Obituary: Lewis Nkosi: Author, critic

12 September 2010 - 02:00 By Tiisetso Makube
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Lewis Nkosi, the literary giant who has died at the age of 73, would have been bitterly disappointed to learn of his own tragic demise on Monday.

That is because the man had so much drive, such a zest for life, that he would never have imagined a world in which his voice was permanently silenced, and where the people he so dearly loved could laugh with him no more.

This is not to presume Nkosi thought himself immortal; it is just that this writer remembers how, some years ago, Nkosi declared that now he was ageing, his daily prayer (and he was not in any way religious), was that he would have the strength to defy the laws of nature and remain forever young.

Last year Nkosi was admitted to the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg after a fall, during which he hit his head.

Nkosi was part of the famed Drum school of writers, a bunch of talented artists who lived by the maxim: "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse."

But it was Nkosi who would be the most caustic and unrelenting of them when he carved a niche for himself in exile as a literary scholar and critic.

In an essay published in the 2006 book, Still Beating the Drum, Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi, the Kenyan writer, Chris Wanjala, observes that "Nkosi's intense relation to Western aesthetics often meant that he created a distance between himself and his colleagues, and at times he wrote acerbically about his fellow writers."

Wanjala then quotes from an essay by Nkosi: "With the best will in the world it is impossible to detect in the fiction of black South Africans any significant and complex talent which responds with both vigour of the imagination and sufficient technical resources to the problems posed by the conditions in South Africa."

Nkosi's essay, Fiction byBlack South Africans, led to a barrage of protestation by other writers in South Africa who said that whereas Nkosi found fault with how they wrote, they were concerned with what to write about. Nkosi referred to this quasi-superficial dilemma as "the stranglehold of naturalism".

Ever the high priest of pure, beautiful and unmolested oratory and literary forms of expression, he went on to postulate that "The answer (to the question of poor artistic and literary exertion) may lie in all the things we don't want to talk about: poor and distorted literary education, a political criticism which favours mediocrity over quality, and exclusion from all those cultural and social amenities which fertilise the mind and promote confidence and control over literary skills."

I remember a time, a few years back, when a group of us was sitting at a shebeen in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, and discussing literature as I imagine Nkosi and his friends would have done at Can Themba's House of Truth in Sophiatown.

And so Bloke Modisane's autobiography, Blame me on History, came under the spotlight. One among us put forward the view that the book was a piece of balderdash, to put it in another tongue. Some of us disagreed; vehemently so. And then I remembered that Nkosi had had similar thoughts, which made me question how I read, studied and interpreted what I read. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I read an essay of Nkosi's some years later, in which he confessed to not having read Modisane's book correctly and with a degree of compassion it deserved, the first time.

"Whatever else Drum writers were successful at," wrote Nkosi in that essay, "deep political analysis was not one of them, for the simple reason that very few Drum writers at the time had any clearly worked out social theory, and I naturally include myself among them; and the lack of one makes their writings on politics seem wildly improvised and dangerously spontaneous.

"But in-between, Modisane's book is interspersed, unexpectedly like raisins in a cake, with the kind of small vignette which has the power to illuminate many things about black life in South Africa ..."

I once asked Nkosi why there was, on the surface at least, no anger in his writing. His answer, simply, was: "Detachment, impersonality, a ruthless accumulation of detail rather than a loud proclamation of injustice, (are all) that is required."

Nkosi was born in 1936 in kwaNyuswa, in the Valley of a Thousand Hills just outside Durban. The precocious and inquisitive child was orphaned at an early age.

After finishing high school, he joined the Ilanga newspaper as a journalist, but soon moved to Johannesburg to work as a journalist at Drum in the mid-'50s.

When he won a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University in 1961, he was allowed out of South Africa only on condition that he not return. During his long exile he worked as a journalist for the BBC and taught literature at universities in Zambia, the United Kingdom and the US. He is the author of three novels, Mating Birds, Underground People, and Mandela's Ego, two seminal books of literary criticism, Home and Exile, and Tasks andMasks, and several plays. Nkosi is survived by his partner, Astrid Starck-Adler, and his twin daughters, Joy and Louise

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