Tsotsi, Athol Fugard

Finished reading this now, waiting for students at school to catch up! If only some damn fool of a teacher just let them read it instead of teaching it and making them do work on it! Oh well!

This is an outstanding book!

The quality of the writing literally glitters on the page and the novel reads more as a poem than a novel: I have never read such a lyrical piece of writing.

The novel revolves around the character of Tsotsi, a young man who is the leader of a gang of four thugs in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1950s. The name Tsotsi itself means “thug” or “gangster” and we are told in chapter one that it is a nickname: he has no recollection of almost any part of his past including his own name. Identity is a huge part of this novel: Tsotsi’s lack of identity, his inability to construct his features in the mirror into a man with meaning; and his gradual realisation of who he is and how he came to be where he is by the end.

Tsotsi and his gang a clearly very shallow, violent characters lacking empathy with the people around them. Within three chapters, they have stabbed a man on a train, raped a woman in a shebeen, Tsotsi has beaten and “broken” another member of his gang and attempted to rape another woman. He is only stopped in the rape attempt when the woman thrusts a shoebox into his hands which contains a baby.

A word here about the Gavin Hood film of this book. The film updates the novel to the 21st century and seems to make Tsotsi younger and less hard than I had expected: he seems to stab the man on the train almost as a mistake, regretfully, when he starts to complain; he acquires the baby in the film by hijacking a car in the film and shoots the baby’s mother and, again, seems to be an accident. In the book, Tsotsi is utterly remorseless: the murder on the train was a deliberate and calculated murder, not an unfortunate escalation of a robbery. He is shown as not simply accepting violence or being violent but as defining himself through violence and the hurt he deals to others.

I felt that the second half of the book was slightly less tightly structured and written than the first half. The section in the Church and the explicit Christian message seemed unnecessary to me; and the abruptness and ambiguity at the end if the book frustrated me.

In addition to the lyricism, which I mentioned before, what I did relish in the book were the minor characters: Gumboot Dhlamini, the victim on the train; Morris, whom he stalks in the middle of the book; and Miriam whom he forces to feed the baby. The power of these minor characters, inhabiting the furthest outskirts of society, is extraordinary. Their desperate perseverance to keep hold of their lives, whether toiling in the mines or crippled on the streets or waiting for a husband who will never return home, is genuine and authentic and utterly convincing.

13th February

Need to reread this for work and already blown away by the lyricism of the prose. This is a hugely character driven story and, from what I recall, Fugard makes them more than mere ciphers. The small moments of challenge between Tsotsi and Boston in Chapter One reveal Fugard’s theatrical background.

Very lucky to have a job where reading books like this is “work”!

29th Feb

Reading the section in the book where Tsotsi runs from the slums of Sophiatown into the no man’s land between the black and white areas, a liminal space in which the colours became bleached in the moonlight leaving “a prismatic, polished, gleaming world of white surfaces… A glacial white” in which the sounds become “hard, leaping, crystal” and the moonlight “lay around him in pools… Mobile as quicksilver”. An absolutely stunning otherworldly (perhaps drug induced) description. And a moment later, Tsotsi will have the baby that will change his life thrust into his hands. Fabulous!

Publisher: Canongate

Date: 5th February 2009

Available: Amazon

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