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The Madonna of Excelsior [Paperback]

Zakes Mda
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Oct 2002
This novel is set in the Free State town of Excelsior from the 1970s to the time of political liberation in the 1990s. In the 1970s Excelsior was notorious for a series of across-the-colour-bar sex scandals involving white men - many of them pillars of the conservative Afrikaner establishment - and black women, some of whom bore mixed-race children as a result. Mda roots his story in this period and carries it through to the social and political revolution of the 1990s. Often lyrical and sensual, and sometimes bleak and shocking, the novel is always an acute and authentic reflector of small-town South Africa and its extraordinary mix of people in the years of high apartheid and in its untidy aftermath.


Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Southern Africa (1 Oct 2002)
  • ISBN-10: 0195783158
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195783155
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.6 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 629,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reality's Rich Colours 24 Nov 2005
Format:Paperback
Fiction does not always facilitate or augment the understanding of complex realities of time and place. Zakes Mda, however, has achieved this mixture admirably in this novel of his native South Africa. The political events of pre- and post-Apartheid periods take a central place in the story. Yet he manages to avoid being overly heavy on facts and details as he builds the narrative around the impact of one specific event and its aftermath on one small community, Excelsior. He captures the essence of life under Apartheid and the difficulties awaiting all when the regime ends. Old prejudices and tensions remain and the transition to the new SA adds new challenges and conflicts, including among the black political leadership.
Mda uses the 1971 case of the Excelsior 19 as the focus of the first part of his account. A group of white men and black women were charged with violation of the Immorality Act that prohibits intimate relations across race lines. The primary character is Niki, one of the Excelsior 19 women, whose life story is a symbol for this time and place. As a naïve, pretty 18 year old, she attracts the attention of a white Afrikaner who assaults her and keeps pursuing her. Escape into marriage is some protection and also results in her confidence growing. Life is good with a husband and her son, Viliki. Never questioning her role as a servant and second class citizen, a humiliating incident with her white woman boss changes all that.
Her rage leads her to take revenge. Realizing her power as a black beauty and the hold it has over white Afrikaners, she applies it deliberately. The mixed-race daughter Popi is evidence of the hushed-up relationship. Despite the indisputable evidence of children like Popi, the charges against the Excelsior 19 are withdrawn.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The sky was bereft of stars." 20 April 2004
By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAME TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
In sensuous, intensely visual language, author Mda depicts the life ofNiki, a black South African, showing her day-to-day struggles to surviveunder apartheid and raise her children, but he also depicts Fr. FransClaerhout's idealized vision of her in his paintings--as a colorfulMadonna figure, the mother of children who will eventually change theworld. Niki has posed for many of Fr. Claerhout's paintings, a job whichhas helped her to feed her black son and her half-white daughter, eventhough she has often had to walk thirty-five kilometers to his studio inorder to pose. Niki's story, from her teen years to old age, becomes thestory of South Africa itself during the last half of the 20th century, anovel told from the perspective of a black author, and quite unlike thenovels of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, though theycover the same time period.
Excelsior, the township in which Niki lives, is almost entirely black, yetall power in government and business rests in white hands. Withoutresorting to melodrama or clichés, the author shows in incident afterincident, how black women are regarded as chattel, regularly harassed andeven raped by their white bosses, town officials, judges, and evenclergymen. Yet Niki never yields to self-pity, even when she and eighteenother women and the men who have used them are put on trial for violatingthe Immorality Act, a violation which has produced Niki's daughter Popi.Imperfect, sometimes angry, and often calculating, Niki comes alive as awoman determined to hang on to her pride, using the only power she has,her sexual power, to control those who would control her.
Vivid scenes of South African life from the 1970s to the present bringNiki and her children to life.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rich well balanced South African classic 20 Feb 2006
By A Customer
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Golden plains,lush farmland,shanty towns...the Orange Free State comes to life in the latest novel by Zakes Mda.
Set in the small town of Excelsior, the plot involves a young african girl seduced and impregnated by an Afrikaaner farmer,her life and that of her child are then followed as South Africa moves into an uncertain future.
Whilst written by a black african author, this novel captures both sides of the aparthied experience and then moves foward into the days of freedom and the Rainbow Nation.
The Afrikaaners are at once opressors and then victims, they are given a sympathetic treatment as Excelsior lurches foward into a new landscape of equality and positive action.
Well worth the investment and a very intelligent and well written account of small-town South Africa
