Magical Realism in Cape Town's Underbelly

Literature

 

The Mantle Image Cape Town South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa

 

 

Thirteen Cents
by K. Sello Duiker
David Philip Publishers (2000), 560 pages

 

It is always a jarring to read a novel based in a place with which you are familiar. Turning pages, you smile to yourself as you read descriptions of places that you walk through every day. And as you read about what the fictional characters do there, you are reminded of your own experiences within and the history of that space, recognizing in the literary realm something of the real world. Sometimes the place is captured so realistically that when you find yourself walking past the actual statue, or coastal ocean view later that day, you wonder if that boy you just passed was the basis for one of the main characters, or if that man sitting with a pen and notebook on the bench is the author. When I learned that Thirteen Cents was about Cape Town, I became excited to see what K. Sello Duiker had to write about a city I love very much. But it did not take long for me to realize that this was a Cape Town I was neither familiar with, nor desired to know.

 

Lauded for his ability to graphically portray the gritty underground of a cruel urban landscape, South African author Duiker received prestigious awards for both Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams (Kwela Books, 2001),1 before committing suicide at the young age of thirty. His debut novel, Thirteen Cents, follows the life of Azure, a street child roaming the avenues of contemporary, post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa. The novel opens with Azure introducing himself to the reader, and as his first-person narration continues, his life and world come alive. Orphaned from a young age, the not-yet thirteen Azure lives alone. Except for the occasional company of a younger street child named Bafana, whom Azure sometimes deigns to play a father figure to, Azure survives, or so he says, by scavenging food from bins and earning money from parking cars.

 

It soon becomes clear, however, that his main source of income comes from prostitution, turning tricks for wealthy white males. Heartbreaking passages scattered throughout the story matter-of-factly describe Azure’s interaction with his clients. These sections are not easy to stomach, and the uncomplicated and easy-to-read first-person narration makes it that much more difficult.  Moreover, Azure seems not to recognize the absurdity of his own claim that he is “almost a man [who] can take care of [himself].” We are reminded how ridiculous this notion is by moments that remind us he is still very much a child—moments like in the shower at a client’s flat, where he cheerfully blows soap bubbles.

 

Azure’s position as a marginalized figure is even more complex because of his appearance. Cape Town is a city where power is racially determined, and as a boy with blue eyes and dark skin, Azure fits in nowhere. His appearance blurs and confuses racial boundaries, with the result that he is (quite often) beaten. In a telling incident, Azure has to flee for his life after mistakenly calling Gerald, the gangster boss of his area, by the name of one of his black lackeys, Sealy. Confused as to why Gerald has reacted in such an aggressive manner, Azure turns to his friend Vincent for advice. According to Vincent, Gerald not only aspires to a certain level of whiteness (including straight hair and light skin), he is also envious of Azure’s blue eyes. Vincent sees no alternative but for Azure to try harder to be “more black… like more black than all of us.” Gerald is someone to watch out for— he is an urban predator, T-Rex, the “king of dinosaurs,” to whom even the devil cannot compare.

 

Azure, then, needs to be constantly on his guard. The people he interacts with on a daily basis are gangsters, prostitutes and other street people. There are no respites for the innocent or vulnerable. Adults are all too ready to exploit any sign of weakness. Vincent reminds Azure repeatedly that “this is Cape Town,” something that Azure never forgets: 

 

[Azure]: “Grown-ups are fucked up.”

[Vincent]: “No, Cape Town is fucked up. Really.”

“You’re right, it’s Cape Town, not the people.”

“And the people. Don’t forget about the people. They’re also fucked up.”

 

This might appear like the bogeyman-talk of an adult to a child, but the Cape Town we read of is imbued with supernatural elements (somewhat in the vein of Ben Okri’s magical realist novel The Famished Road [1991] which also follows the coming-of-age of a young male protagonist). An animist unconscious seems to operate in this world, in which “objects acquire a social and spiritual meaning… far in excess of their natural properties and their use value.”2

 

In his struggle against contamination by the city, Azure becomes associated with water, sun/light/fire and their related colors of orange, yellow and blue. Animals also carry strong symbolic significance. For example, pigeons will, like people, “take you out for a few crumbs of bread.” Furthermore, Vincent warns Azure that the pigeons are under Gerald’s control and act as his spies.

