Book review: Triangulum by Masande Ntshanga

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Book title: Triangulum
Author: Masande Ntshanga
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415210062

Triangulum is a constellation in the northern hemisphere, in which the galaxy M33 is located, giving it the nickname the Triangulum Galaxy. It is the third largest in our group, followed by Andromeda and The Milky Way (source: NASA). In his second novel, Masande Ntshanga localises its significance and ideas of extraterrestrial life, connecting it with one of South Africa’s former homelands, Ciskei, and the fraught processes of its integration into the socio-political landscape of democratic South Africa and the intergenerational traumas of its people.

Triangulum is an ambitious combination of historical and speculative fiction spanning roughly 50 years, from the 1990s to the early 2040s. At the centre of this tale is a mathematical prodigy, Naomi Buthelezi, who relives the difficult journey of her coming of age, professional development and reluctant political life. At the core of this lies the mysterious disappearance of her mother, Nobomi, who was also a maths prodigy during the demise of apartheid. Ntshanga tells this story using flashbacks, taking the reader back and forth in time until ultimately resolving the mystery of Nobomi’s fate.

Although Naomi is highly intelligent, the trauma of losing her mother combined with her father’s illness (which claims his life a few years later) conspire to render her unsuccessful at school due to behavioural issues brought on by mental illness. She suffers from hallucinations, for which she receives medical treatment, yet she is convinced that the “machine” that she has “sees” has everything to do with her mother’s disappearance as well as the abduction of three girls in their town. The machine spits out images of triangles that are imbued with meaning and clues for Naomi. Together with her friends, Part and Litha, she goes on a few misguided adventures to try to solve these mysteries while exploring her sexuality, experimenting with drugs and navigating an education system designed to control their minds instead of encouraging inquiry. The Accelerated Christian Education programme (ACE) is imported from the American televangelist project of the 1970s meant to “instil values extolled by the programme: amongst others, diligence, deference to authority, and the onus placed on Christians worldwide to deliver lesser civilisations from themselves. It was school.” The protagonist refers to ACE, in characteristic computer science language, as “an operating system, unsuited to the country’s hardware”. One day Naomi responds to an opportunity for a paid position for top-performing maths students. This is the catalyst that propels her into her future career working for a top-secret think tank that leads her closer to her mother.

The novel leaps forward to a dystopian future in which Naomi has left her childhood friends behind, living an initially solitary life as a programmer in a gentrified Doornfontein, Johannesburg. She works in Population Control, a corporatised and clandestine operation in the Grant Regulation Office at the Department of Social Development. She takes on a lover, artist D, and they live a somewhat romantically fulfilling life together despite D’s struggles with addiction. From her days as an adolescent Naomi’s sexual orientation is undefined or bisexual, yet there seems to be very little internal conflict for her, neither is there much indication of social pressure on her to conform. It is striking that a male author can write a convincing portrayal of a woman who lives on the fringes of society while doing work of significant impact as a scientist. 

Through D, Naomi’s work finally unites her with a group of scientists (a suspected terror cell) called The Returners who explain the mysteries that connected her over the years to Nobomi’s disappearance, the country’s political upheavals and the Triangulum. The scientists give her a map and leave her alone in a field. She eventually makes her way to where the machine reappears and speaks to her in overlapping voices that tell her that the only two humans that have been able to hear them are Naomi and her mother. They explain: “Humankind is host to an organism it has termed Evolution. It is benign and acts to preserve sentient life on earth. That is what we know. It is our understanding that it has intervened, but it is unclear, as our kind does not evolve. It is our understanding that the mother was the first to hear us, and she passed this on to the daughter. In those who are receptive, our voice provides them with both gifts and illness, but never comprehension.” The machine delivers a warning regarding the fate of the planet, stating that the corporatisation of Earth will lead to its demise.

Thematically, Triangulum is a compelling work that explores ideologies that are often at odds with one another, but which Ntshanga brings to an uneasy kind of integration while not leaving the reader with a clear, comfortable sense of resolution. While our society continues to wrestle with science, religion, politics, gender, sexuality and identity, artists like Ntshanga do the important work of finding creative ways to reflect these issues to us, describing real and imagined entanglements that can ensue as well as our agency in the face of these challenges. The novel will leave one with a little less sleep and a lot to think about. Is the fate of our planet truly dystopian? Have we completely lost control? Is it possible for humanity to be content with a prognosis of dystopia? One certain thing is that this talented writer has been able to capture these uncomfortable questions with a great deal of thought and sensitivity that compels us to reckon with the past, take stock of the present and look the future in its invisible eye.

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