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4.0 out of 5 stars IT IS NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE... 8 Jan 2005
By Lawyeraau HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
South African writer Zakes Mda takes the notorious "Immorality Act" of South Africa's apartheid history, as well as a true event in South African history, which flowed from a violation of this law, and loosely weaves a fictionalized tale that will keep the reader turning the pages of this thematically complex book.
The "Immorality Act" was legislated to prevent miscegenation and ensure the purity of the races. In 1971, in the Orange Free State of South Africa, nineteen of its citizens, both white and black, were arrested for violating this law. The fictionalization of this event serves to contrast the old Afrikaner minority dominated South Africa in which apartheid was the law, and the new South Africa in which blacks are now the ruling majority. The author takes the reader through the transition from the old to the new South Africa through the fictionalization of the then notorious violation of the "Immorality Act".
Niki, one of the main protagonists, is an under-educated black woman living in white Afrikaner dominated South Africa in the township of Excelsior. She lives a life that is regulated by apartheid. She lives in substandard housing, works for Afrikaners for subsistence wages, and is at the beck and call of her employer. Moreover, she is easy prey for those Afrikaners who, despite the "Immorality Act", would forcibly subject her sexually. When her employer's wife forces her to submit to a humiliating invasion of her privacy, Niki fights back the only way she knows how, through the sexual enslavement of this woman's husband, her employer.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable, stunning,-brilliant. A "must read" novel. 23 Mar 2004
By David J. Gannon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The publishing of his second novel, The Madonna of Excelsior : A Novel, establishes Zakes Mda as a bright new star of international literature. This novel, like his first, deals with African society?s attempts to deal with the struggle between tradition and modernity in contemporary Africa.
The basis of the novel is an actual event. In 1971 19 citizens of a village in Orange Free State were arrested for violating the Immorality Act in South Africa. Their crime? Interracial sex.
The book is a fictional accounting of the subsequent lives of those caught up in this incident.
The focus of the story, the ?Madonna? of the title is Popi, a young lady who represents the issue of one of these sexual encounters. She is called ?colored? by polite society and far ruder things by most others. Her life transverses the crossover from white apartheid rule to black native African rule and she fit in neither world, being ?to black for the apartheid regime and to white for the African regime?.
Most of the figures in this novel emerge as people deserving, if not of sympathy, at least of understanding. It is one of the strengths of the book that Mda?s politics?if he has any?are entirely absent from the narrative. This is a book about people and their experiences, not a vehicle for political rhetoric. Not that the tragedies of the political situation in South Africa don?t emerge?they most surely do. They do so within the context of the story, however.
In the end the villains in contemporary South Africa are not the apartheid enforcers who instigate the action with their contemptible raid, nor those caught up in it, or even those who discriminate against these people. The villains are those, former opposition leaders resisting the injustice and corruption of apartheid, who now are the legislators, town councilors and such, who allocate jobs, housing, favors and the like to themselves, their wives, girlfriends, family and cronies. All of those who, assuring that everything would change under a regime, instead ensured that nothing in fact would be any different for those without power.
In the end this is a book about people, stuck in an uncomfortable middle, despised by the old guard in their time, despised by the new guard in the present, trying as best they can to come to terms with their pasts, present and futures. It is a singularly insightful and moving tale.
The Madonna of Excelsior is one of the best books I?ve read in years. It?s definitely a ?must read? book.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reality's Rich Colours 18 Sep 2005
By Friederike Knabe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Fiction does not always facilitate or augment the understanding of complex realities of time and place. Zakes Mda, however, has achieved this mixture admirably in this novel of his native South Africa. The political events of pre- and post-Apartheid periods take a central place in the story. Yet he manages to avoid being overly heavy on facts and details as he builds the narrative around the impact of one specific event and its aftermath on one small community, Excelsior. He captures the essence of life under Apartheid and the difficulties awaiting all when the regime ends. Old prejudices and tensions remain and the transition to the new SA adds new challenges and conflicts, including among the black political leadership.

Mda uses the 1971 case of the Excelsior 19 as the focus of the first part of his account. A group of white men and black women were charged with violation of the Immorality Act that prohibits intimate relations across race lines. The primary character is Niki, one of the Excelsior 19 women, whose life story is a symbol for this time and place. As a nave, pretty 18 year old, she attracts the attention of a white Afrikaner who assaults her and keeps pursuing her. Escape into marriage is some protection and also results in her confidence growing. Life is good with a husband and her son, Viliki. Never questioning her role as a servant and second class citizen, a humiliating incident with her white woman boss changes all that.

