The African Library: Entry no 129
OK Matsepe: Tears of the brain ( 2018)
The first date in the line above refers to the original publishing date of this novel in the original language, which is Sesotho sa Leboa (more commonly referred to as Northern Sotho or Sepedi), in which it bore the title Megokgo ya Bjoko. The recent English translation, in 2018, forms part of the admirable work done by the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research based at the University of the Western Cape, and the two translators are Seleka Tembane and Lucy Ndlovu. The author of this novel, probably the most highly acclaimed prose text in his mother tongue, is Oliver Kgadime Matsepe, whose initials rather than his full names are usually employed – whether by authorial or publisher’s preference.
The English version has an excellent and informative foreword by South African author and poet David wa Maahlamela, which pays tribute to his predecessor for his multiple achievements. He informs us that Matsepe produced nine novels and six volumes of poetry in a “rich oeuvre” (iv). Regarding the present text, wa Maahlamela refers to its “unpredictable plot”, describing it as both “compressed” and “imbued with poetic essence” – some of the latter element coming through in the English translation, which is adequately fluent without unduly “naturalising” the novel’s setting or its style. Wa Maahlamela aptly describes the plot furthermore as “chaotically yet exquisitely organised” – the narrator’s pretence of losing the thread of the complicated and interwoven story provides part of the fun of reading a text that only seems to disguise the narrator’s spear-sharp intelligence and control. All the apparent tangents, culs-de-sac, detours and sidelines on which the narrator embarks turn out to be connected to, and to enrich our understanding of, the complex concatenation of events, attitudes and actions at play in this fascinating evocation of rural communities in contention. In a beautifully eloquent expression the foreword author refers to “the novel’s undisturbed cumulative narrative force” (v). Wa Maahlamela suggests that Matsepe’s novel embodies “a very different ‘alternative’ modernism” and he calls the translation “one of those literary jewels on which South Africa should pride itself” (vii). Tears of the brain, I would add, has enormous historical value and ends in an intriguing depiction of a co-operative (initial?) encounter between Basotho ka Leboa and what are evidently (white) Trekkers, giving a clue to a possible mid-19th century time setting to what is an imaginative, undated and geographically unidentified narrative. However, this remarkable novel is as pertinent to today’s political shenanigans (in South Africa, but almost anywhere in the world) as these are reported in the daily paper of one’s choice, on the Daily Maverick, or on CNN News.
Oliver Kgadime Matsepe is a grandson of a chief of the Bakopa people who are depicted in this novel. His own father was an authority figure of a different order: the senior police sergeant of Groblersdal district in Limpopo. Although the family was not Christian, Matsepe went to mission schools and eventually joined the Lutheran Church, later on moving to the Methodists. Matsepe also underwent traditional initiation as a teenage boy, and he balances irony and respect in depicting the social, cultural, legal and political practices of his people in an earlier time. However, it is clear that the work takes place within a period of tremendous adjustment, when maintaining order in and control of the community was coming under pressure, and established practices were beginning to break down. Even so, Matsepe’s characters and the scenes evoked are brimming with vitality. The complexities of political as well as social, familial and individual life in their constant adjustments to one another, amidst swirling energies and unpredictable events, are wonderfully captured by this author.
It is particularly the voice of the unnamed, semi-omniscient, wily narrator (who may be a somewhat obscure character named Huwane, characterised as “the liar” in the author’s list of characters) that carries the sophistication and insight into human intrigues, motives and weaknesses in the novel’s by turns satirical, reflective, amused or bemused, but constantly modulating tone. A small theft from Shakespeare can express the perspective adopted: “Lord, what fools [we] mortals be!” But for all its oblique or overt wit, Matsepe’s novel demonstrates the devastating consequences and cost in lives as well as livelihoods that follow from one or two individuals’ selfish malice if not contained. In this text, the spiralling out of control of the arrogance and wilfulness of one character at a personal and domestic level ends up leaving battlefields of bloody corpses and ejects thousands of roaming, desperate refugees from formerly self-sustaining communities. While it is true that the character referred to here (his name is Leilane) soon teams up in a ruthless conspiracy with his old ally, the diviner Maphuthe (who is actually the subject of a neighbouring king to Leilane’s), it is from him and his continuing interventions (and his and Maphuthe’s subsequent fomenting of resentments and enmity) that ruin ensues. These two men manipulate their respective rulers into the war evoked above. The two kings parallel the two conspirators, not in being cunning and duplicitous, but in being vain and defiantly self-indulgent; irresponsibly disregarding the cost (in bloodshed and loss) to their subjects of their simultaneously personal and political competition for power and authority.
