With the launch of the third in a trilogy, The Quality of Mercy (Penguin), author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu has firmly established herself as a writer not to be ignored. As an admirer, DIANE DE BEER writes about the way she captivates with her unique storytelling:
WHEN handed the third book in a trilogy by Zimbabwean author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu to review, my heart went up an extra beat. I had launched the first book The Theory of Flight in Pretoria a few years back, had done an email interview and reviewed the second The History of Man during lockdown and again, to my delight, I was invited to launch this latest, The Quality of Mercy.
The last is always my best, arguably because I remember it best. But I can still recall how thrilled Iwas, not yet having met the sublime Siphiwe yet, on reading the first. I immediately recognised a unique and very particular voice – and then came the second, which approached writing in a completely different style.
Third time was not such a surprise, because by now, I knew the author better and realised that for her own imagination (a wild one, early in her life activated by her grandmother) and playful nature, she had to write in this way.
Asking about the three novels and what each one represents, she embroidered: “The three novels that make up the City of Kings trilogy – The Theory of Flight, The History of Man and The Quality of Mercy – all deal with aspects of Africa’s modern history. The History of Man deals with the colonial moment and its many (often limiting) narratives; the story of Emil Coetzee serves as a critique of colonial power.
“The Quality of Mercy is a story of transition and delineates a country’s journey from being a colonial state to a postcolonial state. The Theory of Flight is concerned with the postcolonial moment and its gradual loss of ‘ease’ as it becomes a place of increasing dis ‘ease’; the story of Imogen Zula Nyoni calls for a different kind of revolution from the one that led to independence.”
If she were simply telling stories it would have been fine, because she is such a superb storyteller and probably we would have loved it still, but it is also the way she goes about capturing the history of her land (ours and more) in a time of transition and beyond – as well as, of course, before.
There’s a lightness in the telling, but don’t let her deceive you. She has found her own subversive way of saying exactly all the serious things she wants to, subtly without being preachy.
For example, she had no qualms, as a black female writer, to step into the shoes of a white male protagonist, and then one who was running a deeply secretive intelligence office in a colonial land which we all know but which she never names. And pulls it off with aplomb and terrifying insight.
It is the way she climbs under the skin of a man who grew up privileged, but as he moved up in the world into the world, turned into a man difficult to recognise, driven from the outside rather than a true belief in what he was doing.
And that’s where her gift lies. The insight she shares about things that we all think we know and understand. This writer has a different take which she launches with a light yet incisive heft.
Talking about the period she has chosen to set this trilogy, she explains that the major plot of The Quality of Mercy, the investigation of a crime, takes place over a span of five months, December 1979 to April 1980. “Since this is a story about how a country transitions from being a colonial to a post-colonial state, these dates correspond with two very important dates in Rhodesian and Zimbabwean history – the date when the ceasefire that brought an end to the civil war was announced (December 21, 1979) and the date when independence was officially granted (April 18, 1980).
“This period of transition holds within it both hope and uncertainty ̶ what will the post-colonial moment be like, how will power change and shift, what will the experience of ‘independence’ feel like, will we all feel equally free, what will we do about the past injustices created by the many forms of colonial violence, will we seek vengeance or justice for the wrongs of the past…”
With this latest novel, even if I knew to expect the unexpected I was still caught out. I wasn’t expecting her to come at me with such a surge of visual delight, and much of it has to do with her protagonist, Spokes M Maloi. Only the toughest heart wouldn’t immediately embrace this detective who is married to the light of his life, Loveness.
There’s a reason for the loveliness and charm of Spokes, his particular job description and the fact that this one is a crime novel. Siphiwe explains: “The main protagonist of The Quality of Mercy is Chief Inspector Spokes M. Moloi, a long-serving policeman in the British South Africa Police (BSAP). Part of what I wanted to examine about the period that the novel covers is how the idea of ‘independence’ was different for different groups of people because settler colonialism had created very narrow definitions of citizenship and belonging that were based on extremely binary and limiting views on race, gender, ethnicity, class etc.
“In order to achieve a more inclusive and bird’s eye view of this moment, I had Spokes, as a black man who had lived his entire life in a segregated country, investigate a crime that would take him into the homes and lives of an incredibly diverse group of characters. Given the particular period of history that the novel deals with, Spokes’ mobility and ease of access would have been extremely restricted and curtailed by his race (and in some instances) his gender and class were it not for the fact that his country was actively moving towards being post-colonial and he had in his possession a detective’s badge.”
He’s also at the end of his career, and as his country is attempting to move into a new phase, so he and especially his wife, are set on slipping into a much gentler realm.
There are a few hold-ups though. There’s a case that just won’t let go. Daisy was a woman killed quite brutally and spokes has never found the monster who did the dastardly deed. But no more give-aways.
This is a book you want to read without too much knowledge in hand. It has to be approached with the energy and exuberance the writer intended, and if you haven’t read any of her novels yet, you’re in for a treat.
While they are viewed as a trilogy, Siphiwe is happy to talk about interconnectedness, and I suspect there are a few still to come. Writing about the City of Kings, where she was born and has given her heart to, she has created a community with some figures more prominent than others in each of the books.
And because the protagonist in one might pop into another very scantily, once you know a bit more, there’s a curiosity to go back and re-discover where you first met someone and what all the connections are.
When she sat down to write her fist one, Theory of Flight which won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, Siphiwe had an idea of what her story was going to be, but it is only as she writes that everything becomes fleshed out in glorious detail ̶ and she is also caught unawares.
“What I have enjoyed most in writing the City of Kings trilogy is the slow revelation of how the different stories fit together – The Quality of Mercy begins where The History of Man ends and ends where The Theory of Flight begins, bringing everything full circle. If I had known from the first that I was setting out to write a trilogy, I would have been too overwhelmed by the prospect, so I am very happy and relieved that it was all a process of gradual discovery.”
Perhaps none of us, not even the writer, knows what’s coming. What we do know is that she will sweep you off your feet all over again.