mphahlele. For, in the final analysis, he has done his job well: he has written a moving critical document and asked the important questions; he has added to the storehouse of information which increases understanding. He has forced us to look anew at Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and America; at Afro-Americans, Pan-Africanists and the proponents of Negritude and the Black Aesthetic. One senses from his book that he is both an honest writer and a good man. For one who has been so long involved with the West, this is a remarkable achievement. (pp. 47-8)

Addison Gayle, Jr., "Under Western Eyes" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1973 Addison Gayle in Black World, Vol. XXII, No. 9, July, 1973, pp. 40-8.

Rhonda Jones

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Chinua Achebe and Ezekiel Mphahlele in various publications have addressed themselves to questions regarding the role of the African writer and his art. They view art as a craft that is responsible to African society, and as artists, regard themselves accountable to their societies. But there is often a contradiction between what they stated in articles, interviews, etc. … and what their early literatures actually express. It seems, that having realized this they are now working hard towards making their literatures committed to their society. (p. 119)

Unlike Achebe who adapts certain western aesthetics to an African context, Ezekiel Mphahlele uses it as a reference point in discussing his art. To him art is a craft and a vehicle for social criticism. Throughout his development as a critic and writer, he has demonstrated a reliance on western aesthetics. The chapter entitled, "White on Black", the subject of his B.A thesis at the University of South Africa and which appears in The African Image …, reflects his feelings about art as expressing the paradoxes and complexities of life-concepts that have their roots in western aesthetics…. In "White on Black" he selects Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster and William Faulkner as the three major white novelists who achieve a competency in depicting cultural groups other than their own. Mphahlele selects these authors primarily because they are able to go beyond the race problem in depicting human character, and into the more subtle aspects of human existence. There is no doubt that he identifies with literature that attempts to depict the complexities of life.

Prior to the publication of his work entitled Voices in the Whirlwind,… Mphahlele asks, "Why should la litterature engagée be so spoiled as to want to be judged by different standards from those which have been tested by tradition?"… In "Voices in the Whirlwind" Mphahlele addresses two literary audiences: those individuals from the western literary tradition, and those Black Americans who are attempting to define a new aesthetic, stressing that there is a standard of literary ideas and concepts, whose roots are in western culture, but which could take on another dimension when used by other cultural groups. Agreeing with the architects of western literary tradition that poetry has moral overtones and that the language of poetry is memorable, he concludes that the poetry of conflict by Black American poets expresses a deep-felt emotion…. Mphahlele infers that the uniquely black character that Black American literature is trying to assert may not be so unique…. Mphahlele then warns against the danger of "finding ourselves" having out of sheer crusading zeal, dismissed elements of Western aesthetics that are either built in our new modes of expression or have already been criticized by western critics. (pp. 121-22)

His attitude that literature is a criticism of life has much to do with his experiences in South Africa where the economic, political and social conditions of Blacks demands a response from black South African writers. Consequently his autobiographical novel, Down Second Avenue … "the autobiography of most Africans" criticizes and responds to the quality of life in South Africa. Employing a remarkably subtle yet alarming tone, Mphahlele is able to re-examine with seriousness and warmth past experiences from his life in South Africa. Chapters 1-2 present what life is like in the rural sector of the country. It is not only the poverty that arouses his memory, but the communal fellowship that he experienced with friends and family. Yet, in a scene around a fireplace, he is able to capture the disturbing realities that hover over this communal setting…. The following chapters describe what it is like to live in urban cities of South Africa. The references to poverty of black people in the townships carry a message and yet are well integrated into the framework of the story, thus increasing the impact. To illustrate the psychological damages that life in South Africa does to the black man, he describes one of his characters, Dinku Dikae as a man who trembles at the presence of the law but whose repressed fear ultimately surfaces leading to the murder of a policeman. Thus the quality of life under apartheid affects both blacks and whites.

Whereas Chinua Achebe and Ezekiel Mphahlele are very conservative and western oriented in their writings about the role of African writers and their art, their public pronouncements and their poems have gone the opposite direction, pointing the way their literary works hopefully would follow. (pp. 123-24)

For Mphahlele the language of poetry communicates on a personal as well as communal level…. His poem, "Death II" … demonstrates how art can serve a particular ethnic group within society. "Death II" asserts a positive image to the Black South African. It shows the growth of political consciousness of a young South African, beginning with him as a young boy looking at the statue of Paul Kruger. The statue, a symbol of the ruthless authority that came to South Africa and is now present in the country, instills fear in the youth…. As the poem progresses the history of the confrontation between Whites and Africans unfolds. The youth Masilo sees the illusion and the lies behind the history of the "master race" and recognizes the effects of the pillage and plunder of Kruger and his men….

The final scenes of the poem show the present condition of the young man who is imprisoned for retaliating against the South African government. What has preceded has been a dream of the different levels of political consciousness that led to the open vengeance. At death Masilo's convictions are strong and his spirit appeased. (p. 126)

The socio-political conditions in South Africa have also influenced Ezekiel Mphahlele's concept of himself as an artist. At the beginning of his writing career in 1941, he was interested in writing about people as people and not as political victims. It was not until he became a teacher and felt the political pressures that his writing took a new direction. He wrote a number of things in Drum Magazine about the ghetto people and the political pressures over them. From this point on he consistently viewed his role as that of a social critic of society. In the chapter entitled, "Black on Black", of the African Image he feels that the South African writer has a dual responsibility. The South African writer must act as a political man as well as practice his craft….

Mphahlele's article, "African Writers and Commitment" … which appears in Voices in the Whirlwind states his views on the committed artist. He feels that a writer can take a stand without using propaganda. He then follows this statement by, "Every writer is committed to something beyond his art, to a statement of values not purely aesthetic—to criticizing life."

Mphahlele also sees the paradox of the committed artist who chooses to write rather than physically become involved in the struggle in South Africa. He asks himself, how can the African artist who deals with paradox, irony, symbols, images, reconcile a play of words with the urgent problems of poverty and racism in his society. Mphahlele has come to terms with this dilemma. He feels that working with images and symbols can help him understand the interconnectedness of life's experiences. The artist rather performs a cultural act. Literary technique is not useless because of its subject matter. (p. 129)

Rhonda Jones, "Art and Social Responsibility: Two Paths to Commitment," in UFAHAMU (copyright 1976, Regents of the University of California), Vol. VI, No. 2, 1976, pp. 119-31.∗

Ursula A. Barnett

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[Man Must Live is] Mphahlele's first collection of short stories…. (p. 17)

Although the characters in the stories are not as yet realistic portraits of the earthy people among whom he lived, Man Must Live already sets the pattern for Mphahlele's future writing in its dependence on personal experience. It is tempting in all Mphahlele's writing to spot the corresponding incident or character in his life, but this can obviously serve no useful purpose except to demonstrate authenticity….