To represent the idiosyncratic narrative style of this text, here is an extract from the novel’s second page:
The landscape stretches to the furthest horizon, like suffering refusing to squat on the side like a bundle. If it should happen that travail withdraws into a corner, do you truly think that we could get the same pleasure out of life? Accept fighting and struggling as part of life, and do not dismiss it. There is a time for it; also a time to laugh and that is our medicine against sorrow and grief. Where would you find a better example of this than in the courtyard where they sit now, these men, to sort out their problems so that they can laugh again tomorrow? One of them gets up and tries to summarise everything […] (4)
The musing that imbues the apparently gossipy speaking voice that throughout makes readers feel as if they are being anecdotally and instructively spoken to, indicates from the start that this is no mere villager’s chat, but that a person taking a larger view of things than at the apparent parochial level is commenting on and analysing the significance of what is being described. The gathering of these men (the novel has, it should be mentioned, few significant female characters) is a lekgotla or tribal court and the matter to be deliberated stems from a marital quarrel that, in the accused man’s case, led to his assault on his father-in-law. Moreover, although a case of this nature appears utterly clear-cut in that the taboo against a son-in-law laying a hand upon his wife’s parent is one of his people’s most venerable prohibitions, it was the transgressor who insisted that the case be taken before the highest authority in their society – in the royal courtyard. The case seems one that after lengthy initial debate could be quickly wrapped up, but then those speaking up for the accused deliberately muddy the waters by indicating that Leilane’s initial ire was justifiably provoked by misconduct on his spouse’s side and the father-in-law’s “inappropriately” coming to the defence of his “guilty” daughter. That, in any case, is their claim – a diversionary tactic but an effective one. Like much testimony in defence of an accused, this story is partly, even largely, true, but distinctly incomplete.
At the start of the second chapter we learn something of the wider context of the story. It is a time of severe drought; so bad is it that some of the cattle are beginning to die. A pregnant cow of Leilane’s is reported by his herd boys as having been unable to reach the kraal as the livestock were being brought home. When he and other men arrive at the place where the cow is lying, they find that she cannot be saved. Leilane takes the carcass of her unborn calf to skin and carry home for his own consumption – an act which in their culture is considered highly unusual. Once home, he stews the calf’s meat overnight and the next morning takes it indoors, asking his wife to bring him pap (ground maize porridge) to have with it. When she asks Leilane what animal’s meat he is eating, his reply appals her and she starts vomiting copiously. This involuntary response (which does, if non-verbally, demonstrate a judgement, in the woman’s nausea at Leilane’s act of eating the meat of an unborn animal) infuriates Leilane to such an extent that he mercilessly assaults his wife. The man goes half insane with anger and his wife’s cries (“heartrending”, they are said to be) merely provoke him further. Revealingly, he “shouted and cried in agony as though he were fighting with another man about a life and death matter” (16). When peacemakers attempt to calm him down, he beats them too, so that eventually he has to be restrained by being tied down with straps. His wife runs off to her parents’ home and “when their yard came into sight her crying became a howling, torrential cattle-lowing” (17). The narrator makes little interpretative comment of his own, yet nudges the reader to wonder whether the revulsion at Leilane’s “manners” – reiterating, as it were, another man’s surprise at Leilane’s wanting to eat the unborn calf – indicates a man who feels that he is not altogether respected in his community, and whether the extremity of Leilane’s fury at his wife is a long repressed resentment at suspecting that others, too, have thought him a less than worthy man. The beaten wife’s mother typically, but perhaps tellingly, further exacerbates the upheaval by her dreadful swearing and pouring of abuse on Leilane, his parents and his entire family – this, too, probably an attitude previously communicated to Leilane, articulated or non-verbally manifested. Here we see the first stage of the pattern of escalating conflict in the text – instead of calming down and soothing her daughter (without implying she should not roundly condemn her son-in-law’s violent conduct), the wife’s mother pours out abuse before even finding out what had occurred. In an exact parallel with Leilane she, too, venomously attacks (in her case, verbally) those seeking to make peace. (We never learn her name and only much later her daughter’s.)
