Book Review: The Madonna of Excelsior
Book Title: The Madonna of Excelsior
Author: Zakes Mda
Genre: South African Fiction
My uninformed guess is that larger part of popular South African fiction is inspired by the country’s political past. Writers who have been awarded literature accolades in the past are known to abundantly dap in that part of history. Few writers come to mind – Alan Paton, Can Temba, Nadine Gordmer, etc. I had the similar expectation when I read the The Madonna Of Excelsior by Zakes Mda
The Madonna of Excelsior
Before Zakes could allow the reader to drown in a story he poetically paints each chapter’s beginning. It is like taking the reader to the mountain top then pushing them for a free fall and as the adrenalin increases, he releases the parachute and the landing is safe.
The book chronicles a story that occurred in two parts: Apartheid and post apartheid and it covers two generations – the story of a mother, then a daughter’s story. It then combines both generations –
It begins in the middle of the plot, where we are introduced to the main characters, Niki (the Madonna who is referenced in the title) and her blue-eyed ‘coloured’ child, Popi. It then returns to the past to explain how the significant events occurred.
In 1971, nineteen female citizens of Excelsior in South Africa’s white-ruled Free State were charged with breaking apartheid’s Immorality Act, which forbade sex between blacks and whites. One of those charged was Niki, whom the book is the basis of.
Niki is married and her loving husband, who comes home twice a year, works in the city. She works in a butchery, which is owned by an Afrikaner Stephanus Cronje. One day the owner’s wife, Cornelia, accuses her of thievery and orders her to strip naked in front of everyone as to prove she didn’t steal meat. It is then where Stephanus sees Niki naked and he lusts after her. As a way of revenge for the humiliation she suffered, Niki agrees to have sex with Stephanus. It is during these escapades that Popi was conceived. Bearing in mind that the Cronje’s already have son, Tjaart.
Apartheid ends. Popi grows and is involved in city politics and joins a city council, which his half brother, Tjaart and his other half-brother, Vikili, are members. This is where confrontations, not motivated by politics but personal, occur.
Perhaps what Zakes highlighted through out the book is the injustices of apartheid. Not only how it majorly affected blacks but how, to a minor extent, it affected whites as well. The case in point is Tjaart and Popi. Although they are siblings but they couldn’t enjoy each other’s company yet they needed each other and that led to resentment and anger towards each other or maybe towards the system.
What was enthralling about the book, other than its engaging story is that it allows the reader to view the devastating effects of apartheid from three different angles: Vikili who is black, Tjaart who is white and Popi who is colored, all trying to make sense of their circumstances.
The only snag about the book is that, Zakes tries to squeeze into it one different unique story that I felt could have been written separately and still would have done well. That left a whole lot of things hanging, especially for Popi. I would have hoped for a different ending
Quote from the Book
“From the sins of our mothers all these things flow,”