It is the mental, rather than the factual experience, however, that constitutes the material for his writing. "Whatever I write," he tells us, "will always be rooted in my boyhood experiences." These experiences, he says, helped to define his responses to life wherever he lived. This he calls the "tyranny of place," but a tyranny "that gives me the base to write, the very reason to write." (p. 19)

In these stories, as in his later fiction, Mphahlele often identifies with the chief characters and shares their thoughts and feelings. (p. 20)

Zungu, the hero of "Man Must Live," makes a cult of the philosophy of survival to replace the ethics more acceptable to the world around him: "Let men accuse, deride and ridicule you in your actions; let them complain that you don't respect or fear them; let them say you don't earn your living honestly; but they too, sooner or later, will come down to the hard, cold and indisputable fact that man must live." (p. 22)

Mphahlele's characters know, or come to realize, that they must survive, not physically or communally, but spiritually as individuals, by strictly adhering to a moral code. This code is not necessarily identical with the morals accepted by the community in which they live. Courage, for example, does not have to mean facing the common enemy, but rather maintaining the truth as you yourself see it. (p. 23)

In "Tomorrow You Shall Reap" and in "Unwritten Episodes" the theme of survival does not motivate the characters. Rather, there is the conventional moral of virtue rewarded. It seems likely that these stories were written earlier, and it would have been better to exclude them. "Unwritten Episodes" is at times embarrassingly mawkish, and the language is stilted and often incorrect. The plot, in which love conquers all, could appear in a true confession periodical….

There is little in this story, or in "Tomorrow You Shall Reap," that points to future creative ability. In the latter, Mphahlele does show some skill in conveying the feeling of simple love between a shy boy and a more sophisticated girl. The plot is even less convincing than that of "Unwritten Episodes," and far more melodramatic. (p. 25)

Mphahlele is … aware today of the amateurishness and sentimentality of the stories, but on the other hand he exaggerates in his mind the element of escapism. The protest, the struggle against oppressive external circumstances, is implied, even if the pressures have not as yet made him bitter. (p. 26)

Mphahlele's autobiography, Down Second Avenue, ends with his departure from South Africa. He wrote the first half in South Africa during 1956 and 1957 and completed it in Nigeria soon after he had settled there and begun to teach. In doing so, he was following a trend as well as making a notable contribution: autobiography became a popular form of expression among black South African writers during this time for several reasons. They needed to confirm a sense of identity, particularly those writers who had emerged from the slums and provided their own education. But they wrote the stories of their lives, and found publishers for them, chiefly because direct experience was far more exciting in content and characterization than anything they could invent. The outlets for short stories had practically all fallen away, and none of the writers felt that they had skill and experience sufficient for tackling a true novel. The Afro-American writers whom they admired, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and others, had all written about themselves. (p. 50)

[In Down Second Avenue Mphahlele is] surprisingly reticent about many aspects of his personal life. The love story of his youth with a girl named Rebone is one of the weakest chapters, for instance, and we never get close to his wife, Rebecca. The search for identity is the theme of the book, but the author as self obtrudes only in occasional deeply personal revelations. This reticence is due to an innate shyness and consequent aloofness, which often led to an inability to communicate verbally with those closest to him and set him apart as a lonely and often unhappy figure….

Yet, paradoxically, he succeeds in imparting the spirit of his experiences. The book was at first envisaged as a novel and is still sometimes regarded as such, in the same way as Camara Laye's The African Child and Herman Bosman's personal experiences in a South African prison, Cold Stone Jug, are catalogued under fiction. (p. 51)

Whether Down Second Avenue is strictly true in fact is of no importance. It is doubtless a true account in spirit of Mphahlele's life and that of the people around him. Even in his avowed fiction Mphahlele never compromises with the truth for the sake of dramatic effect or sentiment, as others are often tempted to do in their autobiographical writing. (p. 52)

What, then, is Down Second Avenue? We have examined its theme and its purpose. In contents it is a mixture of dramatic action, of sketches, of introspection and comments. It is typical of Mphahlele's writing other than his short stories, in that he refuses to adhere to an established category; yet there is a considerable amount of unity. The story takes us from his earliest memories as a boy of five in the country to his departure from South Africa….

It is the control and dramatization of his feelings, rather than the chronology of his life or the scheme to which the contents are loosely organized, that hold the book together. This he achieves without conscious effort. Action often becomes the vehicle of thought or emotional growth. Dramatization of bitter experiences helps him to keep the feeling of bitterness under control. (p. 53)

He is less successful when he cannot feel an incident as real, or identify with a situation emotionally. The tragic story of Dinku Dikae, who is terrified of policemen until the insults of one of them drives him to murder, seems beyond Mphahlele's powers. What should have been tragic climax to the love story of young Ezekiel and Dinku Dikae's daughter, Rebone, is recounted in retrospect and reads like a day-old newspaper story.

Most of the chapters start with a brief general description, followed by an incident which shows how his life is affected by the events or circumstances described. (p. 54)

Some of the incidents are written almost in the form of short stories, such as the chapter headed "Ma-Lebona" which became the short story "The Woman."…

Some of the stories or incidents are in a humorous vein. Most end tragically like the story of the sweet potato seller. Life is harsh, and it is here, on Second Avenue, that Mphahlele learns that man must live and make the best of his circumstances. (p. 55)

Once Mphahlele leaves Second Avenue, the work becomes more conventionally autobiographical. The interest for the reader now lies in his admiration for the achievements of the writer and for his political stand. There is no longer the spontaneity and aliveness of the earlier chapters. The narrative tends to ramble, and the ramifications of the political and the educational controversies are not sufficiently explained to make them clear from a distance in time and place. (pp. 57-8)

In the potpourri of theme and subject matter that is Down Second Avenue, one expects, and indeed finds, a variety of styles. When reliving periods of mental and spiritual conflicts and depression, the story seems to stagger and continue in small leaps. As bitterness becomes deeper and his despondency thickens, the writing becomes slower and laden, sometimes overladen, with imagery…. Yet there is always control. Bitterness and anger are never allowed to get out of hand. (p. 58)

As always, Mphahlele is at his best when describing the active world around him. Second Avenue is presented as it was almost without comment. (p. 59)

Down Second Avenue is by no means a static canvas painted in drab and monotonous tones of despair. It is the aliveness of the characters, and their efforts to rise above their circumstances, that distinguishes this work and sets it above the autobiographies of his contemporaries among black South African writers. Once again the individuals, major and minor, are, like Ma-Lebona, "there" and allow "you no room to forget [they were] born and [are] alive in flesh and spirit."

We learn to know them through incidents in which they are involved or through their casual encounters with each other. Dialogue is always earthy and colloquial, and interspersed with proverbs and literal translations from the vernacular. This often has the effect of providing a touch of humor and further relieving the gravity of the account. (p. 60)

As the main character in a novel, if we are to regard the book as such, Ezekiel emerges without conscious effort. It is unlikely that Mphahlele even realized that he was drawing the portrait of a hero, a man brave and uncompromising when the situation demanded it, yet sensitive, a little aloof, a writer who in another time and place might have turned to nature for inspiration. We watch his emotional growth and his reaction to the forces that mold him. (p. 62)

Down Second Avenue is still as relevant today as it was in 1959. As a social record it is unique. As a human document it is more moving than anything that has come out of South Africa besides Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm. (p. 65)

The stories in the collection The Living and Dead and Other Stories were all written in South Africa….

The collection no longer has the autobiographical unity of Down Second Avenue or the unity of background of the "Lesane" stories [printed in Drum Magazine] and the stories in Man Must Live. (p. 70)

Most of the plots concern conflict between black and white. The stories represent the protest stage of Mphahlele's writing. Although they were written in South Africa, he selected them a year or two after he had left. They must thus be considered as reflecting his state of mind at the time: bitter, disillusioned. The race theme is predominant. Characters are black or white in character, according to the color of their skin. (pp. 70-1)

The title story of the collection, "The Living and Dead," suffers from the same disadvantage as most stories written in protest against a system. Plot and character have little chance to develop, either spontaneously toward a pleasing work of art, or according to the laws of probability and the principles of psychology. They have to suit a purpose extraneous to fiction. The theme thus becomes illustrative of the writer's outlook rather than arising out of it….