Leilane’s father-in-law is not at home during this upheaval. He is evidently a rather mild-mannered, convivial type whose visit to a friend’s homestead is readily extended over several days by his taking the old hangover “cure” of further drinking on the second day, resumed in the morning. The mood at the friend’s home where visitors were invited to celebrate the host’s son’s return from his initiation school presents a profound contrast with the hysterical hostilities at the two dwellings previously described; here, the narrator states: “[T]ruly, it did one’s heart good to see the goodwill in everyone present.” After Morara (the “missing” father-in-law) has “as custom dictated” announced himself, the small ritual moment is followed by conversation in which “the friendship was reconfirmed through the telling of various personal experiences, and when they had had enough of that, they started to dish out news from across the whole world, while not forgetting to visit locally as well” (21). This pleasant scene, in its conviviality, as the narrator pushes us unobtrusively to grasp, is not merely a break from the “serious business of life” but indeed vital to the centrally important maintenance of communal bonds and the forming of new ones to keep on strengthening the social web allowing the sharing of both prosperity and suffering. The host asks Morara’s advice as to who might make his newly mature son a suitable bride. He tells Morara that he had wanted to approach his sister for permission to court her daughter for his son, her cousin, but that his own wife had vehemently objected, saying that she wanted their son to marry his cousin on her side – her brother’s daughter. Sagely, the men agree that enforcing the husband’s choice would in future have created a very difficult situation for the son’s wife if the marriage happened despite a secretly resentful mother-in-law. Of course the erupting hatred among in-laws shown earlier (which is soon to impinge unpleasantly on Morara!) suggests that Morara might not himself have followed his own advice in permitting or promoting his own daughter’s wedding to Leilane. It also serves to remind readers of the extent to which, especially in traditional rural communities of this kind (here and elsewhere), the choice of a spouse can serve as the cement uniting families and binding communities, but often as the germ of conflict and dissension of the most bitter kind.
After an anecdote demonstrating the desirable, peaceful way of resolving familial conflict and preventing its escalation, we are shown Morara’s return to his home – and to his furious wife and his injured daughter. Although friends, aware of his wife’s “fiery tantrums”, offer to accompany him there, Morara declares himself unafraid. Little does he suspect the extremity of wifely anger (even though it is not directed primarily against him) that awaits him. The narrator states that “when he came face to face with her, he saw a zebra with wide open nostrils.” The image indicates that the wife’s anger has turned her into a non-human creature or a strange apparition; in any case, into someone whom Morara will be unable to restrain or control. The narrator adds that the moment he entered his yard, his wife “poured over him the stinking bucket of dirty words directed at Leilane” (28). When Morara (having been apprised of his daughter’s marital problems) seeks to have the conflict mediated and the offender reprimanded, asking his brothers to go with him to negotiate with Leilane, the latter attacks his father-in-law with a knobkierie. Whereas this further problem would normally have been addressed at village level, Leilane refuses to participate, demanding that the matter be heard in the “Great Place” – ie the royal court and courtyard.
When Morara and his brothers arrive to testify at the hearing, they are informed that the king is ill and unable to preside. Morara, providing the royal counsellors with the gist of (the first part of) the conflict, ie Leilane’s assault on his wife and her mother’s (Moraras wife’s) consequent perturbation, they inform him that Leilane has forestalled him and told them his own version of the conflict – claiming that the problem is Morara’s holding of Leilane’s wife and children rather than returning them to him. Morara, of course, responds by stating that that point is only a small part of the story.
The narrator’s musing remarks suggest that the entire world seems “thoroughly infused with the smell of the majority of its inhabitants; all those people who grope and wander around aimlessly” (32–3) – just as a cooking vessel will take on the smell of the food prepared in it.
The same comment applies to the next phase of conflict, in which the neighbouring and local kings begin to be implicated in it. In view of her grievous injuries, Morara had taken his daughter for treatment to a friend of his: the healer known as the best wound doctor in the region. Unfortunately, local protocol was not observed, for the healer is employed by the neighbouring king and is an appointed “war doctor”; his task is to treat men injured in battle, and he may treat civilians only if he has applied for permission to his king (Nthumule) to do so, and if no other physician is available to treat the patient. While this seems a matter of insignificant bureaucracy, the narrator intones ominously that the doctor’s good work inadvertently “stirred the clouds up so much that in time it started raining blood, not water” (33). No doubt, the touchy egos of kings have dangerous power.
Morara’s king, Lefehlo, is fairly new to his royal role; his reign is said to be “characterised by the impetuosity of youth” (34). On the other hand, he has a well-earned reputation for bravery in battle. Although dwelling on the open plain and seemingly vulnerable to attack, his people live “peacefully”, protected by their reputation for military prowess. After this background information we are told that Leilane’s case gets heard at the Great Place, where Leilane’s bogus claims that his wife vomits whenever she sees him eating are dismissed by a counsellor as lies. Leilane is severely fined: he is ordered to pay “one cow for beating your wife, one cow for the grief caused to your father-in-law, one cow for the Great Place, and […] another cow for all the men [who] gathered” (36) to participate in the hearing. Leilane responds in a very cocky manner, as if implying that he is entirely unfazed by the size of the penalty for his misconduct; even telling the courtiers to wait at the court for him to fetch the penalty cattle. But even stranger is King Lefehlo’s response: the king, now nearly well after his illness, decrees that all the penalty cattle be immediately slaughtered at the Great Place and that (given the drought) he, his counsellors and all others involved (even Leilane!) will eat this meat – gorging themselves after weeks of living mainly on sorghum porridge.
