The theory of flight
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
The theory of flight is a beautifully told narrative, memorable and innovative, and a skilfully structured novel. The author is Zimbabwean by birth, but has studied and worked in other countries. While Zimbabwe and various watershed moments of its colonial and mostly postcolonial history are alluded to in the novel, these occurrences are not named, so that the text can work simultaneously on an allegorical level and as a powerful reminder of state misdemeanours and individual acts of either resistance or compliance in this country’s recent history. The fact that this is a work of nearly ten years in the making manifests in its maturity of vision and execution, despite this being Ndlovu’s first novel; its notable visual vividness likely indicates her interest and work in cinematography. The title of the novel is also that of a sculpture in three pieces featured late in the text; possibly, the phrase indicates that human beings who tend to take themselves as earthbound and limited creatures need the reminder which some inspirational people and acts embody, that the imagination can fly far beyond the restrictions of an individual’s or a people’s circumstances. An especially attractive feature of this narrative is the appreciative depiction of unusual individuals, quirks of character and conduct, and memorably expressive utterances and conversational interchanges. There is an unmistakable vitality in Ndlovu’s writing, and most readers of her novel will be delighted by her revelation that further explorations of the human landscape featured in The theory of flight await us in two or three other novels, the first of which is soon to be published.
In her brief prologue, the narrator mentions the “ways of living, remembering, seeing, knowing and dying” that bring about the existence of the novel’s central character, Imogen Zula Nyoni (known to most as Genie), describing her life as illustrating “a culmination of genealogies, histories, teleologies, epistemologies and epidemiologies” (9). The listed processes deftly allude to the titled sections of the main narrative. These are (in their order of occurrence) “Genealogy” (part 1), “History” (part 2), “The present” (part 3), “Teleology” (part 4) and “Epidemiology – love in the time of HIV” (part 5) (all in Book I), followed by Book II, with only two sections: “Epistemology” (part 1) and “Revelations” (part 2). As this overall structure already signposts, Ndlovu’s novel is not a simple, chronologically narrated tale. The sections are of uneven length, and most – generally, but not invariably – contain numerous brief chapters, most of which bear the names of the novel’s large cast of characters. The narrative density of the work results largely from the way the numerous characters’ lives are mapped out and interrelated, providing a broad, varied and carefully balanced spectrum of lives; it also produces a socioscape that, to most Zimbabweans, would be recognisably local in its allusions to their region, especially the “City of Kings”, Bulawayo – Zimbabwe’s second largest city, with the largest urban concentration of Ndebele citizens in the country.
Because the narrator introduces the many characters of her narrative one by one, and because she has, in addition, placed a list of characters (with brief descriptions of their identities and social roles) at the beginning of the text, attentive readers will not have problems following the various complex intertwinements of these lives. Even relatively minor characters are evoked vividly and in detail, such as the colonial founder of the rural settlement where (apart from Bulawayo) much of the action is set. Book I’s part 1 has only one chapter, titled “Genesis”. The first “beginning” mentioned here is Genie’s, naturally; it is described as being “like all our beginnings – beautiful and golden”, though the miraculous nature of (her) birth is evoked in a magically enhanced manner, for she emerges from her mother’s body as a “shiny golden egg” (15) which takes some years to hatch. Imogen Zula Nyoni is the daughter of Elizabeth Nyoni and Golide Gumede. While Elizabeth is a country and western singer who dresses in rainbow-coloured outfits and wears a blonde wig described as “golden” (23) to underline her aspiration to follow in the steps of Dolly Parton and make her name in Nashville, USA, Golide Gumede is a natural leader who from childhood has been fascinated by aeroplanes; he was sent to the USSR to study aeronautical engineering, and returned to fight bravely and to acclaim in the Zimbabwean liberation war. Genie’s conception is the result of instant, fated attraction and enduring love and loyalty between her parents, who are initially able to spend only nine hours together before Golide rejoins the liberation forces and Elizabeth goes to make a home for them in Golide’s ancestral village on Beauford Estate. They see their respective dreams – his of building an aeroplane and Elizabeth’s of being taken to Nashville, Tennessee – as quite compatible, for Golide intends building the flying machine that will transport them across the Atlantic.