In his protest writing Mphahlele's compassion for humanity leads to a flaw in understanding. He cannot envisage others not sharing his deep feeling for his fellowmen and can thus attribute the racial feelings of the South African white man only to guilt. Sadly, the major reason for racial hatred is fear, and for lack of understanding pure indifference. In the South African context the events and characters of "The Living and Dead" are impossible.

The main character is a white man, the Afrikaner Stoffel Visser. The only Afrikaners, or Boers as he prefers to call them, Mphahlele knew at this time were petty government officials on the other side of a counter, policemen, and employers with whom he had little personal contact and whom he regarded as "machines." Now, in order to portray them in fiction, Mphahlele had to animate such machines and visualize these cold and unfriendly people at home. The result is caricature. (p. 71)

Not only does Stoffel Visser remain an inanimate concept, but he is such a mass of contradictions that he cannot even function as a symbol. (p. 73)

The little action there is in the story tends to stall. The style of writing lacks the usual animation. The white men's dialogue, which covers the first few pages, is stilted to the point of being embarrassing…. (pp. 74-5)

Equally unsatisfactory both as a piece of fiction and as a study in race relations is "We'll Have Dinner at Eight." Miss Pringle, the principal white character, is a little more plausible than Stoffel, at least in so far as we learn to know her…. We are left in no doubt how we are to feel about Miss Pringle right from the beginning. Her efforts to win black friends were undertaken "with an eternal smile on her lips." Miss Pringle is hypocritical, self-deceiving, and sexually frustrated. Mzondi, who comes to the welfare institution to learn a trade, appears to Miss Pringle as an answer to her needs. He is poor and crippled, and therefore helpless and in need of her care; and he is a man whose "pathetic beautiful lips" and "steady eyes, almost expressionless" intrigue her. To befriend him becomes a passion with her.

Miss Pringle is utterly repulsive. Mphahlele may have intended to arouse our sympathy for her, but his dislike of a type prevented him from creating a character. The irony of her murder by the man she befriends therefore fails to appear tragic, and the theme of misunderstanding between black and white falls flat. (p. 75)

This is one of Mphahlele's few short stories with sexual over-tones. The irony of the contrapuntal themes is promising, the spinster who hides her unconscious sexual longings behind the cloak of a dogooder and the lack of comprehension of the cripple to whom anyone white represents an unjust law and therefore danger. There is neither tragedy nor pathos, however, partly because of the poorly motivated murder … but mainly because of the lack of sympathy for or even interest in the two protagonists. No real attempt is made to explore either Mzondi's or Miss Pringle's human motives. These are merely hinted at and are not developed to the point where compassion can envelop both contenders.

What is the message of the story? There is condemnation of a legal system which is prejudiced against the black man. Mzondi is acquitted of the crime of theft he did commit, but the judge refuses to believe the story of his beating by the police in spite of the evidence. The conclusion one draws from the story is one of hopelessness in racial relations. If white shows signs of friendliness toward black, white's motives are suspect; black cannot accept such friendship under any terms, since it cannot be trusted. (pp. 76-7)

The ironic twists of life are … the subject of "The Suitcase." Here the irony is a little too obvious to make the plot plausible, although, ironically, Mphahlele says in Down Second Avenue that it is in essence a true story, told to him by his wife…. Timi, unemployed and desperate, is waiting for "sheer naked chance" to find a way of bringing a present to his wife on Old Year's Eve. He finds it on a bus when a woman passenger apparently forgets to take her suitcase. Another passenger sees Timi take it and reports him to the police. He is caught, and at the police station repeatedly swears that the case is his. But he has played with fate and lost. The case contains a dead baby.

Although unlikely, the plot is tight and the characters plausible. (p. 81)

The theme of this story is not the vagaries of fate, but the choices man has before him. Timi confuses the two component elements of chance. He speaks of taking advantage of a chance and of being provided with a lucky chance as though it were the same thing. It is this confusion between chance as fate and chance with an option that leads to his downfall. (p. 82)

Timi may not have the stature of a hero; his choice is not a matter of life and death and his downfall only an eighteen months' jail sentence. Nevertheless, this is tragedy in the classical sense. However far-fetched the plot, the theme arises spontaneously out of plot and characters, and the story is perhaps Mphahlele's most successful piece of fiction. (p. 83)

The only new stories [in Mphahlele's last collection of short stories, In Corner B] were "The Barber of Bariga," "Grieg on a Stolen Piano" (which contains incidents from Down Second Avenue), the title story, "A Ballad of Oyo," "A Point of Identity," and "Mrs. Plum."

As an African rather than a South African writer, Mphahlele very likely now felt that he must face the responsibility he mentions in The African Image of inventing plot and constructing characters outside the ready-made plots provided by the racial question. Yet only two of the stories are based outside South Africa, although Mphahlele had now been away for ten years. With South Africa as a background, the racial question is of course predominant, but in at least one of the new stories he goes far more deeply into the problems of racial attitudes than he has done before. The two non-South African stories show a certain unease. Mphahlele found it difficult to become emotionally involved in Nigerian affairs, while at the same time the enforced passivity probably made him unhappy.

Passivity in the face of the turmoil around him is the theme of ["The Barber of Bariga"]. Here Mphahlele expresses his reaction to the currents and cross-currents of life in an independent African state through his main character, the barber Anofi, a passive man who refuses to become emotionally involved in his surroundings. (p. 85)

[Such] withdrawal, Mphahlele makes it clear, is reprehensible. No one is entitled to go through life as a spectator as Anofi does, ignoring the throbbing world around him, the cavalcade of drum-beating masqueraders, of weddings and funeral processions that pass by the window of the barbershop, and the blaring, pulsating noise emanating from the radio shop across the road. (p. 86)

Yet one feels that Mphahlele, like Anofi, is not really involved in the life of the people in the story. As a result, the account seems suffused rather than neat and confined. It fails both to make a point and to uphold interest. (p. 87)

The only other story with a Nigerian background is "A Ballad of Oyo."…

The Yoruba markets of West Africa have fascinated both foreign and local writers through the years. To Mphahlele, as to others, there is poetry in the market that tingles and buzzes and groans, and never ceases, come rain, come blood, come malaria; its roar and chatter and laughter and exclamation and smells make a live symphony, quite independent of the people milling around it; the women behind the counters walk the black tarmac road to and from the market, walking, riding the dawn, walking into sunrise, their bodies twisting at the hip.

"A Ballad of Oyo" is the story of one of the women, Ishola, also known as Mama-Jimi. (p. 88)

Mphahlele calls the story a ballad to emphasize the folk-tale element. He uses various devices to create the illusion of a tale by an observer who has fallen under the spell of the market. Words and phrases are repeated to simulate narrative verse, for example: "And so goes the story of Ishola, Ishola, who was called Mama-Jimi, a mother of three children."…

These effects give the story the air of a tragic tale, something of importance. This, however, is not borne out by the story itself. Here we have a woman who is attractive, who is misused by her husband, and who decides to leave him for another man, but changes her mind when the call to traditional duty claims her. We never learn to know Ishola, and she thus fails to arouse our sympathy. Other characters are introduced to little purpose: Ishola's sister who encourages her to leave her husband, and the president of the court who accepts bribes but, for reasons not explained, hands them back.

