By Kgebetli Moele
Publisher: Kwela Books
Format: Soft cover
Viscerally gritty, Room 207 follows the lives of a half-dozen talented black men as they risk everything to become artists, musicians, poets, and schemers in Johannesburg. These men cry alone. They party hard, drink hard, and smoke Jah for inspiration.
The setting is Hillbrow, Dream City, the tough port of entry for people looking to make it big in the new South Africa. The neighborhood teems with beggars and prostitutes, with peddlers and violence. In this city, writes Moele, “dreams die each and every second, as each and every second dreams are born … Respect and worship are the ultimate goals; everybody here is running away from poverty.”
The characters are all ultra-masculine, intelligent university boys for whom college is just too slow. There’s Matome, a dashing businessman and music producer who shops at supermarkets for free, but who dominates women through his celibacy, refusing to sleep with them. There’s the bombastic Zulu-boy, an aggressive womaniser and xenophobe; D’nice, a brilliant academic who discovers to his surprise that he is a musical virtuoso. The women course through their lives as afterthoughts, but the men ultimately use them to escape from the walls of 207 – and themselves.
Moele demonstrates himself to be not only a capable writer, but also an apt observer of human relationships. He confidently shifts voices between the first person, the (notoriously difficult) second person, and the third person. The language is sharp and peppered with slang. The men don’t drink; they “fight the war against Isando” (the home of SA Breweries, which sends out legions of bottles of beer that must be consumed). They don’t make love, they "poke". Getting mugged means you’ve mingled your blood with the soil of the city.
The dialogue is witty, the humour subtle but pervasive. These characters think for themselves – they don’t worship the leaders of the struggle against apartheid, but take them as they are today. “I hate all politicians,” the narrator declares, “so I hated Mandela the politician, but I loved Mandela the freedom fighter.” And: “Black betrayal is when you can’t criticise a government of Xhosa people, a government elected by black people for white people.” But before you find yourself agreeing with them, watch out: you could be next. No one, from whores (women), to immigrants (lekwerekwere) to whites (whites) is immune from the ire of these armchair philosophers.
The author is a natural writer, a rapt student of human relationships, portraying complex emotions with ease. The American writer Walter Mosley comes to mind, not for his blackness, but for his poignant depiction of the dramas seething beneath impoverished communities. Moele will tell you how to survive a day in Jo'burg with a rand in your pocket, and keep your pride.
The book is not without its flaws. For example, it seems overly celebratory of womanising. There is a particularly lurid scene of Molamo seducing a girl in a club and making love to her beneath her unsuspecting boyfriend’s eyes. Molamo shows off the condom: “This is her God-given smell,” he boasts, “as individual as her fingerprints.” Sex and girlfriends are passed around liberally. No woman in the story is ugly or plain, and this is overdone. If the story is based on true events, then it seems like Moele is a braggart of the gangsta rap variety; if fictional, then the female characters are unrealistic.
Another problem is simply keeping the characters apart. There are several main characters, and after the initial physical descriptions in the first third of the book, we are expected to remember their manner of speaking, which tends to blend together in Moele’s witty brogue. The dialogue is exceptionally clever – so clever, in fact, that it becomes as unrealistic as JM Coetzee’s, and more a medium for the expression of the author’s ideas. Then there is the fact that the names are similar: Matome, Malomo, Modisi. Why not, just for the stupid reader (me), change one?
A final point is that although the author expertly portrays the unhappiness that underlies these solitary men, the consequences of their actions are given short shrift. The last twenty pages are the most interesting, because these wild cats are finally forced to reconcile with their fast lifestyle, the drinking, the misogyny, and the poverty. We are told that Modisi, who has been the most faithful of all the roommates, beats his lover regularly. Zulu-boy dies, matter-of-factly, of AIDS. The polymath D’nice, too, abuses his spouse. At times these final chapters read like the subtitles pasted onto the ending of movies: Johnny married Susie, Timothy is now a major executive at Bubble Airlines, etc. Since Room 207 is a book, the reader hopes for – and comes to expect, given the nuance of the writing – more elaboration.
But that is nit-picking. This is undoubtedly one of the best books that South Africa has produced this year. It is the voice of a generation that clamours to be reckoned with on its own terms. “We don’t blame you,” the narrator writes, “[d]on’t blame us.” Kgbetli Moele has helped, confidently, to address a lingering racial iniquity in the literature of the next generation of South Africans.
Some make it out of Hillbrow. Others fall hard and jealous. (“How does one measure oneself if not against friends?”) But do not judge the young men of 207. Do not mess with them. They don’t want your pity.