Ndlovu’s novel is very matter-of-fact about the British colonial occupation practices in southern Africa, in that it manifests no intense resentment about the settler presence in the area. It is, for example, quite casually mentioned that Golide’s father was taught to read and write by the bored owner of “Ezulweni Estate”, and, in his early adulthood, he worked to charm poor black countrywomen into buying the Western fripperies he peddled for his employer, a Greek travelling salesman. As he was an adventurous young man, the work brought him his lifelong love of travel and his initial encounter with Prudence Ngoma, whom he loved and married, and with whom he had Golide and his younger sister, Minenhle. Unfortunately, Baines (Golide’s father, who had initially given Golide the names of British explorers) was such an inveterate traveller that, when he discovered that his little son was an albino and therefore unable to travel in the open-topped vehicle Baines had acquired to take his family with him as he moved, he sent his (again) pregnant wife and son back to the village. Although Baines faithfully sent family support home, Prudence turned against him for not appreciating their son’s beauty, and decided that she would bring up her children as a single mother with the one ideal of building character (which she did most successfully). The narrator praises Prudence for her “sage and sanguine tutelage” (21), for both children turn into brave and principled adults.
While still participating in the liberation war after his initial encounter with Elizabeth, Golide (a war name which he retains all his life) decides that the flying machine he is going to build for Elizabeth will be a giant pair of silver wings. Not only will this get her to Nashville, but it will also demonstrate that African people can innovate, show enterprise and match engineering skills and creative imagination. To begin with, he decides, he will shoot down the aeroplane – a Vickers Viscount – that regularly flies across the Zambezi near the Victoria Falls so that he has a model to work from. As he awaits this flight, Golide witnesses an inspirational event (the elisions in the quote are Ndlovu’s):
A herd of elephants raising dust beautifully in the savannah sunlight. The bull at the head of the herd raised his trunk and trumpeted terrifically and all the elephants came to a gradual standstill on one side of the Victoria Falls. The bull dived in close to where the waters plunge over the edge and swam across the Zambezi River. The ancient river and the mighty animal were in perfect harmony. This was a rite of passage made sacred by its sheer audacity. There was a wonder to it all … the possibility of the seemingly impossible. There was a feeling that Golide got … a knowing …. He became aware of his place in the world. He understood that in the grander scheme of things he was but a speck … a tiny speck … and that was enough. There was freedom, beauty even, in that kind of knowledge. It was the kind of knowledge that finally quieted you. It was the kind of knowledge that allowed you to fly. (25)
This passage recurs, or is alluded to, at key moments in the text, although the portentous tone itself in which it evokes the naturally miraculous, signals its particular significance to this narrative. It is an image representing the transcending of imagined boundaries of what is achievable – awe-inspiring and unforgettable in its effect.
Unfortunately, the shooting down of the Vickers Viscount aeroplane by Golide Gumede – a similarly impressive achievement in the view of the liberation war fighters – has (unlike the bull elephant’s triumphant swim across the mighty river) an immediate, obviously destructive effect, with dangerous repercussions for Golide, his loved ones and his village associates. These consequences not only comprise predictable attempts by the colonial and settler authorities to hunt him down and make him pay the ultimate penalty, but are to be followed through into the postcolonial dispensation, when the racist head of the colonial state’s security agency is succeeded by the sinister, unnamed figure chillingly referred to throughout the novel only as “The Man Himself”. In his cruelty and ruthless hold on power (almost always executed by means of henchmen or the military), he seems to be a kind of amalgam of Zimbabwe’s present head of state and his postcolonial predecessor, although he does not resemble either of these figures physically. One of the few details provided concerning his physical appearance is that he is grossly obese, with the kind of posterior that overflows his chair when he is seated. In this weightiness, gross overweight, seated posture and heaviness, he is a figure illustrating the unimaginative, earthbound nature of his mind – in clear contrast to all those whose thoughts and dreams can take flight. In these respects, The Man Himself as head of state is, of course, also an allegorical figure representing the self- and power-obsessed meanness and viciousness of all those to whom personal retention of control over masses of people is all that matters, being the only “value” they are able to perceive in existence.
The most terrifying manifestation of the post-independence, Shona-dominated Zimbabwean state’s capacity for cruelty in ruthless suppression and attempted eradication of those (mainly Ndebele) who were perceived to be in opposition to, critical of or simply unenthusiastic about the first post-colonial government, happened in the Matabeleland region, mainly in the rural areas. The operation bore the name gukurahundi (alluding to a cleansing or clearing away of useless chaff by the rains of a new season) and was executed by the army’s notorious “5th Brigade” – trained in violent techniques of state terrorism to squash political recalcitrance in North Korea. These events (about which little was known in the rest of the country or the outside world at the time) went on from 1983 to 1987, and led to the deaths of twenty to thirty thousand Ndebele people; some labelled the massacres and the torture and rape of civilians an attempted genocide. Ndlovu never directly names these atrocities, but she does demonstrate how they played out in Golide’s village late during this state-ordained period of ethnic persecution by especially brutal military personnel.
