Life & Times of Michael K by author Nthikeng Mohlele ignites audience

Talk Radio 702’s Eusebius McKaiser (in a cap) in conversation with author Nthikeng Mohlele, at the book launch held at Braamfontein. Image Jacob MAWELA

The tender voice belonged to 20 month old Naledi, a daughter to one of the men and her sudden intervention, as she advance towards her father, had the welcome effect of breaking a rather serious train of thought in the discussion the duo was immersed in.  The gathered crowd swooned in gobsmacked reaction.

Up until that moment of momentary distraction, sentences such as “used her panties as a napkin” were being bandied about for the hammer, anvil and stirrup of listeners.

That particular liberty with words immediately drew a bashful reaction from one of the two men, with both his body language and expression urging an obligation to circumspection with what was being conveyed – seeing as his wife happened to be present.  The female section of the crowd burst out laughing! The other man had forewarned the gathering that, “he wanted to talk about sex.

Sex was part of a literary menu which touched upon various topics and it was all in the name of good-natured banter, and quotation of excerpts from a slim book one of the men kept on reading from.

The venue was a relatively new address on student town, Braamfontein Werf named, African Flavour Books.

Within its walls, the floor-to-ceiling shelves heaved with book titles refreshingly by South African authors, and mainly about South Africa.  Earlier in the immediately-after-work evening, a giant of a man, his face wearing the expression of a beaming smile whose flash would welcome a stranger from afar off, had approached a mic at the front  of the seated audience and extended apologies as the featured speakers were running late.

He encouragingly invited the guests to in the meantime help themselves to snacks and wine.  Aptly for the proprietor of a business concern which deals with words, his name also happened to be in the curious library of food for thought.  The gentle giant with the welcoming smile answered to the words formation: Fortisque – with his family name going by: Helepi.

The duo seated on the elongated stools were the speakers which the smartly dressed audience featuring  a fair representation of the generational, colour and gender demographic, had gathered to hear engaging in conversation.  They got to hear one of the two men confessing to the other that he was jealous of the other’s writing.  It would come across as ironic from his part since he, himself happens to be the envy of most of the country’s bookworms.  What with titles such as: Would I Vote DA?, A Bantu in my Bathroom and Run Racist Run, under his relatively youthly girdle?

Bespectacled and donning a baseball cap, this was none other than Talk Radio 702’s Eusebius McKaiser and he was typically infecting the now warmed-up space with his erudite nuggets and wowing the ear with his trademark turn-of-thought as only he is naturally talented in dispensing.

The man he was positioned alongside said he was born in Limpopo but raised in Tembisa.  Although already an author of four critically acclaimed novels, he actually paid his bills through being part of the civil corps answerable to one of the state departments strewn across the nation’s capital.

What’s more, McKaiser had also incredibly let slip that the man happened to be his favourite novelist and, incredibly more: that the evening was his very first encounter with him!  Evidently excited, he went on to describe the other man’s work as “exquisite!”

The man in question was Nthikeng Mohlele, a 2017 K. Sello Duiker Memorial Prize winner, and the excerpts such as the one making references regarding women’s underwear which McKaiser kept quoting, were from his fifth and most recent offering titled, Michael K.

Mohlele’s novel is a response to Nobel Literature laureate, JM Coetzee’s classical masterpiece, Life & Times of Michael K.  In his book, Mohlele dabbles in the artistic and speculative, in a unique attempt to unpack the dazed and disconnected world of the title character, his solitary ways, his inventiveness, but also to show how astutely Michael K holds up a mirror to those whose paths he inadvertently crosses.

Michael K explores the weight of history and of conscience, thus wrestling the character from the confines of literary creation to the frontiers of artistic timelessness.

How is it that a character from literary fiction can so alter the landscapes he touches, even as he – in his self-imposed isolation – seeks to avoid them?  How is it that Michael K, bewildered and bewildering, can remain so fragile yet so present, so imposing without attempting to be so?

Mohlele quipped that Coetzee’s book felt like a suicide mission.  He touched on phrases such as what he alluded to as multiplicity of possibilities, whereat murderers became musicians and pickpockets existed alongside pizza-delivery boys.  Township identities, he deemed, were problematic.  To McKaiser’s [who described himself as a Coetzee fanatic] question, why Michael K? – Mohlele responded that it was because he controlled so many things.

Consider the following excerpt: “Those in the know claim Michael K disembarked from a diesel-smoke-spewing truck one overcast morning, looked around, and without missing a beat, chose a spot where he set down a small bucket [red, burnt and disfigured] that contained an assortment of seedlings, some fisherman’s twine and a rudimentary gardening tool – probably self-made.”

In a Q & A, Mohlele’s part response to why this particular novel, was that he believed that there was nothing wrong with liking/loving a particular writer’s work, but that he didn’t think it was sufficient to idolise that writer blindly and uncritically to a point of artistic hypnotism or paralysis.

He went on to state that he had no intentions to make life or artistic decisions based on the thoughts and preoccupations of others – not to an extent that there would be expectations or a sense of entitlement as to what he should, could and couldn’t do.

Describing Michael K as a novel with strong poetry motifs wherein the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Derek Walcott is touched on – he pointed out that what he referred to as intertextuality, went beyond Life and Times of Michael K – to make reference indirectly to other JMC novels, viz: The Master of Petersburg, Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.

To the suggestion of whether he was worried to delve into the character of a literary great with a cult following as JM Coetzee is,  Mohlele offered that he could just have easily reworked something by the likes of Mandla Langa, Wole Soyinka or Dambudzo Marechera, to name but a few.

“The decision to engage a JMC novel”, he said,” had/has more to do with thematic interest as opposed to groupie chasing of Mr Coetzee.  Life and Times of Michael K is a work of great integrity and moral depth: I am attracted to such sensibilities in my personal and artistic adventures.”

At African Flavour Books and seeing as he was a Tembisa boy, someone in the audience wanted to find out from Mohlele whether he would consider writing a character in a book based on the late musician and homeboy, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

With wife, Sharon looking on and the audience sufficiently enthralled by the lively exchanges, Mohlele responded in the affirmative.

Remarked literary luminary, Professor Zakes Mda, of Mohlele’s novel: A work of reflective intensity, re-imagining a memorable character from JM Coetzee’s world of stark and sparse prose and transplanting him in Mohlele’s ornate and lyrical one.

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