The narrative jumps imperceptibly – and, one must add, extremely confusingly, even though it is shortly cleared up – to the neighbouring king, Nthumule’s, court. As one gradually learns, Leilane – despite having been treated most graciously by his own king, Lefehlo, after his court defeat – burns with resentment against Lefehlo as the scapegoat for what he now claims is rejection by his family, his community and his king. At Nthumule’s court, where he has shown up as a defector wanting to make a new affiliation, they have recently fined the war doctor for irregularly treating Morara’s daughter’s wounds. Leilane brings them a bunch of lying claims against King Lefehlo, claiming, for example, that he has bragged about how he intends teaching Nthumule (as supposedly one of the “minor kings” for whom he has no fear) a grievous lesson for having fined his own war doctor for irregularly treating a subject of Lefehlo’s. There is some deep malice in Leilane, who leaves Lefehlo’s village “with a heart singing with joy” (42) at foreseeing how he will set the two kingdoms up for war against each other, seemingly rejoicing at the thought of the grievous hardship and suffering this will cause to innocent people. Still, in one of his many surprising shifts in perspective, the narrator observes that troublemakers like Leilane are indeed pivotal to bringing change to communities that would otherwise remain sunken in old grooves: “In every village, the crook and the troublemaker hold an essential position because, if it wasn’t for them, the rich would get richer and the poor poorer” (40).
King Nthumule subtly warns his courtiers that Leilane is untrustworthy and his claims unsupported. If the case of Leilane’s misconduct perplexed authorities at Lefehlo’s court, we are told, the stranger’s information arouses irreconcilably opposed opinions among Nthumule’s counsellors as to how to interpret Leilane’s nature and purpose. King Nthumule speaks up, asking his courtiers: “How do we treat this weasel?” (43) – clearly he, at least, knows that the man is a scoundrel and that such a difficult situation requires wary handling. Still, whatever they were to do with Leilane, further problems would ensue: Do they take him back to Lefehlo, informing him of the man’s trouble-stirring and rumour-mongering? Leilane, who is terrified of this possibility, warns the court that he will report in his former homeland that Nthumule is preparing for war against them, so that they will have to pay a terrible price for not accepting him. He is undoubtedly a masterful manipulator. Another suggestion is that the custom of protecting refugees has to be honoured; in any case, Lefehlo is unlikely to allow a traitor back into his kingdom. Someone else states that it is surely simplest and safest to kill Leilane, but another speaker warns that without knowing the full facts of the matter they cannot take such an irreversible decision. The narrator, reporting that the decision is to “keep” Leilane, comments that in doing so, “they put the whole of Nthumule’s army within death’s reach” (45).
Leilane, “that old separator” (48), as the narrator aptly names a man who sows division wherever he goes, presents further difficulties. When Maphuthe, “a diviner living with King Nthumule”, offers to take care of the troublesome Leilane, this is refused. Later on one learns that he and Leilane are old allies; perhaps the courtiers are aware that he may be in cahoots with the stranger (as turns out to be the case).
At this point, further historical background is provided regarding the relationship between the two kings. There is, it turns out, a pre-existing, severe and justifiable resentment against Nthumule on Lefehlo’s side. Its cause is that, when Lefehlo’s apparently universally respected father died in old age and all neighbouring kings and leaders and their people took part in customary rituals of mourning to honour his passing, King Nthumule (and he alone) ostentatiously, hence deliberately, did not do so, but allowed feasting and celebrations to continue throughout his kingdom. We are never explicitly told why Nthumule acted thus strangely and offensively towards the neighbouring kingdom – was this another case of defying custom to demonstrate arrogant independence, a kind of precursor of Leilane’s misbehaviour in his family, only on a far greater scale? In any case, the narrator subtly demonstrates that malicious intent in a single person could not spiral outward to larger and more disastrous events if there were not other transgressors or failures in duty to provide openings.
A recurrent, half enigmatic “chorus” recurs at this point in the narrative:
We yearn to live, yet living frustrates us; we yearn to strive higher, yet striving frustrates us; we yearn for progress, yet progress frustrates us. Truly, life is nothing but a race that everyone wants to win. We take responsibility, yet this accountability mostly shames us. We yearn to rule, yet we don’t want to be ruled; we yearn to be prosperous, yet poverty frustrates us, because the truth is, what kind of person are you if you do not treasure boundless ideals? (51)
This wry, paradoxical and somewhat mocking perspective is evident throughout the novel, if sometimes obscured by other poses assumed by the narrator.