Genie’s state of health and her spirited, courageous and morally imaginative response to the way in which the above-mentioned events affect her, form the core of Ndlovu’s narrative. As the prologue and first chapter indicate, her personal fate is affected by and involves many others – both related and unrelated to her, and of her own and preceding generations – though her life is clearly the focus and the exemplary centre of the author’s vision. There is only a slight tinge of wryness in the narrator’s reference to a location that can be seen as the cradle of the present novel: “The lush and verdant village of Guquhuka became the Beauford Farm and Estate in the way that most villages became settler farms in the colonies” (29) – that is, when it is the place where a European decides to settle. Bennington Beauford, the settler in question, is probably much less vicious in his occupation than many others, in that he employs the villagers as the workforce on his farm, builds them strong if small and ugly homes and establishes a school on the estate for the village children. His only child is his daughter, the heir Beatrice Beit-Beauford, who would be described as a dangerous radical by the vast majority of settlers when she establishes a multiracial artists’ commune on the estate, and bears twin “coloured” babies to an unidentified lover, evidently not of “European” stock. However, since the estate and farm are the settler colony’s most successful source of income, she is politically untouchable for a long time – until the head of the colony’s security establishment decides to charge her for financially supporting the “terrorist” forces. Even though she is a passenger on the flight that Golide’s anti-aircraft missile brings down and her twin children are among the casualties, she both survives and maintains her sympathy for the liberationists’ cause. Such is the sympathy for her as a bereaved mother that the charges have to be withdrawn. On the eve of the country’s independence, Emil Coetzee (the security head) commits suicide. His widow, Kuki, has long ago divorced him, because she saw the pressure he put on their sole child – her “beautiful, golden-haired boy” (121), Everleigh Coetzee – as the indirect cause of this artistically sensitive and gifted young man’s death; he died in a landmine explosion as an enlisted member of the “anti-terrorist” forces. Kuki Coetzee (as she was) knew that her son was gay or bisexual, and wholly approved of a relationship her racist and militarist first husband would have despised and forbidden. Kuki knew that her politically extremist, racist husband detested the boy’s sensitivity and his artistic inclinations. Everleigh had a beautiful “girl-friend”, even as he later initiated a serious sexual relationship with a younger “coloured” boy named Vida de Villiers and made him realise that he, too, was bisexual. This Vida will play an increasingly important role in the later part of the text, when Genie throws in her lot with him (then a street dweller), against his initial strong resistance to her plan. It also bears mentioning that despite their very different personalities, Kuki and Beatrice remain lifelong friends from the time they attend the same school. They are both elderly women in the main timeframe of the novel.
The above details should give some prior indication of the clever way in which Ndlovu constructs her plot and interconnects her large cast of characters, with further details following below. I suggest that both the range of identities (in terms of the racial, political, ethnic and economic markers provided) and the quite tolerant depiction of some of the “usual suspects” in colonial-era (but definitely not in postcolonial) contexts in Ndlovu’s novel create another level of meaning for its title. Very late in the narrative, a fairly liminal character named Esme is introduced; she is the wife of Marcus, who might be identified as the third-tier main character after Genie (on the first level of significance) and Vida (on a second level of significance). Marcus Masuku grew up with Genie on Beauford Estate before his parents took him away from the village to the city. Marcus comments on a yet unwritten text, the intended PhD thesis of his sister, Krystle, who shared a bedroom with Genie when their parents (the wealthy Masukus) adopted the orphaned, slightly older girl. (Genie then remained with the Masuku family until she turned 18.) Esme, Marcus’s wife, says that she fully comprehends the theme of the dissertation Krystle still intends to write, even after three years of fruitless attempts. Esme says of the planned thesis (registered at an American university):
It’s about the history of your country, how it was never able to become a nation because the state focused belonging too singularly on the land. In colonial times belonging was attached to being a settler and in postcolonial times belonging is attached to being autochthonous. This means that throughout your country’s history there has always been some group or other that has not been allowed to share in a sense of belonging. (277–8)
I suggest that Esme probably shows an understanding similar to the author’s, and also to Genie’s, of how limited and inadequate a sense of belonging is when based on land claims, rights or ownership; it also reveals how this notion contrasts with freeing the imagination to think of belonging as a choice that also allows departures and border-crossings and needs no documents of validation – something like a “theory of flight”, rather than an earthbound, soil-bound existence, in other words. Hearing Esme’s words, Marcus misreads his wife’s sensitive and imaginative interpretation of his sister’s thinking. “He thought, although he never said as much, that Esme had got the wrong end of the stick because the topic seemed too … political for Krystle” (278, original ellipsis). It is Marcus who gets it wrong, for in Esme’s phrasing of Krystle’s idea, it is beyond “politics” as normally understood, even though her idea does have political implications in terms of which exclusionary political and military practices can be understood as ugly, foolish and destructive. Belonging, hence, would be an attitude of committed concern for and appreciation of a place and a people, though these need not be the only people and place cared about. It could never be contained or policed.
