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  • The Heart of Redness: A Novel
  • Joseph McLaren
Mda, Zakes . 2002. The Heart of Redness: A Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 277 pp. $24.00 (cloth).

Zakes Mda, playwright, poet, educator, and author of the award-winning novel Ways of Dying (1995), is an important member of the postapartheid generation of writers. The Heart of Redness, in which redness indicates traditional South Africa, is a multigenerational saga. Its title echoes Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, often challenged by African writers for its characterizations and imagery. Set in Qolorha, Mda's novel delineates numerous interwoven familial relationships, so complex that the author includes in the beginning a genealogical chart of the "Descendants of the Headless Ancestor," Xikixa. The author's dedication admits to reinventing certain lives of Qolorha and recognizes historian J. B. Peires for his work on the "cattle-killing."

The novel shows how a writer's imagination recreates the historical record by dramatizing facts and occurrences. Mda recounts the divisions that developed among the Xhosa, unravels the controversies with British colonizers in the nineteenth century around the time of the Great War of Mlanjeni, and brings forward to contemporary times the legacy of these ruptures. Initially, these divisions were caused by the beheading of Xikixa, the "Headless Ancestor," by British soldiers including John Dalton, the nineteenth-century character who would become a magistrate.

Working through the opening of the novel can be a strenuous task, sorting the many characters whose names are symbolic and metaphorical, such as "NoPetticoat" and "NoEngland." There are references to known historical figures, such as Nongqawuse, the prophetess whose visions contributed to the infamous "cattle-killing" event of 1856-1857. Historians have debated her historical significance. She prophesied a resurrection of ancestors that would contribute new warriors to the fight against the British.

Historians have argued that the "cattle-killing" was influenced by a web of causes, including Christianity, indigenous beliefs in "regeneration," and "lungsickness," a bovine disease transported from Europe to the Cape, causing an epidemic in 1854 (Peires 1987:43-46). Mda uses various elements of the complex history in his fictional exploration. Portions of the novel are set against the Frontier Wars, from 1837 to 1857. Including starvation, the social repercussions caused by the cattle-killing are expressed by Mda in flashback episodes: "Throughout kwaXhosa, Believers were killing [End Page 134] hundreds of cattle every day. People were not allowed to eat meat of cattle that had been killed the day before" (p. 87).

The familial divisions are drawn around the descendants of those who compromised and those who resisted and exterminated their cattle. On one side is Zim, a "Believer"; on the other, Bhonco, an "Unbeliever," whose marriage to NoPetticoat resulted in the birth of Xoliswa, a Fort Hare graduate, who also received a degree from an American college. Although these divisions become the principal thread represented by the two characters Zim and Bhonco, it is the introduction of Camagu, exiled in the United States during the 1960s when he was a teenager, who brings the novel into sharper contemporary focus and furthers the complex entanglements. The name Camagu can be translated as "be appeased!" or "be propitious!" (Peires 1987:51). After a three-decade exile, Camagu returns in 1994 to vote and later journeys from Johannesburg to Qolorha. He eventually marries Xoliswa, the daughter of the Unbeliever Bhonco and emerges as the central character among the novel's multiple representations and shifting focal points.

Mda represents the British in historical and contemporary frameworks through John Dalton, the storeowner and great-great-grandson of the nineteenth-century Dalton. The contemporary Dalton was raised in the village and knows the language of isiXhosa, having attended "initiation school." He is characterized as mocking the "sneering snobbishness of his fellow English-speaking South Africans" (p. 9). Other white characters are principally governors or military figures, such as the "Great White Chief," possibly a reference to the actual Sir Harry Smith; Sir George Cathcart, who replaced Smith; and "The Man Who Named Ten Rivers," referring to Sir George Grey, Cathcart's successor.

Thematically, the novel is concerned with land rights and the destiny of South Africa. The land question...


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