Following from this interlude, we learn that King Nthumule has in fact been aware that the diviner Maphuthe – with whom he says he has “been at loggerheads” for a long time (53) – intends to bring war upon their kingdom, in cahoots with Leilane. The king states that he himself will guard Leilane in his inner courtyard. If the man has to be returned to Lefehlo, he says, he should do so himself, so that any ensuing trouble falls on his head and not on his innocent subject’s. But Nthumule, wishing to question Leilane probingly on his own, makes the mistake of putting other guardians at a distance from the two of them. Later on, we learn that Leilane escapes during the night, going off into hiding with Maphuthe. We are also given a hint that Nthumule has something to hide regarding the enmity between the kingdoms; it seems that Lefehlo’s father had been “overlord” to all the local kings; hence defying the mourning custom was probably thought by Nthumule to be his unilateral declaration of independence. And hence Nthumule’s now breaking custom to assume the role of guarding a prisoner who knows too much – and in turn this, of course, leads to further disaster. In the meantime, Lefehlo learns of Leilane’s defection and is irate at his neighbouring ruler’s failure to return the man (as inter-court custom dictates) to his own jurisdiction. Throughout the two leading and the many surrounding kingdoms a kind of “war panic” ensues. Within this sense of impending doom all trust is lost (58).
Lefehlo and his senior courtiers decide that they will go to Nthumule’s court to demand that he be returned to their jurisdiction. In the meantime the narrator treats us to a lengthy digression and interruption of the main narrative – a sign that the smaller story probably forms some kind of parallel with that of Nthumule’s earlier transgression of refusing to mourn the passing of Lefehlo’s father, in that it involves a man who felt familially slighted and did not speak up to have the matter resolved. Instead, he nursed the grudge over a long period, eventually retaliating by refusing customarily required assistance on the part of the family members who had originally offended him. At Nthumule’s own Great Place, where this complicated case is resolved just before the delegation from the neighbouring kingdom announces itself (strangely undetected before their arrival), the courtiers now begin the discussion of the Leilane case and his inexplicable disappearance. It is decided that they must summon the diviners to clear up the mystery. With a single later exception, Matsepe makes his intense contempt for diviners more than obvious to his readers. He writes mockingly about them as frauds who con the people who rely on their “insights”. Still, he acknowledges the power diviners held over his people’s minds in these earlier times – perhaps still prevailing in many descendants. At this point in the narrative, as if to show up the puny abilities of the dressed-up diviners, Matsepe refers to the spectacular, awe-inspiring natural appearance (in the sky, of course) of “a star with an enormously long tail” (73). If this is Halley’s comet, which made an appearance in 1835, it would place the narrative rather earlier than mid-19th century; but then, Matsepe’s story is a fiction that does not necessarily accord closely with actual history.
Some other strange phenomena coincide with the arrival of Lefehlo’s delegation at Nthumule’s court: a strange cloud appears on the horizon, the long-tailed star obscured by it, and a huge swarm of crows dives down on the mass of bones and paraphernalia that Nthumule’s diviners had spread on the ground, swallowing every piece of this stuff and then disappearing with it – terrifying the local gathering. Nthumule himself is struck with fear, assuming that the inexplicable, unusual and intimidating phenomena were caused by magical powers on Lefehlo’s part. The latter’s courtiers demand (when they are given a hearing) that what is Lefehlo’s be returned to him. At first Nthumule pretends not to understand, then admits that, although Leilane had indeed come there, he has “disappeared”. Without allowing any further explanation from either Nthumule or his courtiers, Lefehlo’s delegation rises in anger and departs unceremoniously and in a great huff. We learn that Leilane, safe in his hiding place, has the information of this serious exacerbation of enmity and mutual resentment conveyed to him and struts about in triumph at the news.