When Marcus was a boy of four, living with his grandparents on Beauford Estate while his parents studied and prospered in America, he became fascinated by Genie, perhaps two years old at the time and always strapped to her mother Elizabeth’s back. A local woman, Jestina Nxumalo, takes a special interest in the children. She mocks Elizabeth for being over-protective of Genie – not allowing her daughter to walk on her own – and helps to break this habit by drawing Elizabeth’s attention to Marcus’s desire to play with Genie. Luckily, the girl feels the same, and the beautiful children become nearly inseparable companions for a number of years. When they are eventually allowed to venture beyond the confines of the estate, they discover a magnificent field of sunflowers which fascinates Genie, in particular. The children learn something about the cycle of life when the sunflowers “vanish” – they do not yet grasp that the lovely blooms are a food crop. Initially, Marcus independently enjoys an alternative site for imaginative play: the rusted wreck of an ancient Morris Minor, in which he sees himself driving to all sorts of faraway places. When Genie finds him out, she joins in, and before too long, the children start using an atlas to name the countries to which they “drive”. The two of them eventually again play among the sunflowers when these grow back and flower. It is from the field that they witness the top-secret return of Golide Gumede, a man on the run, to the village and to Elizabeth. But even before he greets his beloved Elizabeth and other villagers, Genie instinctively identifies Golide as her father, and Marcus sees that this impressive, generous-hearted man has the same gap between his front teeth that Genie has. Life goes happily on for the children until a terribly harsh disruption occurs: Marcus’s “unknown” and (in his view) “too … shiny”, “glossy” parents (56) turn up and literally wrest him away from Genie and the village. In their “flashy” car, the parents have a “surprise” that holds no interest for the distraught boy battling against his mother’s confining hold: he has a sister, Krystle, who was born in America, and a strict paternal grandmother, Eunice. The parents say they deem the village unsafe because of the military raids in the region, but the narrator hints that the couple have spotted a great opportunity for personal economic and status advance in occupying the spaces (both literal and figurative) left by settlers fleeing from the now independent, “black-ruled” country. As a first move, they buy one of the grandest, now affordable homes on the market. Marcus’s father, Dingani Masuku, sets up a lucrative medical practice in the city; the boy is sent to an expensive private school and “cured” of his “country manners”.
A new character, a journalist named Bhekithemba Nyathi, is introduced to provide political context, especially concerning the changes in ideological perspectives prevalent at different times. Nyathi was a staunch Royalist (in the British sense) who travelled to the 1980 independence celebrations of his country with the intention of shaking Prince Charles’s hand. But the effete prince disappointed him, and, in a flash, the young man changed into a fervent African nationalist, especially inspired by Bob Marley. A letter that Nyathi writes to the press describing his “Damascus moment” attracts attention in top governmental echelons, so The Man Himself offers him a bursary to study journalism, and, later on, a post at The Chronicle – the actual name of the most influential Zimbabwean newspaper, even today. Nyathi is highly idealistic, but by the time (in 1988) he witnesses the eerie emptiness of the Beauford village, he is aware that inhabitants’ corpses were thrown into a disused well, even though it is now all but empty. He would not dare to write about this, in any case; at his first and deeply earnest attempt to report extensive corruption in the postcolonial government (in a used-car scam), he is warned never to do anything of the kind. The Man Himself (the scam’s biggest beneficiary) cuts him dead, but, as if to deepen his humiliating helplessness and his compromised position, continues paying Nyathi his salary. He sits in his grimy office with no assignments, despised and mocked by his fellow journalists. Hence, “by the time The Man Himself called Bhekithemba and gave him a direct assignment, he had learned his lesson well” (70). He is to go to Beauford Estate and report on the “flying machine” that is being constructed by Golide Gumede. That is his first visit to the place; he meets with Golide and his family, and is impressed by all of them.