The market, although ostensibly so important to the story as a background—it is the ballad of Oyo, the market of Oyo, not of Ishola and her problems—does not really become an integral part of it. The fact that Ishola sells vegetables and fruit there is irrelevant to what befalls her. There is no direction in either plot or setting. Thus it is with relief that we turn back to the South African stories in the collection. (p. 89)

"Grieg on a Stolen Piano" is perhaps Mphahlele's most successful attempt [to come to terms with a world of physical and mental violence]. He reverts to a background in which he is most at home. Once again he draws heavily on his own life. (p. 90)

"Grieg on a Stolen Piano" follows the earlier story "Man Must Live" in the collection. Like its predecessor, it also tells of the deterioration of a character, triggered off by circumstances beyond his control, but intrinsically arising out of his character. (p. 91)

Although "Grieg on a Stolen Piano," after the novella-length "Mrs. Plum," is the longest story in the collection, there is nothing extraneous to the serious theme of black intellectual struggle in the South African setting. It is a telling condemnation of a society in which a black man of intellect and integrity must founder. Scenes of black-white violent encounter are described realistically, and yet this is not a protest story in the same sense as "We'll Have Dinner at Eight." The protest in "Grieg" arises out of the action of the story.

Here is an economy of words which one does not always find in Mphahlele's writing…. The dialogue is always just right and captures South African speech idiom of both black and white. Even the few white characters speak idiomatically, instead of indulging in the stilted talk of "The Living and Dead." (pp. 93-4)

The similes and metaphors Mphahlele uses in ["Grieg"] are refreshingly unusual. (p. 94)

Neither cynicism nor sentimentality mars this successful sketch of a memorable character, which would easily have lent itself to either….

In "A Point of Identity" Mphahlele deals more specifically with the political situation in South Africa. We are introduced to the laws that govern the lives of black people, and how they affect them…. Sardonically, the author describes the coldness of law and its remoteness from human feelings. (p. 95)

Mphahlele takes us back to Second Avenue in this story, but he sees it with a different eye. Karel may be a man whose whole physical being seemed to be made of laughter," but we only have the narrator's word for it. Karel is not funny in any way, neither in his talk nor in his actions. He has none of the vitality of the earlier township characters. He lacks, in fact, any kind of personality at all. Since the story concerns only his racial dilemma and ends with his death as a solution, it never arises above the political level. Mphahlele is justifiably bitter about South African laws and he is articulate in his protest, but he uses neither invention nor imagery to turn the narrative into imaginative fiction. It is a stirring record of injustice, but so are the many newspaper reports of similar cases, some even more tragic. The narrator's comments read like editorials.

By contrast Talita, in the title story ["In Corner B"], is alive, and the background of township life is woven into the story as an integral part of it. Whereas Karel Almeida is described for the reader, the characters in "In Corner B" and their background come to life through their actions. (p. 97)

Mphahlele does not use the convention of a narrator in this story, but comments freely as the author upon his characters and their lives. His "asides" from the dramatic action are full of affectionate humor about the people among whom he used to live. (pp. 97-8)

The plot of the story concerns the love between Talita and her husband. It is a simple and unembellished love story, tender without sentimentality. (p. 98)

Mphahlele has learnt the effect of and necessity for comic relief after a tense and dramatic scene. (pp. 99-100)

The alternation between scenes of the quiet and tender past and the noisy present provides a most effective contrast. Equally successful is the contrast between the reality of death and the humor of a scene in which a black constable drags in two disreputable young suspects in handcuffs for Talita to identify. (p. 100)

The more one reads Mphahlele's stories of township life, the greater becomes one's understanding of the term "acceptance" he uses to describe a phase in his fiction. This is not acceptance of township conditions or of life in South Africa; rather acceptance of he fact that human values of love, trust, and loyalty can continue even under impossible living conditions. In this story he calls it "surrender" rather than acceptance, a poetic surrender to life and death, underlying which is "the one long and huge irony of endurance."

The background is never allowed to obtrude for its own sake. At this time African writing was becoming popular with European readers, and many writers deliberately emphasized the un-European aspect of African life by giving lengthy anthropological explanations. With Mphahlele, on the other hand, African customs become an essential part of the story. Talita can lie back and indulge in her bittersweet memories because she knows that tradition and custom will take care of everything necessary for the wake and funeral. Interspersed with her thoughts are the inevitable acts and movements leading steadily toward the last rites for the dead. The story is static neither in the present nor in the past but leads toward their meeting place in organized rhythm.

Another well-organized story is the novella, "Mrs. Plum." This is Mphahlele's most serious attempt to explore the relationship between white and black in South Africa. (pp. 101-02)

[A] subtle irony … raises this story, like "Grieg on a Stolen Piano" above the mere protest level. (p. 102)

[We] gradually realize that while Mrs. Plum's liberalism is quite genuine, unlike that of Miss Pringle, it is completely impersonal, directed at ideas rather than at people. Mphahlele dislikes this type so intensely because it lacks the one characteristic that is his own ruling passion: a feeling of compassion for one's fellowmen. (p. 103)

The story is a tragic one because of its inner and factual truth. It is the tragedy of South Africa. Here are two people, each representing her race in some of its better qualities, who genuinely try to understand each other, and fail miserably. (p. 107)

Mphahlele describes "Mrs. Plum," still today as "the best thing I ever pulled off." (p. 110)

Mphahlele completed a new novel some time ago, but it is still awaiting publication. "Kwacha! A Bright New Day" was its original title [eventually changed to "Chirundu"]….

The action takes place in the 1960's in Zambia, although the country is never named. By placing the action beyond the border of South Africa, Mphahlele is moving into the mainstream of African literature. (p. 158)

"Chirundu" is the story of the fall from power of a political figure, Chimba Chirundu, and of the dissolution of his marriage. Mphahlele professes to explore the dynamics of power in relation to domestic life, marital relations, the African's attitude toward polygamy, and the modern woman's rejection of it. At the same time it is a study of African independence and its effect of hope and disillusionment on several people bound together by circumstances or relationships. (p. 159)

We expect a writer of Mphahlele's standing to turn to a novel … only if he has something important to communicate, not merely to entertain. Yet at a first reading "Chirundu" seems almost trivial. It begins by introducing a cabinet minister as having committed a crime so petty that even his prisoners are contemptuous. The prisoners feel, however, that there must be something behind it, and it seems obvious that Mphahlele intended something deeper in the novel than the chicaneries of the vain, power-hungry, male-chauvinistic character of the title.

"Chirundu," it would appear, is a dirge for Africa, where anguished disillusionment is the keynote. Hope for a bright new day is dim indeed. At the beginning of the novel "kwacha" is the unreasoning faith of the simple-minded prison warden; at the end the losing battle against forces that destroy the hope of Africa is dismissed with a shrug. In The Wanderers the South African characters were searching for a better life. Here, in Zambia, with the arrival of independence, people thought that they had found it, but expectation turned to disillusionment and bitterness. (pp. 163-64)

By calling the novel "Chirundu," Mphahlele emphasizes the character rather than the theme. It might be better to revert to one of the earlier titles, the sardonic "Bright New Day," or the symbolic "House of Chirundu," since the portrayal of the title character is not a happy one. Chimba Chirundu embodies the African politician at the dawn of the independence era. The idealism—the fight for independence and social democracy—is already taken for granted and the practical aspect is emphasized. Chirundu lives in the present. He rejects Christianity along with all European ideas that had been dumped on Africa, as he puts it, but he believes in traditionalism only if it serves a purpose, or as individual choice, never as a stance. He is motivated entirely by a thirst for power, politically, personally, and sexually. Power to him is an area in which he can express himself. He loves it for its own sake and appears confident in his "profession." (p. 165)

Chirundu is a man filled with hate and guilt. In his childhood he saw his father disintegrate after conversion to Christianity…. The father abandons one wife while the other, Chimba's mother, later leaves him. Chimba makes his own way in life by clinging tenaciously to his grandfather's prediction that he was meant for great things…. Even after his downfall, when he has nothing left but his determination and faith in himself, he feels sure that he will make a come-back. We are reminded of Zungu in "Man Must Live." Has Mphahlele then come full circle, abandoning his search and his wanderings to conclude that all man can do is cling tenaciously to his faith in life and his destiny? This would be understandable, since Mphahlele is still in exile, displaced, with hope of a return to the country of his destiny as remote as ever.

