There is an interesting dialectic relationship between a reader and a literary text that is always unvoiced. It is a mutual trust grounded on the imagination, on the part of the reader, that the story will live up to the expectation. On the contrary, Wanner’s Men of the South took a downward spiralling for me not in its entirety but on a number of occasions. The most pronounced was the tripartite presentation of three men as the gist of the story whereas a closer reading of the text revealed the inverse for me. I submit that it is more of a story of Slindile, the novel’s ‘la femme fatale’ as opposed to it being a story of Mfundo, Mzilikazi or Tinaye as it promises.
I opine that Sli is a beautiful successful woman fated to live a miserable lonely life: her first love is a typical South African man unable to reconcile his failed job hunt with his ambitious yearning to become a jazz maestro (a typical myth commonly attributed to the horrors and trauma of apartheid in South Africa). When things dip south in his career he escapes into domestic chores and projects his wounded masculinity by blaming the South African women for not appreciating men who are willing to replace them from their traditionally embedded domestic roles. His is not only a warped perception but also a terrible display of lack of fortitude in his dreams since a coup d'état cannot artificially be applied on a traditional practice that people have been socialised into for a long time overnight.
The resultant effect is a disenchanted Sli who suddenly becomes – according to Mfundo – a nag and emotionally unbearable as she claims to shoulder the house responsibilities. The inevitable is bound to happen and it does happen sooner than later. I assume that the ghosts of a traditional patriarchal African society are difficult to exorcise thus Sli finds it difficult to persevere a man who is not a provider as the society would expect him to act. She snaps one day and the rest is history.
In a twist of events, the story takes an unexpected turn when Mfundo is offered a recording contract in Germany. Yes, the storyline falls prey to the common assumption that struggling artistes can only break even with the aid of a benevolent Westerner so to speak. By this time, Mfundo has already literally sunk into a dark pit of drunkenness and let fate take its toll on his life. Arguably, he has become a disgrace not just to his family but also to the society at large owing to the fact that he refuses to put his act together not necessarily as a man but as a responsible human being.
Mzilikazi on the other hand is cast as a spineless gay man who will never man up to come out of his closet. Like other gay men in his immediate environs, he is content to pretend to be a macho man revered by other men and women for exuding ‘admirable masculinity’. Beneath this veiled veneer of masculinity however is an emotional wreck of a man seeking to extricate himself from a ‘dark’ secret – longing to be liberated by the truth, to reveal to the world that he is gay, to be accepted for who he is and to live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, Mzi never masters enough courage to talk about his sexuality beyond his closest of friends. Mzi is also the typical reliable gay man whose loyalty is unquestionable. He is a pillar to Mfundo but he is also a supportive friend to Sli and Tinaye thus coming across as the cohesive link to the story in general. Although he is not so to speak an unreliable male figure, he still falls short of becoming a socially acceptable model like his male counter parts in the text.
It is predictable that when Tinaye is introduced in the narrative, his life would also be dysfunctional. Tinaye is a highly educated immigrant Zimbabwean striving to make ends meet in Johannesburg. The reader almost instantly feels that the author has finally brought into the picture a better character so to speak. But this is not to be since Tinaye plays into the same stereotype that all Zimbabwe men are smooth with women. He attempts to redeem his character by foregoing his true love Sli and opting to marry Grace since she is expecting his baby. A practical ‘African’ man perhaps? The turn of events that results into Tinaye making this decision appears more of a choreographed speech of a social activist that is meant to pass as creative writing.
Indeed, on many other occasions in the text the reader is compelled to read an underlying feministic agenda as opposed to a creative story, nothing wrong with this in anyway. The casting of strong female characters, ones who are successful and educated may come across as the reality on the ground but the juxtaposition of these women with men who cannot hold their own appears as a deliberate effort to sale a certain feministic dogma. Where the men cannot make a decision like Mfundo getting a job or Tinaye calling it quits with Grace, the women come across as focussed and knowing what they want in life. For example, Sli calls it quits with both Mfundo and Tinaye although both of them do not appear to recover from the relationship. Also, Grace is the one who has the guts to tell Tinaye that he cannot abscond his responsibility to her and their unborn baby whereas he appears rudderless.
Buhle, Mfundo’s sister is extremely obsessed with castigating the weaknesses of the male characters perhaps a realistic depiction of the disillusionment of typical South African women with their broken men. She adds to the many other women in the text who are strong willed and determined unlike the men who seem to drown in their sorrows and failed dreams. Is she merely a disgruntled person or does she have reason to be pessimistic with the men?
Ideally, it is Slindile the medical doctor and a mother of one daughter who can still hold her head high at the end of the story. Although she has finally decided to settle down with Tinaye, she does not succumb into self-pity when he chooses to propose to Grace and not her. It is for this that I make the argument that the text is not about the men of south as belied in the title but ideally about the women as epitomised in Sli. It is a story that celebrates women and their achievement even as it does appear like it makes a mockery of the men’s efforts at mending and putting their lives into perspective.
In addition, the story reads more like a gender activist’s adventures as opposed to a creative story. It is for this sole reason that I suggest that the story betrays the trust that is supposed to be forged between a reader and a creative novel since it denies the reader the thrills of suspense and the instincts for discovery. Thus, although it portrays identifiably interesting characters, the story falls short of an exciting read.Perhaps, the attempt to appropriate the voices of the male characters becomes a complex and problematic one in which as a reader I chose to read too much into. Thus, my opinion is that the writer tries to create male characters but does not successfully penetrate their depths just as male authors fall short of comprehensively capturing the essences of female characters. What is your take?