The anticipated, exceptionally bloody war erupts, and Nthumule’s forces unexpectedly suffer less damage than Lefehlo’s. Afterwards, we are shown “Maphuthe and Leilane licking their fingers as if they had just taken out honey” (108). These two are rejoicing at the devastation and chaos they had fomented. The narrator provides several “intervening” anecdotes to exhibit other cases of social conflict and their causes, but we skip these dense portrayals of tribal life here to convey a further aftermath of the war (citing the concluding paragraph of chapter five):
Leilane and Maphuthe, as we’ve already heard, incited these villages [in the affected region] into a war in order for them to wipe one another from the earth. Now our two friends [as Matsepe’s narrator sarcastically refers to this awful pair] started to collect the people where they were scattered among the villages. They went into destroyed villages where the burnt huts were barely recognisable with their blackened razed walls, and gathered those that were not too badly wounded. Those who were too badly maimed for their liking [!], they summarily killed. The assegais were gathered and bound into bundles, then hidden with the axes and blades, because even if they were not planning to fight, they at least had to make preparations for a fight. They took anything that might be of use to them in the future. In this, the small groups of people they gathered were very useful, helping to carry and hide things. They grabbed and took what they could, and looked for a place where they could start anew, somewhere in the unknown. When Lefehlo and Nthumule arrived, there were only a few bones left to crack where the lions had feasted, and the kings returned home, driving like cattle those who had remained hidden but were now forced by hunger out of their hiding places. (122)
Evidently, the ruthless profiteering of the conspirators, Leilane and Maphuthe, is mirrored exactly by the two (now co-operating) rulers. As the narrator (cynically or realistically?) observes in the opening paragraph of the next chapter, “–T]he thing, though, that forces you into friendship is need” (123). The two kings, “after the affairs of war had dissipated, […] decided to host a festival in order to beg the ancestors that the bloodshed would never return” (125) – as if the bloodshed had been an unpredictable force of nature, rather than a humanly engineered condition in which the two of them had played leading parts. Lefehlo and Nthumule pay each other visits, actually keeping an eye on each other’s doings in wariness rather than in an unlikely blossoming of affection. Similarly, Leilane and Maphuthe are now forced to stick together for mutual protection because the two kings whom they hate and to whom they have been exposed as villains have not been destroyed. Each of the two “friends” is afraid that the other will ingratiate himself with the “appropriate” ruler by implicating his supposed ally.
Leilane’s soul burns with a fiercer resentment against his former ruler Lefehlo than Maphuthe’s does against Nthumule. However, when Maphuthe tells Leilane that they cannot allow these two kings “the pleasure of enjoying everything at home while we are left out in the cold”, Leilane tells his ally that the kings “are leering at each other as we speak. The ultimate victor doesn’t concern us. That is their problem” (129). He sounds far more sensible than Maphuthe does of the huge risk they would take by further meddling in the inter-court affairs of the two adjoining kingdoms, astonishingly telling Maphuthe: “Let’s leave them alone” and “Let’s drop it and leave” (130). But the prim tone Leilane adopts is a give-away; he actually only wants to stop Maphuthe, whom he does not trust, from initiating anything and slipping away from him. Both within and between the neighbouring kingdoms the “peace” after the awful fighting that destroyed people, livelihoods and swathes of cultivated land is an uneasy one. Some of Lefehlo’s subjects resent the young king’s resumption of rule and decide to move away. When they inform him of this, he is remarkably conciliatory and mature in his response – in all likelihood, the narrator tells us, because he is afraid of Nthumule and possible plans he might have to reopen hostilities. For his part, Nthumule remains equally uneasy, aware that “no one had emerged victorious from the battle and, besides, he wasn’t completely sure that he would be able to defeat Lefehlo” (133). Nor is he sure that his people still trust him. One of his followers is bold enough to speak up and remind Nthumule of his shameful, provocative refusal to honour the death of Lefehlo’s royal father, only to be shouted down immediately by another, still breathing fire against Lefehlo as some sort of upstart whom they could easily conquer and enslave.
Towards the later part of the text the narrator starts apportioning blame for the dreadful events and broken relationships. Leilane is reported as still blaming his wife for initiating everything by vomiting when she saw that he had eaten the unborn calf, at last providing us with her name (Mohlatŝa), but the narrator roundly declares that it was he, Leilane, who “initiated it”, calling him “the root cause of everything” (133). The narrator asks whether Leilane could believe that “the ancestors will grant him inner peace” when “even the Lord will not condone what he has done” (134) – in a slightly odd shift into an apparently Christian frame of reference. The narrator refers to another major culprit in his next paragraph, here mentioning “the matters initiated by King Nthumule [that] had descended into bloody chaos” – stating that “even though he strongly denies it” and blames King Lefehlo, “there is no doubt that he started it all” (134). The narrator even threatens that Nthumule will find no peace when he dies, “because as soon as he announces his arrival, all of us who have died from assegais because of him will engulf him in a blind rage calling for vengeance!” (135). If only one could be certain that this kind of punishment will be meted out to those who cause war, we might have less of it in our world.
