"It was intense to create ... Everything's so real," says Nthikeng Mohlele of Illumination

Generations of hurt, injustice and humiliation demand a new light be thrown on painful stories, writes Anna Stroud

17 March 2019 - 00:00 By Anna Stroud

Illumination *****
Nthikeng Mohlele, Picador Africa, R290

"The world is sad, hey?" says Nthikeng Mohlele when talking about Illumination, his sixth novel. He shakes his head as he reflects on the emotionally taxing process of bringing a multitude of stories to life.

"It was so intense to create ... Everything's so real."

Real and intense it is.

Illumination tells the story of Bantubonke, a famous jazz musician who loses his ability to play the trumpet after a tragic accident. He tries to make a comeback, but his is a story of decline, loss, lust, art, racism, heartbreak and obsession set in a country still reeling from trauma.

One of the most harrowing parts of the book is the story of Bra Alfred, Bantubonke's taxi driver and close friend, whose son Moses commits a farm murder.

"That was a heartbreaking letter," Mohlele says, talking about the letter in which Moses explains to his father why he murdered his employers. "That letter bothers me a lot; that was the most difficult part of the book. I finished writing Illumination a long time ago and that letter bothers me still."

The letter contains generations of hurt, injustice and humiliation and offers an alternative perspective on farm murders. With this letter, the reader has direct access to the mind of a person who commits a terrible crime - an unsettling feeling that propels the reader to a place of empathy and understanding.

"It's just sad, the life that we live. And you can't write any proper literature without engaging with your subject matter," he says. "I know the people in the book and when I write it's as real as it can be. It was a very demanding book for me to write; it took a lot out of me."

No wonder. It's an all-encompassing book. There's no linear plot or narrative lines to hold on to; like the music that permeates every page you just have to let the words wash you along to the inevitable end, which comes too soon.

Music is the driving force behind the protagonist's entire life; Bantubonke compares music to "the gushing force of powerful waterfalls, the hesitance and sudden charge of ocean waves, the slight whistle of garden sprinklers on a breezeless morning". Mohlele says he "cannot imagine life without music".

It took the author more than 12 years to ponder, write and edit his book about music, because he wanted to do it justice.

"It was my most taxing book creatively, because I'm not a musician. To tune into the wavelength of a musician and to do justice to him, you have to assume total immersion of that role because the narrative voice that comes out can't be me. It has to be Bantubonke. He has to see the world ... not only as a musician but as a celebrity; a very famous person who's got all these personal hang-ups and who is in decline."

The story unfolds across multiple settings - Johannesburg, Cape Town, Amsterdam, France, Cuba, Spain - but two places stand out: The Listening Room (Bantubonke's private sanctuary tucked away in the basement of his spacious Houghton home) and Joburg. The narrator evokes the essence of the city: "The beauty of Johannesburg is not immediate. Neither is it only visual. It is an aesthetic that resists being the beauty only of place, of the physical, buildings and bridges and skylines, tree-lined streets and crimson cloud-dotted horizons; it is a beauty that is heard as much as it is felt."

With The Listening Room, the author created a well-crafted sanctuary that contains all the things Bantubonke loves - music, art, love, intimate memories of his wife - but also becomes the place where he descends into madness.

Vivid, beautiful and emotional, Illumination is testament of a book with a great soul. @annawriter_