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It’s just the way it is, Nje!!

By Kole Omotoso
23 January 2022   |   4:15 am
A review of The Lost Language Of The Soul by Mandla Langa. This is the narrative of a 14-year old narrator-actor over a few months.

Kole Omotoso

“Smoke that spirals into the air she repeats his words shaking her head. Where did you learn to talk such nonsense?” p. 308

A review of The Lost Language Of The Soul by Mandla Langa. This is the narrative of a 14-year old narrator-actor over a few months. Almost covering 400 pages of small print, the reader is mesmerized by an enchanting narrative of a search journey of growing up in Southern Africa – that is South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Joseph, our narrator-actor, traverses these countries in his search, initially for his mother and later for his father. He and his siblings are born of a South African father and a Zambian mother. His father had fled South Africa after killing the wrong person.

In South Africa, he becomes an assassin for the Movement or Struggle or Revolution or any other word in the name of which human lives are forfeit. As Joseph progresses in his search, it becomes more and clearer that the search for his father is the more important. If he found his father he would find his mother. After all, his mother is gone in search of her husband, the love of her life and the father of her children. Here follows the description given in the book: “Joseph Mabaso is used to his father Sobhuza’s long absences from the family home in Lusaka. Sobhuza is a freedom fighter and doing important work, and Joseph has learned not to ask questions. But when Chanda, his mother, disappears without a trace, leaving him and his siblings alone, Joseph knows that something is terribly wrong. And so, begins a journey, physically arduous and dangerous and emotionally fraught, that no 14-year old boy should have to undertake alone. Following the most tenuous of threads, Joseph finds some unlikely guides along the way: courageous Leila and her horses; Sis Violet and the guerrilla unit she commands; Mr. Chikwedere, stone-cutter and illicit trader in protected species, Madala at the Lesedi Repatriation Camp, who helps him find his voice; and Aunt Susie Juma, unofficial Zambian ambassador in Yoeville, Johannesburg, whose detective skills are legendary.

As Joseph navigates unfamiliar and often hostile territory in his search for his parents, he is on a parallel journey of discovery – one of identity and belonging – as he attempts to find a safe house that is truly safe, a language that understands all languages, and a place in his soul that feels like home.”

Before going any further in this review we must look at the cover of this novel. The scene depicts an ubiquitous football match under which the title of the book is written. Like the popular newspaper game of locating the football, the football is not shown in the picture. Is this of any significance in the reading of this novel as a popular read?

Everybody takes risks on behalf of Joseph. They risk not only their lives but also the lives of their colleagues. In sympathy for Joseph they break the rules of the Movement. But the issue is that, in many ways, Joseph is looking for what they are also looking for. Sobhuza, his father, has much to explain. Sis Violet especially has much to explain in the way she flouts regulations and keeps Joseph close to her. After her, it becomes almost de rigueur to have Joseph in their party. It is this movement to get home and get the solution to the problem that carries Joseph along.

Like the birds that fly above the trees and the beasts that live in the underground, nobody respects any borders or boundaries of countries. Those imaginary lines that are supposed to mark country borders do not, in fact, exist on the ground. As a result, Joseph and his various enablers can wonder from country to country disturbed only by language.

It is not only Joseph’s mother who must marvel at Joseph’s level of linguistic manipulation. The reader would have wondered at it except that it is the reader who is seduced by the language to read on, page after turning page. Joseph wants to respond to his mother’s question about where he leant to talk such nonsense:

“I mean – What you mean is you’ve become a manipulative piece goat dung, Joseph, Ma says. “But, knowing you, I wont rest until you’ve wrung everything you want out of me… Get me some water.” P.308.
It was in fact Joseph who first raises the question of language and understanding in the narrative.

“Joseph asks Charlie, ‘How do you understand each other with all these languages you speak?” The languages are Portuguese, Afrikaans, English, ISI-Zulu, German, Chinyanja and Setswana and Sesotho and various various dialects of these languages. Can we say that the struggle for independence, especially the A.N.C. Struggle unified the Southern African region? This is one of the major questions that Mandla Langa raises that no writer or intellectual has raised. The details of how Mandla Langa manipulatively mixed these languages to carry home such a powerful and moving narrative must be left to scholars of literary studies. This is a mere review.

At the end, when everybody has made it home some very important rituals were carried out to admit Joseph into the company of his ancestors. This also raises questions. Joseph’s father is South African while his mother is from Zambia. Do the same rituals fulfill the same purposes in South Africa and Zambia? I don’t know but I doubt if it could be so. But we are so immersed in the story that we do not ask questions as to the rituals Joseph is going through. We do not ask what kind of home-coming has Joseph made. There is discomfort in the being of Chanda in South Africa. Is she and her children made welcome in South Africa? Sobhuza practiced his art on behalf of the Movement on black people mainly. What rituals must be performed for the pacification of his soul? Does working out the language of this narrative lead to the losing of the language of the soul? If so, how?

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