But for now, the “solidarity” between the co-conspirators Leilane and Maphuthe has ended; as usual, Leilane, the fiercer spirit, decides to act pre-emptively and murder his former ally so that Maphuthe cannot give him up to King Lefehlo. He pushes him over a steep cliff, into a fall from which no one could conceivably escape alive, registering only a few pangs of guilt. The two kings, on the other hand, who for quite a while have maintained the balance of power between them, are shoved into renewed enmity – by Nthumule, who sends a provocative message to Lefehlo, which the neighbouring king handles quite calmly, sending Nthumule in return a restrained but disdainful reply. So incensed is King Nthumule at Lefehlo’s not being intimidated or impressed by his bluster that he goes apoplectic with rage. Lefehlo waits calmly, his people rejoicing without any sign of fear, even as Nthumule’s army “formed a dense wall around Lefehlo” (143). At this point readers are shown the extent to which Lefehlo relies on his trusted “war diviner”. He is the only diviner figure in this text for whom the author evinces respect – Matsepe gives us his name: Phetedi (whereas the numerous diviners at Nthumule’s court remain mostly anonymous). Nthumule’s warriors, waiting for orders to attack Lefehlo, are surprised and terrified when the huge flock of crows that had previously swallowed up the diviners’ bones at their king’s court return and disgorge these objects, forming a “hedge” around the men. Although some among Nthumule’s men suggest the strange phenomenon demonstrates that they are protected, the king demands that his diviners each go and identify and pick up their respective bones. They demur, telling him that they are beset by fear. The incensed king, wielding a spear in one hand and an axe in the other, sets upon the diviners and hacks every single one of them to pieces! Then “Phetedi and his entourage of women”, each of them carrying a basket, advance from Lefehlo’s court into Nthumule’s armed crowd, where they proceed to gather all their enemy’s divining bones, eventually putting these objects into two large piles. After this, “the young women led them in song.” The narrator expresses amazement, as though he were present at the scene:
Let me tell you, I have never heard anything like it, and on that day the drums lost their voice, growing hoarser and hoarser as the singing reached a crescendo. Clouds of dust rose up from the grass until even Nthumule started coughing. They sang and danced until Phetedi was satisfied, and he took Nthumule by the hand and walked with him, while what was left of his dismayed army gathered where they stood. So it all came to pass, and confusion took hold of them. When word reached the old men at home about what had transpired that day, they responded, shaking their heads incredulously, saying ba re aowa ge! – no, then, okay! (144–5)
This magical moment (in no superstitious sense, but because peacemaking for once successfully overcomes warmongering) is perhaps the most memorable event in Matsepe’s novel, in that a sophisticated, often cynical-seeming narrative is overwhelmed by wonder and itself caught (as it were) by surprise.
In what may initially seem the equivalent of a device in a contemporary television soapie, the next chapter opens with Maphuthe – who had been pushed over the cliff to his seemingly inevitable death by Leilane – here reappearing; not only alive and well, but in a close alliance and friendship with Leilane (his supposed murderer). Moreover, the former relentless co-conspirators against their respective kings are suddenly living prosperously within the jurisdiction of these rulers. And not only have Leilane and Maphuthe’s friendship been sealed twice over by two marriages among their daughters and sons (now also uniting them familially), but Leilane is getting married to a daughter of King Lefehlo’s! (We are not informed as to whether Leilane’s wife Mohlatŝa is still alive, has died, or was divorced from him.) It should be equally surprising to readers (if they are reading attentively) that when Maphuthe relates to Leilane how it is that he managed to survive the dire fall down the precipice, he refutes Leilane’s suggestion that it was due to the intercession of “the ancestors” (spelt with a lower case ‘a’). “The Lord did,” he says (150 – upper case ‘L’ in the text). This broad hint that Maphuthe now uses a Christian frame of reference may be explained if the unidentified people who found him, grievously injured, at the foot of the cliff and healed and fed him were the white Voortrekkers in whose company both he and Leilane are now; assisting these newcomers to the region in joint labour to secure their safety as well as serving as intermediaries between the whites and some of their own people. It appears now that Leilane’s life, too, was saved by the Trekkers when, a few days after picking up Maphuthe, they found a starving Leilane wandering in the wild.
