on 18 May 2009
Fugard's novel covers just over three days in the life of "Tsotsi", a township gang-leader in Apartheid-era South Africa, commencing with the evening a baby is thrust upon him. What follows is both a portrait of the precarious and dangerous nature of township life and a meditation on how hopes are dashed and lives irreparably damaged.
This is a relatively short novel, written in easy story segments. Fugard writes with both sympathy and quiet outrage for the fates of his characters. No one is dismissed or judged no matter how repulsive their fate or lifestyle. What makes this a compelling read is the attempt to see beyond appearances, to explain fates, to understand choices. Ultimately though, this is also what keeps this a four-star not a five-star novel. Tsotsi is a powerful character, lost in his dark, violent world. The baby triggers memories of a destroyed childhood, the baby offers redemption and yet there is something a little too obvious with this, something that jars: The baby is there in spirit rather than substance. The baby is the least real of all the characters (even the other baby) with no back-story or resolution and in the context of this novel, this inconsistency may irk you too. That said, this remains a worthwhile read.
In a razzia by the South-African police looking for illegal immigrants, the main character of this book, a 10 year old, looses 'the big, gentle, warm, protective mother behind whom he had hidden and escaped from the whole world of a child's fear.'
From now on, he stays defenseless in a strange labyrinth of laws, 'loneliness, being the only person in the world ... He learnt the lesson of hunger ... He learnt to watch for the weakness of sympathy or compassion for others weaker than yourself, like discovering how never to feel the pain you inflicted. He had no use for memories ... There was only the present, that continuous moment carrying him forward without question of regret.'
He becomes a tsotsi, a wild, brutally killing animal, always looking around for easy targets (the painted and the cripple): 'There was no conflict. It wasn't a question of should I, or shouldn't I. He was resigned to the inevitable, watching it unfold as doctors would the last stages of a disease in a patient who is beyond help.'
But one day, his wild mind is shaken when he meets a woman with a child. He is confronted with the moral problem of 'decency' as one of his gang members said.
Athol Fugard draws a profoundly moving and dramatic picture of a child gang in a dark and life threatening city. The treatment of the variations on the theme of absence - mother, father, friends, moral conscience, life - is not less than masterful.
This book is a real masterpiece.
As Jonathan Kaplan points out in his Introduction to this only novel of the South African playright, Athol Fugard, b. 1932, two students found the manuscipt, from 1960, among the writer's papers and inspired its publication two decades later.
Set in Sophiatown in the mid-1950s, the central character is the eponymous Tsotsi, a nickname synonymous with thuggery and gangsterism. Tsotsi, in his early twenties and without hope and any kind of moral compass, has no memory of his family. Indeed, he responds to any questions about his past with violence [‘Tsotsi tolerated no questions from another. It wasn't just that he was caught without answers. It went deeper than that. Those questions sounded the vast depths of his darkness, making it a tangible reality. To know nothing about yourself is to be constantly in danger of nothingness, those voids of non-being over which a man walks the tightrope of his life. Tsotsi feared nothingness. He feared it because he believed in it. Even more than that, he knew with all the certainty of his being that behind the facade of life lurked nothing.’]
He was brought up in a boys’ gang and now, with his own gang - Boston [intelligent but cowardly], Die Aap [named because of his slow brain and enormous strength] and Butcher [a quiet killer whose preferred technique is to skewer the heart with a sharpened bicycle spoke] he plans and carries out vicious crimes both for financial gain and enjoyment.
Fugard, describes the planning and execution of these attacks, and accentuates that reader’s emotional discomfort by describing the victims and their own personal struggles in great detail - Gumboot Dhlamini and, even more so, Morris Tshabalala who lost his legs in a mine accident and must now pull himself along the hot, dusty and teeming streets by his hands and arms. When Tsotsi stands on Morris’ hand by mistake his fate is sealed ‘I’ll take you, you bastard, he thought. Tonight I’ll take you. His choice was made.’ The author describes Tsotsi’s stalking of Morris from the standpoint of hunter and hunted.
He shows the response of the black population to Tsotsi, ‘the big men, the brave ones stood down because of him, the fear was of him, the hate was for him’. Tsotsi is unable to empathise, seeing those weaker as him as ripe for attack and women as targets for his lust.
Fugard describes the bleak, unforgiving environment and characters in a very poetic manner. The book pulsates with energy – ‘By the time it is light, Terminal Place is alive. The shops are opened, the hawkers have trundled up their carts and unpacked their wares, the pavements are bustling with women fat with pride and progeny, with men thin with poverty and persistence, and youth full of tease and tit. They bump each other, they buy from each other, bargaining, bantering all the time, they come together and part, friends are seen for the first time in years, or for the last time in just as many years, many no longer look hopefully for the missing brother or husband or father.’
Having created this very anti-social anti-hero, Fugard introduces an event that leads Tsotsi to remember something of his past, a chained dog, his mother and grandmother, even his name. The gang is no longer the most important structure of his life and he now sees his fellow gang members as completely different characters. Instead, this brutal young man begins a journey towards humanity, dignity and love. Fugard seems to be setting up Tsotsi for a religious conversion before the final twist in this harrowing yet uplifting book.
Throughout the novel, Fugard sets his scenes in stark urban territory, along streets where shadows mean danger, in drinking clubs and on the borders of the new world where the white population live. His characterisation and dialogue, stimulated by direct knowledge of the black township community, is already masterful since at this time only a few of his plays had been published.
It would be interesting to know why Fugard originally wrote this as a novel rather than a play, and did not later adapt it for the stage. It certainly has the energy, emotion and moral discomfort that is a theme of all of his stagework. Tsotsi was adapted as a film in 2005 and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the following year.
This is a novel that should be very well known, not just within the canon of modern African writing but within the breadth of world literature.
on 20 December 2009
This novel is on the reading lists for some GCSE English Literature courses. With its hard-hitting themes (violence, abuse) and, at first, fiercely unsympathetic main character, it may seem an odd choice. But Fugard weaves a complex tale of loss and redemption which, in the end, is vivid and surprising. A challenging, exciting read which should lead to some compelling discussions. I now want to see the film that was based on it.
on 4 July 2012
I needed a copy of Tsotsi for GCSE marking. I was an examiner this summer and so it had to go on my to be read list. Quite rapidly in fact as I was late sending off for a copy, which fortunately came very promptly. In spite of extensive reading, an English Degree from the days when you had to read books I had never heard of either Athol Fugard or Tsotsi. In fact I was very much hoping that none of my schools would have done this particular book, but they all would have opted for "Of Mice And Men" which is one of the great books of the world and co-incidentally one I know well. Tsotsi however also deserves this title. It is a powerfully yet simply written novel, accessible to readers of all ages. And a total revelation to me. Wonderful, moving, and the sort of book once read always remembered.