As a counter to the journalist’s surreptitious visit to an empty village in 1988, we have an eyewitness account – by Jestina, the woman who “introduced” Marcus to Genie and Elizabeth – of the state of the village immediately following the gukurahundi raid in 1987. Because of the timeline confusion, the reader at first does not grasp what has happened here, since Jestina, herself traumatised, evokes the stupefied, equally horrified conduct of her fellow villagers walking past her, carrying their dead in a seemingly oblivious, eerie silence. Genie was playing in the sunflower field when the raid started, and, in a considerably later passage (when Genie is half-dreaming, half beset by a haunting and normally suppressed memory, feverish with the illness that will eventually kill her), she recalls her own witnessing of the tail end of the raid:
Genie is still in the safety of the sunflowers when she sees two army trucks drive up the dirt road and make their way towards the Beauford Farm and Estate compound. In the army trucks are sojas carrying very real AK-47s and wearing garish red berets [as the actual 5th Brigade soldiers did]. Soon after the sojas’ arrival, she hears incessant screams, intermittent rat-a-tat-tats, incoherent voices shouting, incomprehensible voices wailing. She smells flesh burning … not mouthwatering, but nauseating … definitely not something edible … not an animal that you eat … a different kind of animal … a human being … someone. Someone is burning.
And then suddenly it is all over. No screams. No rat-a-tat-tats. No voices shouting. No voices wailing. But still the smell of burning human flesh.
She hears the army trucks come back down the dirt road. One of the trucks stops next to the sunflower field. There is the shuffle of boots on the dirt road. Then the smell of burning grass. “Put it out,” a voice booms. “What have sunflowers ever done to you?” The truck starts up again and the boots start their shuffle … stop … hesitate.
The sun had begun to set on the horizon, marking the end of the day. Genie knows that all the days that break henceforth will never be felt the same way. (193–4, author’s ellipses, own insertion)
After the raid, Jestina finds Genie “trying not to breathe” in a corner of the home of the old couple, Marcus’s maternal grandparents, where she works and lives. In the end, the “terrified and trembling” child comforts Jestina, who explains that the couple – who sit with heads slumped on the table laid for tea, still clasping hands – died after she (Jestina) was forced by the soldiers to feed them the rat poison that killed them both (76). The surviving villagers soon come pounding on the door of this home. Desperate to find scapegoats, they declare that what drew the soldiers to their compound was their vengeful search for Golide Gumede, and that the people killed – young people, wives, the elderly – were thought to be Gumede’s disciples, inspired by the silver wings he is constructing, to think of flight as a possibility. They demand that Genie, as Golide’s daughter, and Jestina, as the one protecting the girl, leave the village at dawn. Having no choice, Jestina and Genie decide to leave the village by bus. They walk past the sunflower fields to the bus stop the next morning. “Genie ran her hand over the closest stalks. ‘This is not an ending of my choosing,’” Genie says. “‘From now on I will choose my own endings.’” The girl is nine years old, but “there was a conviction and determination in her voice that made Jestina believe her” (83). They will later be separated, but Jestina, ineradicably linked to Genie, will fly back from Australia, to where she has emigrated, to attend Genie’s 2017 funeral.
Part 3 of the novel introduces Valentine Tanaka, an incorruptible civil servant in the corrupt regime of The Man Himself. Valentine is the chief registrar of The Organisation (a recognisable allusion to Zimbabwe’s notorious CIO, its Central Intelligence Organisation). Valentine is shown seated in the opulent office of The Man Himself, having been summoned to be given an (obliquely phrased) order to repossess Beauford Farm and Estate from the war veterans who have been squatting there for some time, unchallenged by the political authorities. Valentine is extremely intelligent and grasps immediately that The Man Himself wants to get his hands on the land because the martyred corpses of those murdered in the 5th Brigade’s raid have produced extremely valuable relics; the hearts of the victims have been turned into objects that the narrator refers to obscurely (stressing the inexplicable beauty and magnetic attraction of these relics) as “the most precious and beautiful something[s]” (88). The moment he understands the vulgar greed of The Man Himself and (in all his repellent obesity, cunning and dishonesty) his unworthiness to possess the remaining “somethings”, it is as if his fear of the tyrant leaves Valentine. The Man Himself has either one or two of these objects; there are perhaps fifteen more. But, from now on, Valentine will follow up the case in his own way and for his own reasons. Ndlovu makes Valentine – a humpbacked, “nerdish”, ugly, unimaginative-seeming bureaucrat – one of the heroes of this tale, being a man who has a “heart of gold” (273) and a connection with Genie. He learns from Beatrice Beit-Beauford (in a meeting set up by Kuki) – now resident in an old-age home and beginning to be affected by dementia – that she, long ago, sold the title deeds of Beauford Estate to a gang of street kids who called themselves “The Survivors”; they had wanted to leave the city for the countryside as the economy collapsed. When Genie had first come to live on the street with Vida at age 18, almost 20 years earlier, she had enthusiastically told the kids about Beauford Estate and the sunflowers, which had made them see it as an ideal place for their retreat. They cohabit slightly awkwardly with the war veterans, but since The Survivors occupy the now decrepit main house and the veterans live in a different area, it works. Informed, perhaps by Valentine, that “the precious and beautiful something” (97) has been found, Genie accepts it as a signal to prepare for her own end. She sends the atlas she and Marcus used in the car wreck as children to Marcus; a postcard showing the Victoria Falls, to Krystle (both the atlas and the postcard have to go by post to the USA, where the siblings now live); and “a colourful bird” to her father’s sister, Minenhle, and her partner, Mordechai (another miraculously transformed character who managed to transcend an ugly past). She also plans to take Beatrice Beit-Beauford for a final “spa day”, as she has been doing regularly, and, most importantly (taking due care that Vida does not notice), decides that she will stop taking her medication.
