September 13, 2005

Book review: Ways of Dying

"There are many ways of reading!" the Reviewer shouts at us.

There are two things you can pay attention to when reading a novel: What Happens, and What It Means. This, Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, was the first novel I've read in quite some time where reading What It Means was really important. Then again, since this was the first book I've read in a long time with other people's analytical notes scribbled in the margins, maybe it's only that I noticed What It Meant more than I usually do. Honestly? I'm not that good with What It Means. 9 times out of 10 when I'm reading a book for fun it just doesn't occur to me to stop and think about epithets and narrative voices.

Ways of Dying was a grand panoply of epithets and narrative voices. My sister's notes helpfully brought them to my attention, and they turned out to be delightful. There were characters with strangely ironic titles, like that stuck-up bitch which never meant what I thought it did. Most of the story was told by We, The Community, a bossy, all-knowing looker over shoulders that sniffily insisted that we didn't believe what so-and-so said, or we all thought such-and-such was scandalous. People and events were described so slyly that halfway through the book I was still just barely getting a sense of characters who had been appearing since page three.

Halfway through the book is where my problem started. My sister's notes dwindled to a few scribbles and underlines, my attention wandered, and I went back to reading What Happened instead. What Happened in the second half of the book, stripped of its analysis and faded from the novelty of the first hundred pages, wasn't arresting. Most of the questions that I'd been asking for the first half of the book -- how did this boy die, how was he born, what happened to this man's father? -- ended up being answered with either mystical surreality or smirky ambiguity, which fell far short of what I'd been hoping for.

This is probably the most thoroughly mixed book review I've given lately. When I was excited about what I was reading into what I was reading, I was supremely excited about it. When I found myself disappointed with the story I was being told, I was profoundly disappointed. First I raved, and now I'm bitching. I have no real idea whether I'd have loved the second half of the book if I'd been analysing it, nor whether I'd have hated the first half if I hadn't been doing so. I can't even figure out whether to recommend it or not. Caveat emptor and try it if you want?

Posted by dianna at September 13, 2005 02:35 PM

My lecture only covered the first half of the book, so that's where my really meticulous notes stopped. Oops!

Makes me wonder if you might have had a more unified reading experience without the marginalia throughout the first half?

I thought the ending was terribly sad. Poor Vutha II, and poor Noria. The thing that happens to Vutha II really was a fairly common "punishment" in immediately post-apartheid S.A. Sad.

Posted by: katie at September 13, 2005 07:15 PM

That's not sad, that's terrifying. Okay, it's sad and terrifying.

Oh, and I have to point out that the question of how he died wasn't actually one of the things that was mystically surreal or smirkily ambiguous. Vutha's birth was, what happened to Jwara was, the business with the other homeboy whose name I can't remember because it was too long to pronounce was (fleas?), but how this our little brother died was not.

What the devil was that whole business with 30 months about, anyway? When I read that it stood up and yelled in my ear, "Hey! This is Importantly Symbolic somehow!" but utterly failed to impart to me any sense of how. Well, besides being reminiscent of Red Earth and Pouring Rain and making me feel slightly guilty for not having been as annoyed by it in that book as I was in this one.

Posted by: Dianna at September 13, 2005 07:27 PM


Posted by: meee at October 3, 2006 06:47 PM

I'm so humble, people eat me instead of pie.

Posted by: Toloki at October 4, 2006 09:36 AM

I'm not TAing my university's South African Lit class right now, but if I were, I'd be really hoping to get a paper on Ways of Dying plagiarized from Dianna's blog. Or not, since you didn't helpfully cough up examples of Toloki's humility, dude.

In the interest of fulfilling my grad student duties and helping "meee" avoid work, I'll come to the rescue with a couple of sure-fire examples guaranteed to melt the heart of any TA or prof:

Toloki establishes himself as humble near the beginning of the book when the health clinic comes to the village and he offers to drink all the blood so they won't have to pour it out on the ground and contaminate the groundwater.

And again outside the township when he saves Noria from the lion but refuses to accept the necklace of teeth as a token of his bravery in the ceremony with the tribal chief, the police chief, and the man from the Standard Oil Company.

I bet you could do something really symbolic with both of those.

Posted by: katie at October 4, 2006 04:12 PM