Sunday, August 26, 2007

My Mother's Lovers

The white man's burden is the dominant theme of My Mother's Lovers. By using the motif of a fearless young woman who adopts a litany of lovers, Hope takes us to a time in African history when "things were quite perfect as they were". The narrator, Alexander, is very nearly obsessed with his mother Kathleen. His mother was an aviator in the best tradition of the white African pilots, hunting game far and wide. He accompanied her on some of her pursuits, but never learned who his father was.

One of the more interesting characters in the book is Koosie, whom Kathleen brings home one day from the airport. An orphan, he ends up staying with her and Alexander, but after the change of guard in South Africa, he rises to become Dr Sithembile Nkosi, Director of the Media Marketing Council. And yet, he contracts Aids. Hope's decision to constuct such a character can best be explained by his response to the Mail & Guardian to allegations that Koosie eerily mirrors the protagonist of Liz McGregor's Khabzela: The Life and Times of a South African. Hope maintains, "It is a matter of fact that various miracle remedies for the cure of Aids have been touted throughout this country for many years: the ingredients range from garlic to various others. This is common knowledge to the point of parody and parody was what I was after in my creation of a politician dying of Aids. I drew on this wide-spread tradition when I invented the death of Koosie."

Then there is Cindy September, a smart, agile colored woman who has made a fortune for herself in real estate. She shares a past with Alexander because she worked in the same shelter for disabled children as Kathleen did at one time. However, she disgusts Alexander when she becomes pious and forgiving towards her son's killers. Cindy's reaction in reminiscent of Lucy's after the brutal attack on her in Disgrace. As Hope writes:

"Cindy, once so irreverent, so deliciously wry, had gone the way of the heart. Some terrifying power had taken Benny from her. How was she to soften her anguish? She would not rail, she would submit. She was reaching out and taking into herself that which had swallowed up her son. She was repositioning herself for her life after Benny; in the house of my mother; in the role – dare I say it – of my mother, setting out to embrace 'Africa'."

In spite of regime changes, the ineluctable misery of the African situation continues to haunt the land. At several points in the novel, stark, unreal headlines jump from the page for your attention:

Crowds Stone Suspect
Uncle Rapes 6-yr-old
SA Tops Travel Poll
Eleven Cows Hacked with Pangas…

And you wonder where the distinction between fact and fiction blurs, as you imagine reading these headlines in Johannesburg and thinking to yourself, "Do they give me pointers to this nation's psyche?" Hope is a saucy writer, combining thrill and mysticism to pen a tale that does true service to the vastness of the continent.

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From Washington Times

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