In a section filling in Vida’s individual history, we learn that he took to the streets when his first love, Kuki’s beautiful son, Everleigh, died in the liberation war and when his own attempt to be likewise killed, failed. We also learn that during the war, he had a strange and unforgettable (though very brief) encounter with Golide Gumede. Listening to Janis Joplin’s music, as he constantly did during the war – partly because its undertone of grief expressed something like his own sorrow, partly in order to get noticed by the “terrorists” so that they would kill him – Vida was nevertheless startled when Golide suddenly arose from the long grass of Tongaland and pointed his AK-47 directly at Vida’s face. However, lowering his gun, Golide surprisingly told Vida that he knew his name. He also told the youngster his own name, saying that Vida would always remember it, and gave him his unforgettable, gap-toothed smile – a feature that Vida would recognise in his daughter when, years later, Genie joined him. Post-war, on the streets, Vida’s long, unkempt hair and beard earns him the nickname “Jesus”. He happens to be trundling his usual supermarket trolley along the sidewalk when Genie is knocked flying by Kuki’s car. (The accident happens while Genie is living with the Masukus as Marcus and Krystle’s adoptive sister.) With Thandi Masuku having earlier inexplicably failed to pick up the girls as usual from school, they went to Dr Dingani Masuku’s waiting room, only to overhear an ugly quarrel between the usually impeccably well-behaved parents. One learns that The Man Himself, to whom Dingani owes much of their present prosperity, has announced to Thandi that he is going to “collect” in kind (ie in sexual services) from her, as Dingani’s wife – a humiliation from which she cannot escape and for which she blames her husband. We learn the nature of the “service” for which Dingani was paid by The Man Himself only much later in the text. Genie, as the older sibling, takes Krystle with her to spare her from witnessing the parental quarrel and its revelations. Krystle at first refuses to join, but later belatedly follows Genie into the streets. The older girl has to rush back in order to rescue Krystle from the traffic, herself then being hit by Kuki’s car. With the injured Genie now in his pushcart, Jesus takes Genie (who somehow recognises him, as he does her) to the hospital for treatment, where an initially hushed-up medical discovery is made concerning Genie’s health. Three years later, when Genie is 16, the Masuku parents and Dingani’s mother, Eunice (who has never approved of the plan to adopt Genie), observe the moment that Marcus discovers he loves Genie – who herself has long felt the same for him – as Marcus kisses her. The adults now see fit to announce to the two adolescents that this love cannot be fulfilled, for they know Genie to be HIV-positive. This bombshell fills Krystle with a terrible guilt; she wrongly infers that she was the cause of the road accident that seriously injured Genie, and that Genie’s AIDS is the result of an infected blood transfusion. Krystle, like Genie, will flee the Masuku home at around 18 to go and study in the USA, cutting off most communication with her family. For Genie’s part, when she at 18 unexpectedly walks out of the Masuku home and joins Vida, she tells him that she has come to save him. She will indeed give back meaning to Vida’s life as the two learn to care deeply for each other. Genie went to see Dr Prisca Mambo after the news of her HIV-positive state, and forced the doctor to tell her, then a 16-year-old girl, that she probably had five more years of life (antiretrovirals were not yet available). Genie was the one to reassure the pained, embarrassed doctor, saying smilingly: “Don’t worry, doctor. Five years is long enough for me to do something good with my life” (239–40).
