The only pull-quote on the front cover of this book: “Zakes Mda may have a more central place in South Africa’s literary and political spheres than any other novelist today.” — The New York Times
High praise but not surprising, considering his latest novel, Little Suns, had just won the Barry Ronge Prize for Fiction and was featured in every bookstore when I visited Cape Town. A quick Google search confirmed for me that it’s as impressive as it sounds — the country’s biggest prize for fiction — so I picked it up and then decided to buy another of his books, too, since he seemed like a pretty big deal and I’m still painfully ignorant of African writers in general. I chose Black Diamond since it looked like fun, and in the end, it was, if only for all the wrong reasons.
The premise is fairly straight-forward. After acquitting two petty criminal brothers accused of running a prostitution ring, a female magistrate, Kristin, sends one brother to prison anyway, citing him for two counts of contempt of court. The other brother reluctantly follows the prisoners orders to harass and threaten Kristin. Their mother, Ma Visagie (who reminded me a bit of Smurf from Animal Kingdom), tries to keep their criminal enterprises going, while their nanny organizes a protest group consisting of her drag queen friends and the out-of-work prostitutes.
Kristin and Don each have their own complicated histories. Kristin, white and blonde and beautiful, was a darling of Johannesburg society until her husband was caught in his own prostitution scandal. Don, black and dirt-poor while growing up in Soweto, was a legendary freedom fighter in exile during the Apartheid days. Kristin resents having Don invade her life and her space, and she makes things as difficult as possible. Don hopes to use this assignment to get a promotion to CEO of his company and satisfy his ex-model girlfriend’s thirst for money and power.
There’s a lot of potential here, but it’s a mess.
Before I started reading, I saw a blurb somewhere that Mda wrote this story as a screenplay, but when his connection fell through, he fleshed it out into a novel. Bingo. That’s why it reads like a novelization of a 1990’s Cinemax sexy thriller starring Shannon Tweed and Eric La Salle. The sex is more seedy than sexy, more silly than passionate, too tame to be titillating. The thrills are weak, and the promise of real violence is never fulfilled. The story doesn’t matter and certainly doesn’t make any sense. It’s a season of soap opera, condensed into a 90-minute screenplay and then transcribed into a 300-page novel with one rule: never let the characters stop repeating the name of the book.
I was hopeful through the first third, frustrated for the next third, but then I just relaxed through to the end and was able to laugh at its awfulness and the poor choice I made when I bought it. Zakes Mda is a better writer than this story shows. His prose was solid, and the bits about race, class, poverty, and crime showed flashes of real promise. I’m confident he won’t disappoint when I read Little Suns later this year.