Skewering the colonial enterprise with a deadly pen

07 April 2021 - 13:57
By Margaret von Klemperer, penguin random house sa AND Penguin Random House SA
 'The History of Man' is a troubling and thought-provoking book.
Image: Supplied 'The History of Man' is a troubling and thought-provoking book.

Published in the Witness (06/04/2021)

The History of Man
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
Penguin Books

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s second novel takes a character from her award-winning The Theory of Flight, Emil Coetzee, and expands his story. But The History of Man works brilliantly as a stand-alone.

Set in an never explicitly named southern African country that is obviously Zimbabwe, it follows Emil’s life from his initially happy 1930s childhood, through his realisation that his parents’ marriage isn’t quite what it seems on the surface, his ghastly private school, determined to turn boys into a particular version of the colonial man, and on into adulthood.

Emil is the central character, though it would be a stretch to call him the hero – he is deeply flawed.

We watch Emil grow from the happy child who loved the outdoors to the myopic, embittered man, trapped in a loveless marriage, unable to connect with his son, and in love with the free-spirited wife of a friend.

Emil runs the Organisation of Domestic Affairs, started with good if unrealistic intentions but co-opted by a government engaged in a civil war: a war Emil doesn’t want but is powerless to resist.

He has decided the African people who are being moved off their land need a written and documented history because, in his view, they have no proper history of their own. Of course, the government can see other uses for the data he collects.

When we first meet him in the prologue, he is washing blood from his hands – a potent image – and one which will come to show the dangerous futility of his enterprise.

One of the most impressive things about this beautifully written novel is its nuance. In an age where debates about colonialism – and many other things – often turn into vituperative twittering rants, reading a book like this both moves the reader and promotes a more thoughtful engagement with the subject. Ndlovu skewers the whole colonial enterprise with a deadly pen, but without viciousness or caricature.

Emil is a victim of his own circumstances, which have not given him the tools or ability to comprehend the situation in which he finds himself. Perhaps we cannot admire him, but to an extent we can pity him.

The History of Man moves from the light touch of the early chapters into something much darker. It is a superb piece of writing, and a troubling and thought-provoking book.