Concerning Vida’s childhood, we learn that when, in the vulnerable state of early adolescence, he felt the first stirrings of his attraction to males, he soon became the butt of vicious heckling by his fellow pupils at their school. This was when his father, a motor mechanic, quietly stepped in and told Vida: “There are many ways to be a man” (164), and gave him his first pair of workmen’s gloves as he invited the youngster into his workshop and taught him to use the tools of his trade. It was from this beginning that Vida developed his metalworking skills and from which came his later “habit” of collecting any scrap metal on the city’s streets. Having come to live with and “save” him, Genie joins in with this, and so comes to learn of Vida’s family background. The De Villiers family patriarch was “Vida’s eccentric Afrikaner great-grandfather, Jakob de Villiers” (166). Jakob built a magnificent mansion half into a hillside, and his British wife, who died before bearing any children, established a very beautiful English garden around it. Both of these became heritage sites in the colony, but began to fall into disrepair when The Man Himself (who had attended postcolonial state occasions held there) decided that the place was tainted by Eurocentric values, and cut the state funding that had till then maintained both home and garden as sources of lucrative, mainly tourist income. Jakob did later have a son with his Khoisan “maid”, known only as Blue (166), who had for years masqueraded as his manservant. But their child, named Frederick, not being white, was not permitted to live in the big house. He had to stay in a small servant’s room, where Vida later on finds his pathetically meagre possessions – three records of classical music, a tin full of seashells and a bowler hat. Frederick’s son, Ezekiel (who was Vida’s father), refused to be a servant or live at the big house; he established the workshop at the back of the house – where Vida now stores the scrap metal he finds, and turns it into brilliant sculptures depicting his fellow street dwellers of all racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. As the sole male offspring down the genetic line from Jakob, the “coloured” Vida inherited both the mansion and the garden, as well as the workshop. The housekeeper and gardener decided to remain and continue their duties when the funding was cut, but even so, restoration is badly needed.
Vida reveals the long-kept secrets of his valuable but long unwanted inheritance and his artistry in metal sculpting to Genie when she “told him about sunflowers, sojas, saviours and secrets. She told him the story of her life. And then she waited for him to respond” (161). Genie’s “story” involves the reason she warned Vida not to touch her when she accidentally cut herself on a jagged piece of the metal they were collecting, ie she is HIV-positive. It is in return that Vida tells her his own story and acts towards her unlike the way the Masukus responded to her condition – showing the natural and unaffected continuing appreciation of her human worth that Vida’s father showed to him after the revelation of his then reviled sexual preferences: “he reached out and wiped the tears from Genie’s eyes” (164), just as she wipes his after hearing his story in return. Vida knows that he sculpts “as a way of establishing his place in the world, of giving his life meaning”, but it is only when he sees Genie looking at the sculptures “with awe and wonder” that Vida “realised that the things he created could actually have lives of their own – beyond him” (160–1). He feels now that “Genie had entered his life” to “let him know this particular truth about himself” (161). Following this epiphany and their mutually shared full self-revelations, Genie and Vida decide to move into and clean up the De Villiers mansion and restore its garden, with the help of the housekeeper and gardener. Over time, their relationship deepens, so that despite a long time of sleeping in their separate rooms, Vida asks Genie to share his bed. Genie then decides on a rather public and lengthy search for the ideal double bed mattress. As it happens, this expedition involves a chance encounter with Valentine Tanaka, the disabled bureaucrat, who, at the start of his career, had an encounter with Genie that revealed to him her impressive strength of spirit – as well as her relationship with Golide Gumede. As if she has somehow “orchestrated” the timing to make known the new stage of their cohabitation, at the next shop they visit – with the double mattress conspicuously tied to the top of their small car – they encounter Marcus, who was Genie’s childhood companion, sometime adoptive brother and first love. He tells Genie that he is leaving for the USA. “Genie had taken the news of Marcus’ leaving for America rather well – too well for Marcus’ liking” (174). Blurting out an invitation to Genie to go with him – triggered (as the narrator reveals) by the sight of the double mattress – he also tells Genie that he loves her; but she tells him that wanting to love her is not the same as actually loving her, and her counter-revelation to Marcus is that letting him go is her way of loving him.