Her rage leads her to take revenge. Realizing her power as a black beauty and the hold it has over white Afrikaners, she applies it deliberately. The mixed-race daughter Popi is evidence of the hushed-up relationship. Despite the indisputable evidence of children like Popi, the charges against the Excelsior 19 are withdrawn. Still, those implicated and their families have to somehow work out their lives and their various relationships: within families, among neighbours, between Afrikaners, English and Blacks and Coloured. Niki and her children also suffer the consequences. As the narrative of their lives continues, the focus shifts to Popi and her extraordinary beauty. Her features increasingly reveal her parentage to everybody in the community. In the new SA she can play an important role in the community despite the continuing suspicions against mixed race people, who are "not black enough".

Mda does an excellent job of bringing diverse individuals to life. We see them from different angles, we empathize with them and comprehend them as part of a larger reality being is being played out. Nothing is black and white (excuse the pun!), nobody is all "good" or all "bad". Mda acknowledges that Afrikaners maintain their dreams of returning to power and depicts realistically the political conflicts within the black leadership. He introduces two kinds of observers to the novel: Father Claerhout, the Belgian priest-artist living in the region and a knowledgeable "we" narrator. The "trinity" (man, Father, painter), as the Father is referred to, is fascinated by black "madonnas" who sit for him in all their nude loveliness and grace. Niki becomes a preferred subject, mainly because of beautiful young Popi.

The chapters open with the description of one of the trinity's paintings. They create an imaginary world with blue or purple madonnas in lush robes or naked, sitting in yellow corn fields, among surreal bright sunflowers or surrounded by pink and white star like blossoms. The child of the heavy-set full-breasted Madonna is of a lighter shade of brown and with delicate features. Sometimes other elements are added, creating portraits of life in the rural community. Semi-abstract and dreamlike, the paintings are reminiscent of van Gogh. They are always a lead in to the chapter and often the protagonists literally walk off the canvas. The transition between bold imagination and reality is fluid. We, the reader, follow with curiosity and emotion. To complement the trinity's visions, the "we" observer steps in to reflect on people and events. Assumed to be witnesses of Popi's generation, they follow her closely and comment in particular on the attention and mixed feelings she draws in the community. Sometimes critics, sometimes voyeurs, they establish the connections between the paintings and the reality of this microcosm that represents South Africa.

Mda's novel is wide-ranging and multifaceted. While it moves fast through time and events, it allows pauses to ponder scenes and portraits of life and invites reflection of decisive historical events in modern South Africa. You will come away enriched and keen to read more by this remarkable author. [Friederike Knabe]
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The sky was bereft of stars." 26 Mar 2004
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In sensuous, intensely visual language, author Mda depicts the life of Niki, a black South African, showing her day-to-day struggles to survive under apartheid and raise her children, but he also depicts Fr. Frans Claerhout's idealized vision of her in his paintings--as a colorful Madonna figure, the mother of children who will eventually change the world. Niki has posed for many of Fr. Claerhout's paintings, a job which has helped her to feed her black son and her half-white daughter, even though she has often had to walk thirty-five kilometers to his studio in order to pose. Niki's story, from her teen years to old age, becomes the story of South Africa itself during the last half of the 20th century, a novel told from the perspective of a black author, and quite unlike the novels of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, though they cover the same time period.
Excelsior, the township in which Niki lives, is almost entirely black, yet all power in government and business rests in white hands. Without resorting to melodrama or clichés, the author shows in incident after incident, how black women are regarded as chattel, regularly harassed and even raped by their white bosses, town officials, judges, and even clergymen. Yet Niki never yields to self-pity, even when she and eighteen other women and the men who have used them are put on trial for violating the Immorality Act, a violation which has produced Niki's daughter Popi. Imperfect, sometimes angry, and often calculating, Niki comes alive as a woman determined to hang on to her pride, using the only power she has, her sexual power, to control those who would control her.
Vivid scenes of South African life from the 1970s to the present bring Niki and her children to life. As the children grow and become deeply involved in political movements, Mda gives us a clear-eyed picture of South Africa's transition from a restrictive, white-ruled government to a democratically elected government with room for both races. The black people here are real, not idealized, people with hopes, dreams, and strategies for survival, and they evoke enormous sympathy from the reader, especially as their personal limitations and faults become clear. Concentrating less on the national violence and battles for survival, and more on the individual conflicts of people in Excelsior, many of whom the reader has come to like and respect, he presents complex issues in a clear, uncomplicated narrative which throbs with life and offers both hope and caution for the future. Mary Whipple
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars IT IS NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE... 27 Dec 2004
By Lawyeraau - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
South African writer Zakes Mda takes the notorious "Immorality Act" of South Africa's apartheid history, as well as a true event in South African history, which flowed from a violation of this law, and loosely weaves a fictionalized tale that will keep the reader turning the pages of this thematically complex book.

