Toil and rubble

Set in a South Africa that’s the same, but different, 'Tunnel' plays with the idea of inversion, writes Diane Awerbuck

25 June 2023 - 00:00
By Diane Awerbuck
writes novels, short fiction and poetry. Among his accolades are the 2016 Thomas Pringle Prize, the 2018 Nadine Gordimer Award and a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship. His debut novel, 'A Hibiscus Coast', won the 2022 K Sello Duiker Memorial Award. Since 2014 he has directed uHlanga, an acclaimed poetry press.
Image: Supplied Nick Mulgrew writes novels, short fiction and poetry. Among his accolades are the 2016 Thomas Pringle Prize, the 2018 Nadine Gordimer Award and a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship. His debut novel, 'A Hibiscus Coast', won the 2022 K Sello Duiker Memorial Award. Since 2014 he has directed uHlanga, an acclaimed poetry press.

Tunnel

Nick Mulgrew, Karavan Press

***** (5 stars) 

You’ve been here before. Confinement in close quarters after a disaster not of your making sounds pretty familiar, but Nick Mulgrew’s claustrophobic new novel, Tunnel, isn’t obviously about the pandemic.

It deals instead with the fallout after some unnamed but probably nuclear events that collapse the Huguenot Tunnel and render the surrounds uninhabitable. This terrifying prospect must surely have occurred to anyone travelling in carbon-monoxided convoy through the intestines of the Du Toitskloof mountains. How does this concrete hold back the weight of the mountain? What if it all falls in? Who would come? And how long would that take? And also, crucially for this novel, would it be worth surviving?

Set in a South Africa that’s the same but different, Tunnel plays with the idea of inversion. There’s a South-West and a Caprivi, and there are workers’ compounds and bush cops and baboons — but not as we know them. The day the action takes place is March Day, and all travellers need permits. Then the world goes dark.

After the characters’ initial panic, they find their space literally shrunk and the tunnel fast becomes “the inside-outside”. Their hell descent must continue before they can eventually find their way to fresh air and the elegiac upswing of the ending.

Mulgrew forces his characters into uneasy amalgamations once they’re down the wormhole: Andreas and Samuel are the couple dedicated to nitpicky bickering, even in the face of certain annihilation; Ledi is the world-weary female figure who does everyone else’s emotional labour; Mo is the robotic but ultimately surprising Rural Corps officer; and Mr B figures as the diabetic bus driver with five preteens in his charge — as well as a stash of Bashew’s cooldrinks that quickly becomes currency.

Mulgrew’s panoptic vision takes in individuals and their relationships, and then the larger webs of interaction with the environment, underground and above it. Ever the mad postcolonial scientist, he uses “they” as the singular pronoun for Mo. It’s an experimental narrative choice reminiscent of Whitman — “I contain multitudes” — that jolts even as it energises and distances.

by Nick Mulgrew.
Image: Supplied Tunnel by Nick Mulgrew.

He’s thought of everything, tracing the other relationships through diction and tone. Sometimes this is through the irritable intimacy we use for our partners: Samuel’s abandoned projects are “dream-shrapnel. Getting started is never the problem.” When a worried Mr B asks Mo where the children are, he is told, alarmingly, that “the minors are healthy”.

Mulgrew is pithy, but he is also a published poet. As in Eliot’s The Waste Land, everything in the landscape of Tunnel is scoured first by foreshadowing, and then the atomising event. There is a strict density in Mulgrew’s descriptions of the disaster, the product of his unsparing, but also loving eye, “the slow lurching continents, the grinding of the earth’s teeth”. Ultimately he relies on a transferred epithet to push the plot — a line of optimistic ants, because they are us.

Thematically, Mulgrew also provides a critical rendering of government brutality and self-interest: when Mo finds the secret and well-stocked bunkers in the tunnels, they automatically know who commissioned those buildings for the families of those in power and favour. Similarly, Ledi, as a Zimbabwean of some experience, imagines a newsreader during a disaster warning who “knew that the people who had written those instructions had already long since done the opposite; that they knew, in the very act of reading those instructions, that it was probably already too late to follow them”.

What is Mulgrew saying? We will not be protected from the decisions made by the power-mongers. When the tunnel collapses, the only way through it is through it. We should all be Ledi, who, when she isn’t making decisions, is “writing in her notebook. That she was keeping a record buoyed them all. It meant she believed in a future beyond this moment.”

It’s not concrete that will hold back the mountain and its grotesque weight — or the weight of capitalism, or corruption, or race-hate, or deadly disease, or ordinary human selfishness, or any of the lies we tell ourselves. Find another way there. Going through the mountain instead of over the top — prioritising the destination and not the journey — saves 11km. That’s not a toll worth paying, and we still have a long road ahead.

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