Recent discussions on H-Net literature and History logs have (re)debated the idea of ‘African’ literature. Labeling and pigeon-holing books clearly has advantages – although I hope I am not the only one who has moved a book from crime back to fiction in a library, sure that ‘my’ labeling is the right one.
Buying online seems to me (as punter rather than analyst) to make these categories more tricky (and more weighted). As an author, trying to sell as much as you can, you want buyers to find you: so understandably these categories become all but meaningless as publishers try to appeal to the greatest number. I have found the same book under three (very different) categories, but also searched in vain for ‘a book like…’, ultimately heading off to publishers and book blogs for tips.
What has all this rambling about labeling got to do with ‘Zoo City’ the novel published by Lauren Beukes?
Amazon describes the book as follows:
Zinzi December finds people. Even if they don’t want to be found like missing pop starlet Songweza. Trouble is, when you go turning over stones and digging up secrets it isn t long before the real truth comes to light. A truth the local crime lord, dark magician and beast master, will kill to keep hidden. In Lauren Beukes’ shattered city, magic is horribly real and the criminal classes sport symbiotically linked animals. A stunningly original urban fantasy.
The cover doesn’t give much away either. Having won the Arthur C Clarke 2011 prize, http://www.clarkeaward.com/2011-clarke-award/2011-winner/ Beukes was quoted as saying that South Africa ‘is really where science fiction is’, for example the success of the film District 9. Yet the novel crosses genres – others have noted that the novel reads ‘like noir’, and the plot is familiar to any crime reader, as a private detective is asked to investigate a missing person, a case which snowballs, littered with red herrings and memorable characters.
As with much ‘African’ fiction, the city itself is a character: dystopian Johannesburg, broken down into ‘safe’, gated communities and ghettos where everyday life is far less predictable. Zinzi’s life in post-apartheid South Africa is multicultural, poverty stricken and troubled by drugs and gangland violence. Zinzi moves effortlessly in a cosmopolitan universe: the woman with water on her head, to the owner of the ‘Spaza’ store, to her lover, who still hopes he will be able to retrieve his family safely from a refugee camp. Yet at the same time, the plot also winds around characters’ (forcible) acquisition of animal characters – Zinzi is accompanied by a sloth – who are the subject of prurient interest by those without. An ex-boyfriend sells his story on Zinzi, suggesting animal participation in their relationship: parallels have been drawn between the book’s description of the ‘animalled’ phenomenon, and the HIV/ AIDS epidemic in South Africa. This accompaniment to the story echoes Pullman: animals’ reactions indicate emotion, jeopardy and in some cases mirror the politics of race. Beukes suggests characters with large and bulky animals are unable to go under the radar. In contrast, the woman who works at the local shop and does welfare claims on the side, has a scorpion, which fits conveniently into a handbag. The reader is left to question the politics of ‘passing’, post-Apartheid.
Given this complexity, Beukes’ novel is gripping and challenging at the same time. Given the rise in popularity of the light hearted international crime series, following in the wake of Mma Ramotswe, it is intriguing to wonder how many people will find Zoo City expecting Jim Jiree style comic absurdity, or Brunetti’s contemplative encounters (with plate after plate of gourmet Italian food), having ticked ‘detective fiction’ online.