If, however, we are being asked to admire Chirundu for this quality, then the character sketch is an abject failure. Chirundu is totally unsympathetic and repulsive. He is introduced in the novel as so contemptible to his enemies, the refugees he has imprisoned, that they cannot even hate him. Little follows to change this first impression. He rejects Christianity because of the enslaving institutions to which it gave rise, but does not accept faith in the ancestors, an alternative that would also have provided him with the sense of humility that his father had found wanting in him.

In love he is insensitive, callous, and entirely selfish. He tells the superintendent of the church school that he will not be pushed into marrying Tirenje (after he has made her pregnant) just to satisfy the church's scruples, but he does not seem to have considered the girl's feelings in the matter. He ignores the feelings of the two women entirely, and acts in the matter of his two marriages purely for his own purposes. Sometimes he feels guilt, but never real remorse.

Intelligent, capable, and ruthless, he has no difficulty in achieving his ambitions in love and in his career. (pp. 165-66)

Unpleasant as he is, Chirundu comes to life to a greater extent than the other characters. (p. 167)

Mphahlele does not seem to be deeply involved with [the characters] as he was with the people in The Wanderers. As a result they lack interest and tend to make the novel dull. Lack of tension is aggravated by the method of narration.

Mphahlele again favors the vehicle of several narrators, presumably to show various points of view, but this time it leads to confusion. (p. 168)

Mphahlele's style has become simpler and more colloquial. The dialogue, however, is often as stilted as in his very early fiction, and the slick sophisticated slang does not always flow easily from his pen. (p. 169)

This is Mphahlele's first truly African novel. He now accepts a background completely remote from the Christian-Western European townships of the Transvaal. The plot is based on the concept that polygamy, even if controversial, is psychologically and morally possible. In his earlier fiction characters had doubts about the church to which they belonged, but here he goes deeply into African religion and the effects of conversion to Christianity. The African's veneration of old age is clearly expressed and becomes a reality….

The contrast between the dignity of the country and the corruption and superficiality of the city is also new in Mphahlele's fiction. It is personified by Chirundu's two women and appears again in a description of what happens after the death of Moyo's grandfather. (p. 170)

Starkly dramatic symbols are another innovation, though at times they appear Elizabethan rather than African. (p. 171)

[In all his writings, Mphahlele's main objective has been] to reproduce, grasp, and interpret what is essential and permanent in life and literature. A gentle man, he has turned his anguish and bitterness into an acceptance of a situation, not as one that he cannot change, but as an existing condition under which one can still find meaning in life. He has taught the younger writers that to know one's sorrow is to know one's joy. He has worked toward a balance between artistic integrity and social involvement. He not only talks about this in his essays and lectures, but demonstrates it in his fiction and autobiographical works. These, at their best, succeed through their vibrancy in translating his concepts into a living art. (p. 174)

Ursula A. Barnett, in her Ezekiel Mphahlele (copyright © 1976 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1976, 195 p.

Adrian Roscoe

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The problem of imagination in South African writing … is illustrated by the career of Ezekiel Mphahlele, scholar, teacher, lucid provocative critic, wanderer, and creative writer, a man whose experience in a rough world (badly treated even in independent Africa) has turned a deeply compassionate view of humanity into a conviction that only guns and violence can cure the cancer of apartheid in Vorster's Republic. It is not that Mphahlele lacks imagination. Far from it. Various collections of short stories such as In Corner B and Let Live, and The Living & the Dead, and a substantial though highly autobiographical novel The Wanderers … are evidence enough of an imaginative gift. Nor were the strengths of his first major critical book, The African Image, which added a wholly new dimension to African critical debates especially as they concerned negritude, underestimated, to say nothing of his most recent work, Voices in the Whirlwind…. It is simply that he feels that his autobiography Down Second Avenue … is the best book, presumably the most important book he has yet written; as if, in other words, the workaday South African scene is too fraught with pain and urgency for mere fiction, no matter how clever, to take precedence over the naked truth hauled up from the well of memory and set forth with care in an autobiography. Even his description of how the creative process worked in him while still at home makes a similar point about how close to daily reality the short stories are. Written in almost immediate response to sudden provocation, they have, on his own evidence, enjoyed little time for a slow steady fictive reworking of raw material where the fancy and imagination life mundane stuff into the realms of literary art. Mphahlele strikes no poses [and] sees himself in the role of neither prophet nor messiah…. (pp. 228-29)

As individual pieces, the short stories are not always distinguished. Sometimes it is stretches of slack prose that reduce their impact; sometimes the standards of a professional teacher break through and impose a correctness and a propriety where 'fluency' should rule. Sometimes it is the very struggle between correctness and the desire to run free and capture the registers and dialect of the people that becomes obvious and therefore a weakness. But Mphahlele's stories as a group, a body, a collection, are excellent. From 'Man Must Live', where a whole life span is squeezed into the strait-jacket tightness of the short story form, to 'A Point of Identity', which explores the tragicomic complexities of the colour bar, to 'Mrs. Plum' and 'The Living and the Dead', which play very deftly on the workings of the white South African mind, liberal or otherwise, the evidence accumulates that no other writer, with the exception of La Guma, can record with such delicacy the slow tragic harmonies that lie beneath the trivia, the unpolished surface of poor lives. The sad division among the various non-white groups which is subtly fostered by the white community is often reflected together with a plea for the kind of solidarity needed to unite all the oppressed groups against a common enemy…. The same note of needful solidarity and grim endurance rings through 'In Corner B', one of Mphahlele's finest stories. (pp. 229-30)

What the stories reveal constantly is the response to a brutal system of a mind fundamentally humane, free itself of brutality, and free too of racist blinkers. With the portrait of Stoffel Visser in 'The Living and the Dead' there is even briefly canvassed the belief in white conversion; and despite the swelling bitterness of recent years …, Mphahlele's career is redolent with the signs of a soul that has laboured hard, nailing courage and hope to the mast of human decency and affirming the value of sacrifice. Even more, the most eloquent testimony of Mphahlele's writing is their author's basic and passionate concern not with himself but with other people, those he knew in his youth and childhood, whose difficulties and aspirations he shares and understands. This quality infuses all Mphahlele's writing and makes Down Second Avenue … perhaps the least ego-centric autobiography ever written. This is a remarkable if uneven work…. (p. 231)

Adrian Roscoe, "Central and Southern African Prose," in his Uhuru's Fire: African Literature East to South (© Cambridge University Press 1977), Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 215-58.∗

Samuel Omo Asein

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1319

There are a few African writers who have contributed much to the development of modern African literature and have had little written about them. Of the few, the black South African writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, stands out rather pathetically as a much neglected, generally underestimated and often misjudged writer. (p. 38)