Vida and Genie never defined their relationship. They never spoke of love. They were just together. And because they were together, Vida became a well-known artist. Genie encouraged him to show [his sculptures of] the Street Dwellers to Beatrice Beit-Beauford, who, in turn, purchased them for a ridiculously exorbitant sum and then donated them to the city in a lavish ceremony …. The city planner decided to put the sculptures on the median of Selbourne Avenue opposite Centenary Park. The street dwellers felt honoured, and the sculptures soon became a tourist attraction, which benefited the city economically. Tourists liked taking pictures of the sculptures with the very street dwellers who had inspired them. The Survivors [the gang of street children] turned this into a lucrative business for themselves, especially since they accepted payment only in foreign currency. (178, added ellipsis and insertions)
Vida becomes a world-renowned sculptor and is labelled (as the narrator somewhat mockingly reports) a “truly postcolonial artist”. When he later creates his most famous sculpture in three parts, “The theory of flight”, they call this a “post-postcolonial” piece, “bravely signal[ling] the way forward” (178–9). But then, the context changes. The Man Himself declares Vida’s sculptures insufficiently African (partly because Vida is “coloured” and often mistaken for a “white” man, and partly because The Man Himself wants Vida’s sculptures replaced with statues of himself). His nationalisation policies result in a collapse of the economy and the virtual cessation of tourist travel to the country, but Vida’s sculptures are snapped up for public display in capital cities all across the world. The three parts of Vida’s “The theory of flight” are respectively called “Golden”, “Lady in waiting” and “The firebird”, in probable allusion to Genie’s father, her mother and herself; the third one is purchased by the now wealthy Marcus and is lent to the city’s National Art Gallery, where it becomes an exhibit that is regularly, even devotedly, visited by Valentine Tanaka, the registrar of The Organisation.
Genie withstands tuberculosis and pneumonia, and is lovingly nursed by Vida (with hospital help) through such recurrent health onslaughts. When antiretroviral medication becomes available, Vida makes sure that Genie avails herself of it. They are apart only during Vida’s annual stays at an artists’ retreat in Stockholm. When he discovers after some years, on returning from Sweden, that Genie has stopped taking the medication and no longer eats, he forces her into hospital, where early-stage cervical cancer is detected, requiring further treatment. But, on a later return from abroad, Vida is distraught to find Genie on their bed in a pool of her own blood. Although he rushes Genie to the hospital, she falls into a coma. Vida goes back onto the street, knowing that this time she is dying. He informs Dr Dingani Masuku, and, when his estranged wife, Thandi, and the Masuku children, Marcus and Krystle, hear about Genie’s condition, they all rush to her bedside – only to discover that she has vanished from the hospital. The Masukus want her declared missing, mistakenly believing that Vida has taken her to a hospice to “keep her to himself”, but further complications in Genie’s past life emerge as the family applies to Valentine Tanaka for the necessary paperwork. Jestina Nxumalo, in 1987, took Genie to live with her father’s sister, Minenhle (probably to keep her safe from the sojas and murderous state persecution); in 1988, she was reported dead when the Masuku family adopted her.
Under the pressure of circumstances, Dr Dingani Masuku at last reveals to his family that he was in all likelihood responsible for the gukurahundi raid on the Beauford Estate village, for under pressure from The Man Himself – who was violently jealous of the natural, inspirational leadership of Golide Gumede as an admired visionary – Dingani told him the lie he made clear he wanted to hear – that Golide was plotting to overthrow the state – providing the excuse to all but wipe out the village and leave Genie an orphan. This was why Dingani, handsomely financially rewarded for his “co-operation” with The Man Himself, felt compelled to adopt Genie into his family to assuage some of the guilt he felt. Later on, returning from Australia, Jestina Nxumalo (who has kept secret the fact that both she and Thandi’s ageing mother were gang-raped by the sojas during the gukurahundi raid before she was forced to give the elderly couple rat poison) works out why Genie – terrified herself but yet so bravely comforting Jestina – never spoke of what the sojas did to her in the sunflower field to result in her HIV-positive condition. Genie lived to transcend this bitter history, determinedly holding on to the belief that her parents had safely flown away on the wings her father had built.
Genie’s body is found in the sunflower field by the war veterans on Beauford Estate. The veterans have spent many months digging up the bones in the surrounding fields, carefully labelling the gukurahundi skeletons and separating them from the remains left by the later, AIDS-related deaths. When they find a newly dead body, Genie’s, they pick it up reverently. The beginning of the novel reported that at the moment of her death, Genie “was seen to fly away on a giant pair of silver wings”, and at the very same moment, “her heart calcified into the most precious and beautiful something the onlookers had ever seen” – a “wondrous” event (9) that imaginatively quite transforms the sad, bleak fact of a special person’s premature demise. She also extends her healing, forgiving and harmonising influence beyond her death, leading all whose lives have been touched by hers to the event with which the narrative concludes – on the banks of the Zambezi, near the great falls, at dawn. As the onlookers witness the elephants fording the mighty river and are reminded that it is sufficient to be “but a speck” in “the grander scheme of things”, they come at last to gain “the kind of knowledge that finally quiets you”: “the kind of knowledge that allows you to fly” (328). It is the kind of knowledge by which Genie lived her life, the legacy she left to those she loved.