AiW Guest: David Reiersgord
This week, we will feature reviews of the five stories shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing. The prize winner will be announced on Monday 3 July. Today’s review is of South African author Magogodi Makhene’s story ‘The Virus’.
You can read our previous Caine Prize 2017 reviews here:
- Bushra al-Fadil’s ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’
- Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’
- Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Bush Baby’
Sometimes you come across a story that you weren’t expecting, and it slaps you right in the face—in a way that somehow feels good, and makes you want to be slapped again. The writing, the descriptions, the anecdotes, the tone and so much more come together and activate your imagination in ways you previously couldn’t have imagined. Magogodi Makhene’s short story ‘The Virus’, is such story, and one that I look forward to reading again and again.
Set in a rural South African community wrapped up in the challenges and complexities of post-apartheid democracy, ‘The Virus’ deals with cultural, historical and linguistic nuances that make South Africa a complicated place in the face of creeping globalisation; and it unfolds from the disturbing, broken and comic recollections of an unnamed Afrikaner narrator who’s a veteran of the South African Defense Force, and the failed war ‘on the border’ with Angola in the 1980s.
This wildly creative short story (the style and tone of which brought to mind Marlene van Niekerk’s novel Triomf) takes place against the backdrop of a globalised world wracked by cyberwarfare. This seemingly futuristic and broader international context, however, is at odds with the at times intensely local disposition of the world inhabited by the narrator. This narrator struggles to cope with his feelings of superiority towards black South Africans and the dispossession his community is experiencing due to ‘first world refugees in Africa’. According to the narrator, computer viruses have been used to devastating effect, ‘raping’ intelligence systems around the Western world, which has caused Westerners to flock to southern Africa and take over the land. Indeed, land dispossession and xenophobia are two themes familiar to South African literature, and Makhene successfully recycles them in new ways.
The contrast between the local and the global remains central to the story and is reflected through the use of linguistic vernacular peppered throughout that is used to describe various characters and situations. The narrator relies on many Afrikaans words and phrases like swaart gevaar (black danger), rooi gevaar (communist threat), verkrampte (intensely conversative), oumagrootjie and oupagrootjie (grandmother and grandfather), rooineks (rednecks, meaning, British) and a host of others like kak (shit) and skelm (thug).
Considering the Caine Prize’s global outlook (as a British literary prize for African writers), many readers might struggle to make sense of this story’s complexities and flare that make it so interesting and satisfying to read. Nevertheless, what makes it such a rewarding story is that ‘The Virus’ begins with the narrator asking the reader: ‘You ask how it was when this thing started?’
By drawing the reader in from the outset, Makhene seems to seduce the reader—and perhaps herself—into actively reflecting on what the narrator is describing, which encourages the reader think about how South Africa’s histories of racism, subjugation, land dispossession, violence and xenophobia would play out in a world racked by technological destruction. In this way, ‘The Virus’ proves itself as an intensely South African story grappling with the challenges emerging out of an increasingly globalised world.
David Reiersgord lives in South Africa and works at Stellenbosch University with undergraduate and international students. He would probably rather be reading, and is compelled to write about any number of things.