Nthikeng Mohlele’s sixth novel, the recently published Illumination, ponders who among its small cast of characters are really living? Mohlele writes in the opening chapter, “Most souls cannot tell the difference between the many things that make life life.”
The central character in Illumination is Bantubonke, a once celebrated and revered trumpeter, who, after a horrific domestic gas explosion, is left with a disfigured mouth and the inability to reach the heights his trumpet once conquered.
This has left this “musical being, and very little else” in a state of torment. The reader finds Bantubonke in limbo, caught up in his head, unsure whether to accept the law of diminishing returns and abandon the pursuit of the passion that truly drives him or to push on. He describes this mental state as “murky and still not fully formed, an amendment of my nature by seven nautical miles”.
But there is another element to Bantubonke’s music making: trauma. “That smoke of music in my head was also the smoke of the history of my people: those ugly unyielding casspirs spewing teargas smoke in the townships and transit camps, torched police cars and humans running ablaze.” Earlier, Bantubonke described citizens “driven mad by loss and grief” from whom he inherited a “palpable and lingering sadness”, which fueled his trumpet fury. “Art is not only a gift but also an attempt at self-medication,” Bantubonke writes. So Bantubonke is in a state where both his passion and his therapy are unravelling.
Mohlele says South Africa is still living with the “scars of war”. “Apartheid left a mark, and there are different ways of coping,” he says. “The societal temperament is not yet whole because of these hangs up from the past. They lie very shallow.”
This shallowness is evident every time Mohlele writes about place in Illumination. The ghosts of apartheid past linger just beneath every surface.
“People often ask when are we going to let apartheid’s ghosts rest,” says Mohlele. “There are still books being written about the Holocaust, and I can tell you for the next 50 years, more books will be written about it.” He doesn’t think apartheid will ever be mined completely, and that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was destined to fail, no matter how noble a gesture. “The time capsule is almost a poison in itself,” he says. “How do you take 40 years of apartheid and condense it into a commission?”
Mohlele recalls paging through his grandfather’s passbook and being astounded at the levels of administrative oppression documented within it. He argues that apartheid is not only embedded in the identity of our nation, it is also an inter-generational phenomenon. Yet, at the same time, he argues that it’s not true to say that the whole history of South Africa is apartheid. “It’s a dominant part of our history, and there is so much damage. It’s not a history we can ignore,” he says. “But it shouldn’t weigh everything down.”
Certainly in Illumination, through the tale of Bantubonke’s unravelling, apartheid features as an ever-present backdrop. Separated from his wife and his art, the musician enters a downward spiral that Mohlele subtly handles. For Bantubonke, his diminishing talent represents a reckoning against his very being. He longs to reach those previous heights.
The obsessive musician’s quest for the perfect sound is aptly described by critic Greil Marcus in his 2010 book Listening to Van Morrison. “Everything Morrison did before that moment was to reach the point where as a musician who is also a listener, he could find that sound, and everything he has done since an attempt to find it again,” writes Marcus. Mohlele argues Bantubonke’s ultimate downfall is the “level of artistic intensity” he experiences. “Bantubonke can be very gone when he is into his art,” says Mohlele. “But that does not justify him being an ass.”
That Bantubonke loves his wife is clear, but he also holds very patriarchal ideas about how she must save him from himself, and, as his muse, is there to primarily serve his art.
Bantubonke is surrounded by a small collection of friends who face their own dramas.
One is Marcus, a former government bureaucrat, who now drives a hearse for a living after going to jail for a tender corruption scandal. Speaking about Marcus, Mohlele says, “The human drive is by nature and implication prone to that kind of slippage or derailment if the personality is not centred, morally and ethically speaking.”
Mohlele argues that corruption and looting are another form of genocide when you consider it is removing money that could have been used to assist desperate citizens.
But Mohlele is not satisfied with the explanation that one act of corruption defines this man for the rest of his life. “Human life is essentially a series of knee-jerk reactions of different degrees, from a child stealing sugar to nuclear standoffs,” says Mohlele. “The existential crisis of humanity, for me, is there is no one dimension to a human being.”
By choosing to illuminate other aspects of Marcus’ life that sit outside his defining life narrative, Mohlele seems to be asking the reader, what makes up a life? Isn’t the fact that Marcus can cook a delicious meal as relevant as his one-time slip-up? “My characters are multi-layered,” says Mohlele. “In even the worst things, there is light in them.”
This makes Illumination a fascinating novel. In an age of social media-driven outrage and self-righteous expression, Mohlele’s new novel pauses to consider lives from various vantage points, not just the defining historical act that dominates them – just as South Africa’s history is bigger than the dominant narrative of apartheid.