The reasons for the neglect which Mphahlele has suffered in the last decade seem obvious. I believe he is not 'popular', especially among the younger generation, because of his views, more often than not misinterpreted, on sensitive issues of race, inter-personal relationships and the destiny of the black man in the contemporary world. For well over thirty years, his integrationist attitudes as a person and as a writer have been progressively moulded into more definable shapes by a distinctly humanist vision which has its roots in Mphahlele's firm belief in the eternal value of a brotherhood that does not compromise man's essential humanity. It is that vision too which serves as the pivotal element in his artistic creations as well as the formative factor of his personality as an individual. Such indeed has been the close relationship between his two personalities as an artist and as individual that he could assert unequivocally the essential Mphahlele: "As for what I really am, and my place in the African revolution, I shall let my writings speak for me." Mphahlele's writings do provide us with just that testimony. (p. 39)

When he wrote his earliest short stories which subsequently appeared in the collection Man Must Live, his one absorbing interest was in "people as people rather than as political victims," and he sought to focus on ordinary South African blacks and coloureds "in their own ghetto life and their own little dramas and tragedies." His style and perspective followed in the humanist tradition which his mentors [Richard Wright and Langston Hughes] represented. In the last few years, Mphahlele has become visibly absorbed in the quest for a new sociopolitical order which would accommodate his vision and whose very foundation would rest on what he defines as a "more genuine cross-cultural nationalism."

Thus in his short stories his first interest usually centres on the human condition which they help him to illustrate. In these stories there is more often than not an articulate statement of what constitutes the reality of that condition and how it has in turn moulded the quality of life and fortunes of his protagonists. His characters, even when they appear to us as escapists, evoke a sympathetic response from us because we are aware of the fact that they are mere victims of situations in which we ourselves could be trapped irrespective of our background and racial or cultural affiliations. (p. 42)

The details of [the] … stories in Man Must Live exemplify the major features of the early Mphahlele: a ponderous style and somewhat apolitical humanism which borders on escapism; but there is nevertheless a concentration of sensibility in his consuming interest in the predicament of the individuals who inhabit his fictional world. In his later stories Mphahlele provides further illuminations of that world through both direct and implicit commentaries on the socio-political background of events and experiences. The political implications of these events and experiences emerge from the stories without his having to force into our hands a political banner.

Even when Mphahlele presents situations that are obviously political in nature he constantly strives to draw from the experiences yet another illustration of the frustrations and indignities which the black mar is subjected to in South Africa. Thus his attention shifts inevitably from the event as a sociopolitical phenomenon to the human condition which it is meant to illustrate. "The Suitcase" is one of such stories; so also is "Dinner at Eight."… (p. 44)

Nowhere in Mphahlele's writings is his universalist vision or his humanism better illustrated than in his absorbing novel, The Wanderers, in which he provides a fictional framework for his socio-political ideal of harmonious co-existence of the various racial groups in South Africa. (pp. 45-6)

The main story itself focuses on Timi who is the central character, his wife, Karabo, their son, Felang, and the intermingling relationship between the Timi household on the one hand and other characters drawn from the racial communities in South Africa. (p. 46)

The Wanderers begins with reflections on Felang's death and ends with an account of how he met his death. Between the glimpses of that enigmatic character we are led through several landscapes and we are made to share in the anxieties and ordeals of the characters whose consciousnesses centre around a single problem of existence under the shadow of apartheid. It is their communal search for self-realisation which universalizes the central experience in the novel. The final act of commitment of Felang reflects Mphahlele's own modified views and his efforts to reconcile his humanist ideal with the socio-political imperatives of our time. (pp. 46-7)

Timi has completed the cycle of his growth. If we accept the reading that Timi is to a large extent a fictional projection of Mphahlele himself, it is easy to follow the pattern of his growth from the escapist and liberal humanist of his early writings through the period of vacillations trying to identify with a communal purpose to the pragmatist who, in seeking to reinforce the old foundations of his humanist ethos, now sees ultimate self-realisation in commitment to his land and the destiny of his people. This final resolution is evident in Mphahlele's almost mystical veneration of the harmony of a land and its people. To that extent his confessed longing for his lost homeland and his wish, in spite of the situation in South Africa, to return home and face death when it does come, is indicative of the same kind of attachment that he has sanctioned in the fictional world of The Wanderers…. (p. 47)

The question that does arise ultimately is: wherein lies the value of Mphahlele's humanism in the context of the South African situation and the contemporary experience in Africa as a whole? Where does Mphahlele stand in the on-going struggle in Southern Africa? He has directed us to his works for some of the answers, and our quest for those answers has yielded specific affirmatives. Mphahlele proposes an integrationist resolution, but it is a solution that must be based strictly on a firm guarantee of the humanity of the constituent groups in that society. (pp. 47-8)

[Mphahlele's] commitment is to the macrocosm; and the political realities in South Africa are a fragment of the totality of the human condition that is central to his thought. His vision encompasses a wider world and community of races. (p. 48)

A noticeable shortcoming of Mphahlele's formulations is the almost total neglect of a clearly defined strategy for realising the ideal framework, be it social, economic or political, within which his humanism will not be seen to be a mere intellectual indulgence. There can be no doubt that he believes in the value of his own vision of the South African reality and of the alternatives that his humanism has guided him to propose. This reservation notwithstanding, it is difficult to contest Mphahlele's claim to more serious attention in our study of African literature in the contemporary idiom. His significance is defined by the consistency of his thematic focus in his writings and utterances on the black-white issue, and as much by the complementarity of resonances both of his theories and of his practice as a writer. His persistent articulation of a humanist ideal which he sublimates from even the most overtly dated sketch cannot but be seen as a significant contribution to the heritage of ideas in contemporary African writing of which he is a distinguished pioneer. (pp. 48-9)

Samuel Omo Asein, "The Humanism of Ezekiel Mphahlele" (copyright Samuel Omo Asein; by permission of Hans Zell Publishers, an imprint of K. G. Saur Verlag), in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XV, No. 1, August, 1980, pp. 38-49.

Gerald Moore

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The advent of Ezekiel Mphahlele's first book, Down Second Avenue (1959), at the same moment that West African writing was beginning to assert itself, was a challenge to the understanding both of Western readers and of African readers themselves. There is hardly a single generalization which could be made about the predominantly peasant culture of West, East or Central Africa which would be equally applicable to the urban, industrialized Africa for which Mphahlele spoke. This Africa of vast segregated modern cities, mine-dumps, skyscrapers and jazz-clubs was as alien and remote to the Nigerian or Senegalese reader of that time as Dallas or Harlem might have been. But the challenge to South African understanding by the new West African writers was equally great, for there was an almost insuperable temptation for them to lump together the tropical cultures of Africa as 'backward' (and perhaps backward-looking), because of certain characteristics which they shared with the rural and tribal remnants of South Africa itself—remnants often dismissed as 'blanket-Africans' by the city-dweller.

