In one of rare occasions, I was able to watch a staged adaptation of Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Jorbug in late summer early 2015. I acknowledge Karabelo, a colleague in the department of Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, who heard my cry and came to my rescue. For quite a number of months after having been in the University of Free State for over six months, I had been complaining that I had not been into a theatre to watch a play except to attend seminars/presentations. Thanks to my colleague who took me to watch the adaptation of London Cape Town Jorbug just before I left for Kenya. It was a great farewell gift. Now that I have read the story I can say so with conviction. The director did a good job and the cast did wonderfully well.
However, nothing beats a good story as reading the story in its original print version and seeing the events come to life by themselves at the back of your mind. I have ended up reconstructing the script afresh and staging the story in my mind as I read along. Needless to say I found myself mouthing certain swear words with a Brrrr accent. It has been worthwhile to indulge some migrant literature at a time when scholars are still engaging lively debate on the same. If you have your sights and interest on literature about migrations, race, mixed marriages and a coming-of-age relationship, then here is an ambitious story that embarks on packaging all and more in one text.
“Zuko Spencer-O'Malley is dead.” This is the narrative hook that opens the novel. I immediately became suspicious of the name and chose to read into the text’s undertones of a character whose blood is laced with mixed race. I did not have to read far to discover that the father of the untimely dead teenager is one Martin O’Malley (black) married to Germaine Spencer (white). The love story between the two of them is of a romantic nature, one that begins with a light touch when Germaine is dared by her female confidante, Priya, to obtain the phone number of a stranger in a London bar. Martin is a black South African and an Investment Banker in the City while Germaine is English and a lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design and a ceramicist. Theirs is a love story of a rollercoaster nature characterised by breath-taking moments and scuttling to either an exhilarating end or a tragic one.
The seed of their love is sowed in London, it bears its roots and sprouts there but eventually it blossoms and solidifies when they settle first in Cape Town and eventually in Johannesburg. The triangular nature of the physical locales of habitation epitomises the different experiences, challenges and achievements in their lives. In my wildest of dreams I did not imagine that such a catastrophe as the one that befalls the protagonist couple would happen but at the backdrop of the socio-political and economic tragedies befalling many migrants this might not even be near the magnitude of suffering that most people in such a situation find themselves in. At least the scenario in the South African nation is already tragic enough as it is!
Thus, the tripartite structure of the text best captures three historic moments in the lives of the protagonist couple as well as that of the South African nation. London (1994-1998) is a momentous time as South Africa transitions from an apartheid country to a free one in a historic democratic election. Nelson Mandela takes over the helm of the nation and Martin O’Malley and Germaine Spencer fall into in a biracial relationship that takes them by storm literally. The writer then provides an intricate narrative that weaves the biographical stories of the protagonist couple together by bringing on board their family members and close friends. It is here that the protagonist couple marry, beget Zuko Spencer-O’Malley, we learn of O’Malley’s previous relationship with Soraya and his connection to Sufyian, Spencer’s closeness with Priya and her complex lover Anil amongst other happenings.
In the second part, Cape Town (1998-2008), we experience the physical dislocation of the couple as they transition from London to Cape Town. The political mood in South Africa is also such that the presidency has changed and some political undertones of dissent abound. At the same time, the social, economic and political affairs are also in a transitory mood. As a few citizens appear to excel, the majority are left wallowing in the miasma of destitution even as they grapple with memories of historical injustices that had been meted out to them by the apartheid regime. For instance, Germaine realises that there are deep seated problems that cannot be resolved through hand-outs. The general mood that pervades the text is palpable. However, both O’Malley and Spencer seem to thrive and blend in well including Zuko who appears to have established his identity through his promising swimming pastime.
|Zukiswa Wanner: Author|
It is in Joburg (2008-2011) that the thrill and excitement in the text peaks and ultimately comes crushing down. Zuko has in the closing pages of the second part attained a voice through journal entries. All along we have been listening to the narrative voices of O’Malley and Germaine alternate with each other but now we have to reckon with the subtle innocent voice of their son. It is an artistic move with a far reaching effect since Zuko’s death, voiced in his journal entries, will finally tear the hearts of his parents as well as those of the reader apart. O’Malley’s marriage to Germaine is too good to be true: the ideal investment banker husband and the iconic artistic wife who discovers her independence in art as a way of self-expression. However, the staining of the perfect protagonist couple’s relationship with the death of their only son Zuko comes across as too harsh. The crumbling of their economic investment is understandable but the sexual assault of their son by his closest uncle Liam and his subsequent suicide is extremely hurtful and abominable.
London Cape Town Jorbug is a tragic story short of catharsis. The economic misfortunes of O’Malley through the conning by his estranged father blends in well since it preys on O’Malley’s weakness for unreasonably trusting a man that his mother and wife had earnestly warned him against. On the contrary, the ugly death of Zuko Spencer-O’Malley is devastatingly unjustified. Even when I watched the staged version I still felt short-changed as much as I tried to console myself that this is fiction and I should distance myself from emotional indulgence. It is a rich novel with revelations of racial experiences especially for mixed race relationships. But more importantly, it is a text with daunting information concerning scars of apartheid trauma, anti-racism racism, xenophobia and how relationships are tempered with by different experiences and occurrences. The writer does not have to write a happily-ever-after-story but in this case Wanner could have made an exception. Don’t you agree?