Set in what is generally regarded as the “dark underbelly” of Cape Town’s taxi world, Imraan Coovadia’ s The Institute for Taxi Poetry is a national treasure. Not only does the novel constitute an innovative and nuanced perspective on taxi organisations in general, it also poses potent questions on the notion of identity as it applies to the owners, drivers and doormen of these organisations. As such it pioneers a new category of storytelling in South Africa, a category which grapples with marginality, violence and human bonds and, above all, provides a refreshing definition to the composition of poetry.
The story begins with the protagonist, Adam Ravens, contemplating the upcoming funeral of his mentor, Solly Goldfield. This trail of thought leads him to lament not only the mysterious circumstances surrounding Goldfield’s death in relation to the politics of taxi owners in the district, but also the loss of a rather odd, yet influential, figure in the institution of taxi poetry. Solly’s death and subsequent funeral therefore foreground issues of memory and the trauma of loss in a setting where taking the time to acknowledge vulnerability is a luxury. In a conversation with another taxi poet, Geroniam, for example, Adam argues, “Nobody said [Solly’s death] was an assassination … this is a place where anything can happen.” Geroniam responds by observing that one bullet in a man means that he could have possibly committed suicide, two means he was resolute in his suicide; however, “After six bullets, well, my angel, my thoughts are turning in the direction murder” (62).
This interchange is demonstrative of both the mysterious killing of Solly and the impossibility of knowing that accompany Adam’s reflections on his loss. Moreover, the episode marks the ubiquity and expectation of violence – self-inflicted and otherwise – in the setting.
The characters are thus perpetually contending with the inevitability of death and the struggle to survive. This theme is, however, rendered ironic by the narrative voice’s pervasive use of humour. The comic element inherent in the narrative may but be regarded as a coping mechanism for Adam precisely because it draws attention to the fact that his current reality is characterised by an atrocity which cannot be processed in the same manner that non-traumatic material is processed: he cannot engage with the violence directly. Consequently, while attempting to mourn Solly, Adam is also acutely aware of the implications of his mentor’s death with regard to his own position in the volatile political atmosphere surrounding the Institute and the taxi world. His retrospective first-person narration is thus constantly interrupted by the interminable present.
As previously intimated, Covaadia’s novel is rooted primarily in the institutionalisation of taxi poetry. While located in the post-colonial project of inscribing in text what has, until now, remained an oral tradition, the systemisation of the doorman’s storytelling is a fascinating aspect of the text. The taxi poet, according to Adam, is “a chimera, part politician, part social worker, part navigator and banker, nurse and first responder” (39). His function is to record “all the shifting sensations, impressions, and moving feelings,” some of which are so enigmatic that they can only be inserted into public memory by the poet (39). Implicit in these definitions of the characteristics of a taxi poet is the textualisation of contemporary concerns via the medium of poetry by an “everyman” figure. It may thus be inferred that the taxi poet is located in the nexus between public and private memory.
The Institute for Taxi Poetry is a valuable addition to the South African literary landscape and to scholarship in post-colonial studies. In addition, it is an enjoyable read with tragicomical elements which render it accessible to all. I recommend it unreservedly.