Next, the narrator brings together the Voortrekker group in an encounter with the group of local people who had decided to leave Lefehlo’s rule and find a settlement of their own elsewhere. This group is actually led by a brother of Lefehlo’s, a huge man named Tshehlwane. The Voortrekker group’s scouts have warned them about the new presence (in their own vicinity) of what seems set to become a village. Fearful that these people are likely to be hostile and may attack them, they draw their wagons into a defensive circle, or “laager”, and secure openings with bundles of thorn branches. Notably, both Maphuthe and Leilane are clearly, here, under the authority of the Trekker leader – a man of venerable age with a “long grey beard” who, with his “divining device” (this is evidently how the Bible is seen by locals like Maphuthe and Leilane) in his hand, assures everyone that “the Lord would watch over them, but only over those with the tenacity to gird their loins with a rhinoceros-thong” (160). Evidently, the Christian faith is realistically combined with a healthy component of practicality. Small details provided signify the hierarchy already established in the relations between the two local men and the newcomers. One such hint is that Maphuthe respectfully offers to go with the few men – a strong adult, a young boy and a servant who can translate for the Trekkers, sent to greet the newly arrived nearby group – saying: “Sir, I would like to accompany you” (161). The three Trekker delegates and Maphuthe are secretly accompanied (for their protection) by several armed and mounted Trekkers, who remain out of sight until it turns out that the delegates’ reception at the village is friendly – for Maphuthe is recognised and identified and is in turn, with equal surprise, identified and greeted by the latest arrivals. Tshehlwane’s representative, who was sent out from the village – the Trekker horsemen now having shown themselves – suggests that they all go and sit on the open plain to introduce themselves to one another and explain their respective circumstances and immediate plans. As they move on, together, they pass a herd of buffalo, at which one of the horsemen lifts his rifle (referred to as a “magic stick”) and downs one of the buffalo, also dispersing the herd with this shot. The animal’s liver is cut out and grilled, and the meal is shared while they confer, Tshehlwane’s delegate agreeing that his leader will, on the following day, come in person to meet the Trekkers. As a sign of goodwill the Trekkers send him the buffalo carcass to feast on. “Maphuthe and company returned with their masters to their wagons” (162) – the term “masters” evidently a significant one.
A few further details, while not emphasised by the narrator, cumulatively suggest that the “peace, happiness and harmony” seemingly reigning at the end of the narrative is not set to last all that long. One such detail is the following enigmatic, unanswered question regarding Tshehlwane’s settlement: “Who denied them the kingdom that they founded so quickly at the precise moment they were getting used to it […] [and when] their self-esteem was obviously boosted when they killed a leopard and a lion […]?” Tshehlwane had begun to preen himself and strut about as a great new leader, also indulging in ugly and uncalled-for displays of fury (159). When his delegate reports to him after the initial encounter with the Trekkers, he refuses to believe his account that the buffalo (which is the most dangerous creature in the region) was dispatched by means of a “magic stick”, and only after declaring himself defiantly ready to disregard his counsellors’ warnings against such dangerous people does he insist that he will go and meet them.
Upon their arrival at the Trekker settlement the next day
The old man prised open his divining device, telling them of the love that the Lord wished to see among all peoples of the world, and he told them how the Lord’s wrath would engulf those who dared to disturb others, and how He would punish them to the end of days, and then concluded with a prayer. (163)
Evidently, the Lord’s love has its limits and the likely self-appointed instruments of his wrath are present and visible right there.
News of the friendly white strangers’ presence spreads and the two kings (Lefehlo and Nthumule, also now in an amicable relationship with each other, Lefehlo having restored Nthumule to freedom) eagerly journey to meet them, bringing the Trekkers fine gifts. They are very cordially received, “and it was a truly joyous and satisfying occasion” (164), we are told. The local rulers offer the men of their regiments to the Trekkers to assist the further number of these people who are, we hear, already underway to join the vanguard; these local men will “accompany the rest of the party to lighten the heavy load […] [by carrying] some of the luggage on their backs […] in order to speed up the trek”.
There is only a slight qualification to this suspiciously rosy picture when the narrator, in the text’s penultimate paragraph, acknowledges that “it might not be completely true to say that no disputes arose in the times thereafter” (164). The final paragraph reads:
The veld slumbers in its deep evening sleep, and how beautiful and desirable that all men can now live in peace and love even if they used to be on guard against one another! We need one another, friends and children of our dear Lord, because life expects all of us to cooperate. And thanks to the fathers who had their canes at the ready to flick us whenever we bullied or harassed someone, reprimanding us for fighting, reminding us that people should pool their powers, things started to go well and progress was inevitable. Now that we have heard it all, I ask your permission, dear friends, to depart – and all the best to you. (165)
These last words may have seemed hardly applicable to South African racial politics in 1968, the year of the novel’s first publication (in its original Sesotho sa Leboa tongue). Are they profoundly ironic, or do they indicate the underlying authorial wisdom and moral strength; showing a Christian faith enigmatically disguised beneath the hard-headed realism, apparent cynicism, deep sophistication and subtle textual manoeuvres of this novel?
Tears of the brain is an impressive achievement in its complex balancing of its multiple constituent elements. Although an English translation took 50 year to arrive, Matsepe’s novel seems to have lost none of its satirical bite.