Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ways of Dying

Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda

In Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda's acclaimed first novel, Toloki is a "professional mourner" in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city's crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At a Christmas day funeral for a young boy Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past, and as their story interweaves with those of their acquaintances this elegant short novel provides a magical and painful picture of South Africa today.

I'm sad to report that I didn't have any strong feelings about this multiple award-winning novel. The book is full of brutality and dark humor (and dark humor as commentary on post-Apartheid South Africa). Some of the language was quite beautiful. The two main characters, Toloki and Noria, are interesting, but not completely sympathetic (by sympathetic here I mean not easy for readers to relate to). There's a fascinating mythology surrounding Noria, but that is often overshadowed by the horrific events that occur again and again in her life. Despite everything Toloki and Noria are optimistic and that hopefulness, I think, is the message that Mda wants to leave readers with.

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