In truth, the black man in urban South Africa had then more in common with the North American blacks than with his neighbours in tropical Africa. Like the black American, he inhabits a society which is dominated by whites in a far grimmer and more universal sense than any tropical colony has ever been. And this domination is expressed not merely in the colonial ritual and pantomime satirized during that same decade by Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono and Chinua Achebe, but in every department of his daily life. His residence, his movements, his place and grade of work, his education, his sexual and family life are all subject to intense regulation, all governed by an alien mythology about the black man's place in the natural scheme of things. He cannot even walk down a street at certain hours without breaking the law. An outcast in his own country, he has to scrutinize every doorway, every bench, every counter, to make sure that he has segregated himself correctly. He is permanently on the run. (pp. 41-2)

Partly as a result of his very exclusion, partly as a result of the far greater urbanization and industrialization of the South, and partly as a result of the impoverishment of the overcrowded 'Homelands', the black South African is oriented more and more towards a way of life which hysterically denies him admittance. A member of the most educated, Westernized and (patchily) prosperous black community in Africa, he asks only that he be accepted as such. No amount of official mystification about 'the Bantu' will induce him to look back to the tribe and the Bantustan as offering an adequate way of life. He is drawn irresistibly towards the cities, which need his labour but deny his civil existence. But in the cities he can exist only on sufferance and in circumstances which emphasize his helot status. (p. 42)

This is the supreme irony of the South African situation and the irony which, without specifically dwelling on it, Mphahlele makes manifest. His whole life has been an unrelenting struggle to achieve the way of life for which his urban upbringing and liberal education had prepared him. But to achieve that life, he had to become an exile. The logic of events drove him, through Nigeria, Paris, Kenya and Zambia to that urban black America whose similarity he had always recognized. But at the root of the dissatisfaction he felt for all these places lay a certain perverse nostalgia, and it must have been this very nostalgia which finally induced him to return to Vorster's South Africa. (p. 43)

Mphahlele was not yet fifteen when he suffered his first assault from a white constable. He learnt the full humiliation of his position as he cycled about the city, collecting the dirty washing of hostile and moody white customers. But somehow, at the sacrifice of any real life with her own children, his mother managed to save enough to put him through primary school. Though he rose daily at four to do the domestic chores or the washing round … he passed out in the first grade. So his mother strained an extra inch and sent him to St Peter's Secondary School in Johannesburg.

Mphahlele's fierce prose evokes all the strain of those years of adolescence. Both structure and style in Down Second Avenue show the attempt to enlarge the normal limits of autobiography, so that the book will be both a record of events, more or less chronological, in the author's life, and an immediate, impressionistic evocation of certain typical moods and moments which don't belong at any special place within it, but must be allowed to spill their fear and anguish over the book as a whole. These are evoked in the sections called Interludes, which contain some of Mphahlele's most angry and electric writing in the book. The search for immediacy has muted the common tendency for the writer (especially the exile) to see even the painful events of youth and childhood through a certain softening haze. In the Interludes we actually hear the steely clang of police boots in the yard, the thunder of hard knuckles on the door at dawn, the sirens, the cries and the sickening blows which authority rains upon the unprotected…. (p. 46)

In 1957 [Mphahlele left South Africa] for Nigeria, where he was to teach until 1961. (p. 51)

It was during those four years in Nigeria that Mphahlele achieved his greatest period of fertility as a writer. Down Second Avenue, presumably completed by 1958, was published in the following year. In 1961 the newly established Mbari Publishing House in Nigeria brought out a volume of his short stories entitled The Living and Dead. (p. 52)

[The Living and Dead contains the majority of Mphahlele's] best work in fiction. When I first wrote of these seven stories, in the first edition of the present work, I formed a strong impression that the title story and 'He and the Cat' must be considerably later in composition than the others, and must represent a movement towards [the] … 'reconciliation of protest and acceptance' for which he was striving. However, the researches of Professor Bernth Lindfors have made it clear that 'He and the Cat' was published as early as 1953. It nevertheless stands out from the stories which surround it by reason of its economy of means and its introspective quality, as the narrator, obsessed with his own problems, focuses slowly and with difficulty on what is around him.

It is a deceptively simple story. The narrator goes to a lawyer's office to seek help with a problem that is consuming him. He takes his place in the waiting-room with about twenty others. The clients gossip in snatches, the clerk comes to summon them one by one. At a table a little apart sits a man sealing envelopes, with the picture of a black cat on the wall behind him. Gradually this withdrawn figure becomes more and more important, until he dominates the whole room, the whole mood of the scene…. (pp. 53-4)

Whatever the chronology of its composition, this story shows a technical assurance not always evident in the rest of the collection. Here Mphahlele is content to write directly out of experience, without looking for the conventional type of 'plot'. The narrator's egocentric obsession with his legal anxieties is gently displaced by his slow awareness of the quiet presence of another man, more completely locked within the dark walls of his own experience than the narrator can ever be.

Several other stories in the collection show characters who, whether black or white, are borne helplessly along in a stream of events which they cannot master or understand. They seldom act, and when they do, like Mzondi in 'We'll Have Dinner at Eight' or Timi in 'The Suitcase', they act disastrously. In the first-mentioned story there is a somewhat inadequately prepared murder: Mzondi kills the sentimental white employer who has invited him to dinner, because he mistakenly believes that she is pumping him on behalf of the police. In the second, a desperate man steals a suitcase which a girl has left beside him in a bus. He is taken to a police station on suspicion of theft and is there found to be carrying a dead baby around with him. Although the story of 'The Suitcase' is apparently based on an actual event, these plots are rather too obtrusive in the neat way events are unfolded, and the stories suffer from a thinness of fictional texture.

'The Master of Doornvlei', first published in 1957 and reprinted in the same collection, is a more substantial story. The incident with the bull and the stallion which finally brings about the confrontation between Mfukeri and his master is convincing and appropriate, for this kind of projected conflict is precisely what we expect to find between two men who have no love for each other but have been held together by a certain mutuality of interest. The story is made all the stronger by the fact that the old, black foreman is not in himself at all a sympathetic character, though he comes to stand in sympathetic opposition to the Boer farmer.

But the other outstanding story in this collection is 'The Living and Dead'. Unlike most of Mphahlele's stories, this one is not unidirectional, and its greater length gives it that degree of amplitude which is almost essential to real achievement in this form. The structure is daringly unorthodox for a story of only a few thousand words. Mphahlele begins with the thoughts and experience of two apparently unconnected people on a day in urban South Africa. Lebona, a railway sweeper, has just seen a man pushed backwards down the train steps and trampled to death by the rush-hour crowd. He has also picked up a letter which he found lying on the track. Thoughts of the letter and the casually abrupt death of the unknown man obsess him. Meanwhile Stoffel Visser, a middle-class white resident, has just completed a report to the Government urging that 'kaffir' servants should all be moved out of the white areas into their own locations. His obsession, very different from Lebona's, is the fear that white civilization will be swamped in a rising sea of black labour. But because his own servant, Jackson, has not returned in time from leave, Stoffel has overslept and has failed to send the report in time to the responsible Minister. A man comes to the door with a letter addressed to Jackson, saying that he found it on the railway line. He spills out a confused story of seeing a poor man killed at the station. Stoffel lends him half an ear, while impatiently longing for his departure. A moment later, Jackson's wife Virginia appears on the doorstep which Lebona has just vacated. She knows nothing of Jackson's whereabouts and is highly agitated by his disappearance. Stoffel fails to hand her the letter. Instead, he dismisses her and reports matters to the police, after which he guiltily opens the letter himself. By this time the reader has concluded that the dead man at the station is probably Jackson, and this suspicion is reinforced when the letter proves to be a desperate summons to Jackson from his dying father in Vendaland. He sends his son some photographs of his family for safe keeping and begs him to come and look after the farm. But the strength of the story is that the dead man turns out not to be Jackson and remains as unknown at the end of the story as at its beginning. (pp. 54-6)