 

It is Azure’s increasing awareness and association with this animist unconsciousness that provides an alternative to his entrapment. Glancing at Cape Town’s iconic mountain one day, he realizes that it is a place where he can escape to. Following the action of slaves in the past who ran away to Table Mountain to escape their lives of servitude, he too moves up the mountain to escape the city, and the capitalistic world marred by criminalism and gangsterism. Before Azure starts walking up, he notes how “the mountain stands high above [the city] …like a giant that is about to move and crush everything in its way.” As he hikes, Azure looks back to see the “now-quiet city,” observing that it “lies weak beneath [him],” and promises Cape Town that he will crush it.

 

On the mountain, Azure seems to come closer to this goal. He has numerous dreams in which he beholds visions of release from powerlessness and from his abusers, particularly Gerald, in strongly symbolic images, where the figure of Saartjie Baartman (a Khoi woman who was taken to Europe as a sideshow attraction in the 19th century) and other images from Khoi mythology appear. Azure’s dreams express an indication of role reversal, and a desire for autonomy and freedom from his abusers. Unlike the powerless role he plays in the city, here he has the power to destroy his predators, and to protect and to nurture others. The recurring appearance of Saartjie highlights the corruption, sexual exploitation, and homelessness that mark Azure’s experience, as well as his desire for a home, for a mother. Saartjie’s presence also indicates a recourse to a forgotten history, a silenced past, because for decades Saartjie’s story of degradation, along with the stories of the Khoi people, were silenced in histories of South Africa. Thus, Table Mountain becomes a space where an alternative, historic-mythical knowledge-system presents itself for Azure to draw on as an escape from the city. 

 

But he cannot stay on the mountain forever, and so we find him returning to his oppressors. Yet, the Azure who returns is not the Azure who left, for his last dream before leaving the mountain ends with him urinating for “such a long time that [his] bright yellow water becomes the sun.” We get a sense then of what is to come. I will not rob you of the ending, as I think Thirteen Cents is eye-opening and thought-provoking enough as is. I warn you now, though, it is extremely ugly, broken, unsparing, and graphic at times. It is one of those books that will make you feel dirty if you say that you enjoyed it. Yet, just like a broken mirror provides a warped, but fascinatingly alternative perspective of something you thought you knew and were familiar with, Thirteen Cents does the same with Cape Town’s homeless, insignificant, and forsaken. Duiker once said in an interview that “street culture says a lot about where we are and homeless people are the lowest common denominator. They tell us a lot about ourselves.”3 So this mirror shows us no answers, only questions: what kind of society has created a subculture like this? How are individuals caught in this vicious entrapment? What kind of future awaits such individuals, when not even the supernatural/animist elements provide an ultimate escape? 

 

Even the title of the novel escapes conclusive definition: is it to be read positively or negatively? Thirteen Cents, a price, seems to refer to Azure’s “worthlessness,” as well as his commodification. Azure does find thirteen cents in his pocket on his return to the city from the mountaintop, but what is the significance of this paltry amount? Does it portend empowerment because he too will be thirteen? To reach the age of thirteen is to have reached a point where one can no longer be considered a boy—he must be a man. On the other hand, this discovery is also accompanied with a sense of loss, as Azure muses: “I scratch in my pocket and take out my money. Thirteen cents. I must have lost one cent on the mountain.” We are left to ponder the significance of this small change.

 

 

 

1. Thirteen Cents won the 2001 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book, Africa region, while the South African Herman Charles Bosman Prize was awarded to The Quiet Violence of Dreams.

 

2. Harry Garuba. “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society,” Public Culture 15, no 2 (2003): 267.

3. Victor Lackay. Interview in Words Gone Two Soon: A Tribute to Phaswane Mpe and K. Sello Duiker Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, ed. (Pretoria: Media and Communications Ltd, 2005): 19-21.

South Africa