The "Immorality Act" was legislated to prevent miscegenation and ensure the purity of the races. In 1971, in the Orange Free State of South Africa, nineteen of its citizens, both white and black, were arrested for violating this law. The fictionalization of this event serves to contrast the old Afrikaner minority dominated South Africa in which apartheid was the law, and the new South Africa in which blacks are now the ruling majority. The author takes the reader through the transition from the old to the new South Africa through the fictionalization of the then notorious violation of the "Immorality Act".

Niki, one of the main protagonists, is an under-educated black woman living in white Afrikaner dominated South Africa in the township of Excelsior. She lives a life that is regulated by apartheid. She lives in substandard housing, works for Afrikaners for subsistence wages, and is at the beck and call of her employer. Moreover, she is easy prey for those Afrikaners who, despite the "Immorality Act", would forcibly subject her sexually. When her employer's wife forces her to submit to a humiliating invasion of her privacy, Niki fights back the only way she knows how, through the sexual enslavement of this woman's husband, her employer.

When she, along with a number of other native black women give birth to children that are clearly of mixed racial parentage, trouble ensues, and arrests under the "Immorality Act" are made of both male Afrikaners and native black women, of whom Niki is one, causing great scandal in the township. This incident is to leave a great mark on Niki's family, as it ensures the demise of her relationship with her husband, Pule, a miner whose irregular visits home, coupled with bouts of domestic violence, contribute to their estrangement. It affects her son, Viliki, who grows up rebellious, a political activist seeking to wrest political control of South Africa from the Afrikaners. It also affects Popi, the beautiful child of her illicit tryst with her employer, who forever seems to be in denial of her mixed race heritage. The book is not only about Niki's travails in white Afrikaner dominated South Africa under apartheid, it is also about Viliki's and Popi's coming of age in a post-apartheid South Africa in transition.

As the old Afrikaner rule in South Africa gives way to the new black majority rule in South Africa, one begins to realize that the issue is not so black and white. It boils down to power, who has it, and who has not. This is ultimately a story about those who are just trying to live their lives as best they can, as South Africa tries to reconcile its past with its present, while looking forward towards a more hopeful future.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I wanted to like it but it was just OK... 18 Jun 2010
By Words can be music - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I don't often write reviews of books that for me, are "just ok", but that is what I must say about this one. I am quite interested in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and from others' reviews, I really thought I would like this book. The story originates with a historical event, the trial of the Excelsior 19 - 19 African women are imprisoned, to be tried and called as witnesses against their white Afrikaner sex partners for the crime of miscegenation. The women are induced to withdraw their testimony with empty promises, and the rest of the novel chronicles their lives and those of the children, both black and coloured, of these couplings.

Each chapter begins with a lyrical description of paintings by the Oblate missionary priest, Fr. Frans Claerhout, whose work can be found and perused online. In the novel, the paintings sound rather like Van Gogh, but actually they are rather different and less colorful, at least from those I was able to view. Fr. Claerhout is here referred to as "the trinity," in an oblique poetic way which typifies Mda's writing style. He is a source of strength and employment for the women who serve as his models; his presence provides unity and atmosphere as well as an unclouded view of the beauty of the country and its people.

Other reviewers have written well of the novel's portrayal of South Africa's relinquishing apartheid, the various ways that Mda's characters react to these changes, and the way that the revolutionaries, as always, are seduced by the same lust for power and possessions that characterized the white rulers. These societal layers are quite well drawn.

Yet, I found myself unmoved. As the novel progressed, I became impatient with each chapter's predictable poetic descriptions, and I found it hard to really care about the characters themselves. I kept reading for the sake of the societal situation - not because I was wrapped up in the novel itself. Perhaps Mda succeeds in creating more vivid characters in other books - I may be curious enough to try his first and see. In this particular book, I think Mda's concept of using the history as a basis for the action and the paintings as poetic glosses impeded the success of the book as fiction. If you are looking for a good read, skip this one. If you want to know more about South Africa, then go for it, but be prepared...
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