It would have been easy to make this story the preparation for a reforming of Stoffel Visser, the breaking of a new light into his bleak corridor of bigotry. Mphahlele's ending is truer and, as we come to see it, inevitable. This is how things happen in a society dominated by racial mythologies. And the way in which Mphahlele draws his apparently random, anonymous threads together into a significant pattern of unacknowledged human relationship, unaccepted human responsibility, shows an altogether new power in his imaginative resources. (p. 57)

Critics and scholars have theorized for some years about the dearth of full-length fiction from black South Africans; on the face of it, this dearth is the more surprising in that South Africa made an early start with the novels of Mofolo, Phatje, Dhlomo and others, in the first thirty years of the century. Since then the considerable achievements in poetry, short fiction and autobiography have not been matched by any novel of major scale. To insist that writers like Peter Abrahams and Alex La Guma are 'coloured' rather than black may seem like participating in the racial obsessions of the authorities, but it remains true that the world of experience tapped in a work like La Guma's A Walk in the Night (which is in any case a short novel rather than a novel) is not the same as that revealed in the journalism and short stories of the black writers. To the voluntary segregation practised by most coloureds has been added the enforced segregation which puts them in different townships, different schools, different universities and a different range of jobs. Hence La Guma's work is centred upon the world he knows intimately, that of coloured slum-life in and around Cape Town. Although we may discern at a deep, unrealized level a phenomenon we can call 'South African literature', the absence of common experience, common education and common communication in a country so deeply and bitterly divided does force us to admit that a novel by a white, or Indian or coloured writer, however sensitive and perceptive, cannot be regarded as cancelling the expectations which attend upon a new black South African fiction.

It was into this atmosphere of expectancy that Mphahlele, certainly the best established black South African writer today, launched his novel The Wanderers in 1971. The first thing that must be said about this book is that it is simply not a novel. Rather, it is a thinly disguised autobiography, which extends the story of Down Second Avenue to cover the author's last couple of years in South Africa … and his subsequent wanderings in Africa and Europe. Comparison with the earlier book, however, can only damage The Wanderers as much as any insistence that it is a novel. As a novel it totally lacks shape and relevance; for the form of the novel demands rather more than an arbitrarily sawn-off section of the author's own experience. Incidents should be included only because they are important to the action, and not simply because they happened; events should be presented with some sense of their moral complexity, rather than in self-justification. The motive of self-justification is dangerously prominent in much of The Wanderers.

The range of experience presented in this book has faced Mphahlele with real problems of style. The prose of Down Second Avenue was angry and often abrupt, but, unlike the writing of many of Drum's contributors, it never struck a note of wishful Americanism or a breathless striving for toughness of effect. Such a note does occasionally obtrude in The Wanderers…. (pp. 59-60)

The Wanderers comes nearest to having a life of its own in the earlier chapters, and particularly in the section dealing with the author's visit to a Boer potato farm in the effort to trace a girl's missing husband, who has been sent there for forced labour by the police. This lacks the immediacy of the late Harry Nxumalo's celebrated Drum articles on the potato farms of Bethel, but Mphahlele's dialogue is at its most successful when he is rendering Bantu speech…. The effect of such reporting is to give a certain human weight to even the most simple speech. Mphahlele, however, appears to have no ear for the mannerisms or accentuation of educated black South African talk. Everyone in this reach of society 'talks like a book', and there is an unintended effect of condescension when such characters are confronted by Indian or coloured speakers, whose mannerisms Mphahlele seems much more anxious to observe. (pp. 61-2)

The weaknesses of The Wanderers show as much in these kinds of detail as in its overall lack of fictional organization and authorial 'distance'. The disappointment is the greater in that this is the mature work of a good writer, the writer who above all might be expected to produce a black South African novel of real substance and achievement. Stories like 'Mrs Plum' and 'The Living and Dead' give us room to hope that Mphahlele will one day write a full-length work of fiction that displays a comparable power to organize and to project and develops more fully the style manifest in some of the short stories, now that the story of his wanderings has been told. (p. 63)

Mphahlele earns his place in this book because he is the most important black South African writer of the present age, by virtue of his all-round achievement and his lifelong commitment to literature. Others may have equalled or excelled him in autobiography, or in criticism, or in the short story. But Mphahlele's contributions in all three of these fields add up to a career of major distinction. If he cannot give us the great black South African novel which has been so long awaited, it seems probable that no one at present can. The fragmentation of creative achievement into the poems and short stories in which black South Africa has been so prolific must be seen as the obverse of those conditions which make maior fiction so difficult of achievement there. The corpus of Mphahlele's work remains rich enough, however, in qualities of insight, compassion and intelligence. (pp. 65-6)

Gerald Moore, "Ezekiel Mphahlele: The Urban Outcast" (originally published in a different form in his Seven African Writers, Oxford University Press, London, 1962), in his Twelve African Writers (copyright © 1980 by Gerald Moore; reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press; in Canada by Hutchinson Publishing Group Limited), Indiana University Press, 1980, Hutchinson, 1980, pp. 41-68.

Peter Sabor

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[Chirundu] traces the downfall of Chimba Chirundu, the corrupt, power-hungry minister of transport in an unnamed central African country…. Many urgent social and political problems are contained in Mphahlele's complex narrative web: the corruption of post-independence African governments; the struggle for workers' rights; the incompatibility of indigenous and colonially imposed laws; and the bitter impotence of exile. An eloquent work by a major African writer.

Peter Sabor, "Book Reviews: 'Chirundu'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, November 15, 1981; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 106, No. 20, November 15, 1981, p. 2253.

Martin Tucker

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Mphahlele's story [Chirundu], about the self-made Chimba Chirundu, minister of transport and public works in an imaginary African country, is well crafted. The atmosphere conveys a sense of momentum; life is on the tracks in Mphahlele's fictional land, and the characters, while momentarily blocked by subterfuge, disappointment, or deception, do not lose their spirit. Chirundu is arrested on a charge of bigamy brought by his first wife. He defends his second marriage on the basis of Bemba tribal law. He has divorced his first wife because both realized their marriage was not working and because they have lived apart for some time. With this situation Mphahlele comes to grips with issues of modernism and tribalism, of new and old Africa, of individualism and communal responsibilities. He invests Chirundu with ambition and passion, even with a reluctant admiration for his Medea-like first wife.

Mphahlele tells his story through several narrators…. Their various points of view have cumulative force, and the reader senses the division and rich complexity of the independent nation Mphahlele is drawing. (pp. 25-6)

Chirundu is one of the new African breed—the men of power who order their suits from London tailors and drive in long, sleek limousines. We see that he is admirable as well as stubborn, intelligent as well as avaricious. But his fall is a result of the wish to "test" colonialist British law against tribal custom, or the new centralism against the traditional regionalism. This is a profoundly complex matter, but the author does not treat its ramifications. As a novelist Mphahlele is under no obligation to proselytize, but he must resolve what he introduces. Merely to leave the reader with a sense of these many layers of African society is to leave unfinished one's novelistic business.

Yet, if Mphahlele's novel seems unresolved, it also offers extraordinary insights into contemporary African life. Mphahlele is writing with a sense of command and a strong sense of his own identity. (p. 26)

Martin Tucker, "Books: 'Chirundu'," in Worldview (© copyright 1982 Council on Religion and International Affairs), Vol. 25, No. 6, June, 1982, pp. 25-6.


Mphahlele, Ezekiel (Vol. 133)