Let’s begin with the blurb of an imaginary book about a South African woman during the years of struggle against apartheid. It reads:
So what does a woman do in the absence of her husband, who is in jail, in the mines, in exile, or is dead, or away studying, or spends most of the time on the road as a salesman, or who, while not having gone anywhere in particular, is never at home because he’s just busy fooling around? This woman has seen all kinds of departures, has endured the uncertainties of waiting, and has hoped for the return of her man. Departure, waiting and return: they define her experience of the past, present and future. They frame her life at the centre of a great South African story not yet told.
This book tells the stories of four unknown women, and that of South Africa’s most famous woman, who waited.
Thus, Ndebele has written the blurb to the book you are about to read. Deftly mixing speculation with fact, the book starts with Penelope, who waited nineteen years for Odysseus to return, and whose act of waiting is a frame within which the reader experiences the lives of four nameless South African women and their largely interior lives. One waits for her husband who goes away to work and never gets in touch; one works and supports her husband while he studies in some other country to become a doctor; the third waits for her man to return from exile, but his return is nothing like she’d imagined it; and the last one’s waiting is different because though her husband is physically present, he is absent in every way that matters.
But none of this would have been effective or even unique has Ndebele not taken this several steps further. These stories are mere outlines, a sketch of an intention. At the heart of the book, these women meet. Not for real—they aren’t even real, except as types—but they meet and form an ibandla, a commune of people, who meet ritually and talk or share their lives.
You must surely know something definite about them now. Each is an illustration of a thought. Yet, they all seem to be struggling to wriggle out of the cocoon of thought, seeking to emerge as fully-fledged beings. Seemingly, that’s what happens when thought, under the pressure of memory and narrative, steadily gives way to desire.
Is it possible that our four descendants, as instances of thought turning into desire, can find themselves together in a room? Why not? The intangibility and randomness of imagination permit them absolute mobility. In this universe our descendants travel where they want, taking whatever shape they want, listening to whatever wanders in their ears.
I’m struck by several things in this passage: the beauty of the line, “Seemingly, that’s what happens when thought, under the pressure of memory and narrative, steadily gives way to desire.” Then there’s the gentle setting up of a counterpoint to the narrative of waiting, in the last sentence. This segues imperceptibly into something a little harder to take in a novel so restrained and academic in tone, but which become perfectly acceptable to the reader when it happens: the four women invite Winnie Mandela – the most famous South African woman who waited – to join the ibandla and witness their interpretations of how she endured and why she did some of the less palatable things she has been accused of doing.
In the sections that follow, each of the women view Winnie Mandela through the lens of their experiences of waiting and ask her questions they attempt to answer on her behalf. Ndebele uses extracts from real letters written or published; from books and biographies and weaves them skilfully into the narrative. And most radically, Winnie Mandela finally speaks. In the longest chapter in the book, Ndebele gives eloquent voice to Winnie Mandela – there’s much that I’d like to quote from this section, but I’d land up quoting the entire chapter!
Indeed, the whole book is full of sentences you’d want to mark or remember, or pencil in for future reference. If only this has been my own copy, it would have things written in the margins of every page.
Here’s one last, rather longish passage:
Yes. First, before he comes back into my life, he must reappear in the same way he disappeared. This is the beauty of it: the beginning of his journey towards me, if he’ll be willing to take it. This means, I’ll watch him
come to my house through a door he will find so different he has to have a question about it; he’ll walk in upright through a door. There’s no way he cannot ask the question, whether to me or to himself: how did the door come to be different? Yes, the door to my house is my door. Then what?
Here I must slow down and savour the thought. You see, we have always tried to provide the solutions to problems that have not yet occurred. The reflex thought that you live with every day is that one day when your man returns, you have the emotional obligation to embrace him. You rehearse in your mind the reflex embrace of welcome. Simulating naturalness to perfection. After all, didn’t you miss him so much? No. Resist. Stay away from the trap of obligation. Turn obligation into serene detachment. Become a woman with her thoughts. A woman who observes. A woman who observes her man of long ago come in through her door. A woman of detachment who observes and holds on to her options, which suddenly rush at her like a tidal wave. Savour the passion of enormous possibility.
A woman of detachment, who observes, is a woman who finally realises that what she really missed about her man was no longer him, but the idea of him. So one day, when the idea comes back in through the door, you think it’s him. It could be a fatal mistake. Hold back and observe. Keep those arms folded over the cushion of your breasts. Don’t even ask where he has been. Ever. A nostalgic, sentimental, thoughtless embrace and a silly question about where he has been are a deadly combination that will see your options disappear as you begin to enter his history at the expense of yours. If you ask him where he has been, your question will become his door to his house. And you’re finished, my girl. That’s when you begin the great response. Responding to him as you slowly enter his house until you are completely swallowed up by it. And being there, you’ll never relax in it; not knowing when he may throw you out if it.
I could go on; but do read the book if you manage to find it. I’m going to read it again before I return it.
Njabulo S. Ndebele is currently the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Cape Town. The Cry Of Winnie Mandela was published in 2003. His book, Fools and Other Stories was made into a film.