Ezekiel Mphahlele Mphahlele, Ezekiel (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Saunders Redding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)


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Rhonda Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ursula A. Barnett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Adrian Roscoe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Samuel Omo Asein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerald Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Sabor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 95 words.)

Martin Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 343 words.)