One of the great privileges of my 2012 Year of Reading the World was the chance it gave me to read a number of stories not usually available to English-language speakers. Whether these came in the form of pre-existing unpublished manuscripts (as in the case of the books I read for countries such as the Comoros and Turkmenistan) or translations created specially for me by generous volunteers (as with my pick for São Tomé and Príncipe), reading these works was an extraordinary experience, like being granted glimpses of a world those around me couldn’t see.
My latest Book of the month is another such marvel currently off-limits to the English-speaking world. Although it was published by the now-defunct Aflame Books in 2008, it has long been out of print, with only the occasional rare second-hand copy popping up now and then.
I received mine in the armful of books that Aflame’s founder Richard Bartlett generously handed to me in 2012, when he shared with me the manuscript of the astonishing Ualalapi, my pick for Mozambique. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have time to read the extra novels that year, having only 1.87 days for each of the titles I featured in my original quest. And, as so often happens, I shoved the others onto a shelf, with the intention that I would get to them eventually.
They might have stayed there for another ten years had a discussion I am due to take part in next month at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with a little-known author (cough, Booker prize-winner Damon Galgut) not prompted me to go through my collections to remind myself of my other South African reads. There it was, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi, a novel selected by an international jury as one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century: The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg by Sibusiso Nyembezi.
In many ways, the novel, which was published in its original language in 1961, is a classic stranger-comes-to-town tale. In the remote village of Nyanyadu, Mr Zeph Mkhwanazi receives a letter from a rich man he has never met, who tells him that he plans to visit and asks Mkhwanazi to convene a meeting of his fellow farmers so that the rich man can set out his plans to use his wealth and influence to improve their lives. Consternation, amusement and upheaval ensue: the arrival of the visitor exposes fault lines in the community, throwing Mkhwanazi and his family into crisis, until at last the village bands together to restore equilibrium.
Yet, though the arc of the story may sound familiar to anglophone readers, the way it is told is anything but. For one thing, the pacing is entirely different to that of most English-language novels: the opening pages, for example, focus mostly on the logistical challenges of reaching Nyanyadu and the complicated arrangements for the collection of the post.
There is also a striking approach to dialogue. Conversations stretch for pages, with many of the same facts and opinions rehearsed multiple times.
These things might sound off-putting or even dull, but in Nyembezi’s hands they are a joy. The narrative is sharp and witty, using a roving close third-person voice (not a million miles from the writing style in Galgut’s The Promise) to expose the inconsistencies and absurdities of the characters. What’s more, the repetition of certain details only makes them more amusing – the fact, for example, that the unknown stranger is ‘an esquire’ and the bewilderment caused by his strange name, Ndebenkulu, which, we are told, means ‘the one endowed with long lips.’
All this provides a wonderful build up to the arrival of the rich man himself. His advent is a masterclass in comic writing. Pompous, ridiculous, eager to tell anyone who will listen about his regular correspondence with prominent white people, and appalled by the prospect of having to travel to his host’s house in a ‘makeshift cart’, Ndebenkulu bursts onto the page. Many of his interactions are laugh-out-loud funny.
Yet Nyembezi is too subtle a writer to satisfy himself with merely amusing his reader. The ground is constantly shifting in this story, showing us how self-doubt, pride and half-forgotten grudges fuel suspicion, break and forge allegiances, and open old wounds. As Mkhwanazi’s neighbours and family members pitch in their opinions on the newcomer, Nyembezi traces the threads that bind the community and stress tests them with the application of the kind of financial, political and social pressures that govern all our lives, making this story of the arrival of an oddball in a remote community a universal reflection of humanity.
The book is, in short, a classic: funny, engrossing, wise and timeless. It ought to be available in English and celebrated alongside the works of its author’s more internationally renowned compatriots. Publishers, please, make it so!
The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg (Inkinsela yase Mungungundlovu) by Sibusiso Nyembezi, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi (Aflame Books, 2008)