|Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews|
Dog Eat Dog
by Niq Mhlongo
Kwela Books. 2004. 222 pp.
Dog Eat Dog is a novel I enjoyed reading, particularly because it exposed me to the post-apartheid realities of South Africa. I enjoyed the protagonist Dingz, a young black Wits University student from a poverty-stricken family, whose mother single-handedly supports nine children. The character is quite persuasive and real like any of the street-wise, happy-go-lucky, daredevil chaps one could have bumped into in any of the grim suburbs of Lagos, Nigeria.
Significantly, Niq Mhlongo's novel is instructive to the understanding of the xenophobic hurricane that swept through some parts of South Africa in May 2008, crushing lives and property, displacing thousands of Amakwerekwere, and threatening to decimate the country's age-old multicultural reputation. As The Sunday Times put it that month, "South Africa is, officially, the most xenophobic nation in the world."
Although Dog Eat Dog does not attempt to paint any coloration of xenophobia, it gives the reader some subtle glimpse into the derivation of this odious outbreak; you are thus able to lean into the nuanced details and make out whatever shades of explanations desirable. This is mirrored in a bar scene where the protagonist Dingz and his drinking buddies argue about its troubling reality.
Camilo Jose Cela, the Spanish Nobel Laureate, said that, "Literature is the denunciation of the times in which one lives." This statement captures the import of the intersecting themes of misery, poverty, oppression, violence, death, disease, and pollution in Niq's lucid debut work. These themes resonate so vividly and vigorously through the well-paced plots of the novel that the reader is instantly sucked into the life of Dingz as he sets out, after receiving a letter denying him of bursary, to resolve his chances of survival, by integrating himself into a society that lives in "the web of a big lie."
Deliberately, Dingz has to prey on the ignorance, hypocrisy, and fear of a racially conscious sub-culture. It is in this context that the title of the novel becomes rooted and familiar.
Dog Eat Dog explores how one man's quest to sustain a lie ultimately pays off, but not without "potholes." It is a story of integration as much as it is of alienation and disentanglement; the character wants to distance himself from the township of alienation he was born into, as far as possible avoid the "ghetto's unbalanced diet." It reminds one of a Spike Lee movie.
Dingz is not ashamed to lie because "living in this South Africa of ours you have to master the art of lying" as he tells the reader throughout this rhythmic page-turner. Being quick-witted, he also capitalizes on his black skin to "victimize white South Africans." He is the "dog" eating other dogs. But he is not spared from falling victim to other "dogs" as you soon find out from his encounters with the police, a Bara-bound taxi driver, and a microbus driver, on his way back from seeing off his girlfriend Nkanyi.
Dingz's world is pseudo-dystopian, and the grasp for meaning is only possible when you are so willing to embrace crookedness, whatever it takes. In his case, this means risk, because "almost everything in life is a gamble," as his closest friend, Dunga makes him realize.
In Dog Eat Dog I am transported back to my first heady encounters of tsotsi, shebeens, inner-city violence, and the backwoods of Soweto and Jo'Burg. I am ushered into a floating chamber of memories where characters in Can Themba's and Alex la Guma's stories confront their mottled destinies in the teeth of powerlessness. The odors of the township and trains plunge me down the underworld of Africa's most developed nation. But Dingz is not powerless: he understands his destiny, and he understands the realities of the time.
Niq Mhlongo is a compelling story-teller whose narrative is not florid. It is neither embellished nor affected. Rather it smacks of the slapstick, incorrigibly humorous, racy, idiomatic. His work is interspersed with a rich sprinkling of patois, aphorism, and anecdotes reinforced by the ubiquity of graffiti.
Niq's style is rounded, graphic, and unapologetic, and all of this is reflected in the motley group of characters we meet along the perilous ways of Soweto's twilight zone. Theks, Babes, Dworkin, Dunga, Themba, and of course, Dingz's girlfriend, Nkanyi; they all bring us into their own self-effacing representation of "ubuntu"—spiced with interludes of beer, cussing, flirtation, amid the backdrop of blaring kwaito. You are offered more than a snapshot of the zesty phallic-ness of South Africa, where "people pursue their own pleasure at whatever cost."
Through Dingz, Niq's novel explores the inadequacies of rightness and the ambiguity of importance as it pertains to the place of man in a world driven by canine selfishness and ferocity.
It is interesting to note that the novel was set in 1994, framed by grimacing shadows of Vorster and Botha, a year that finally dismantled those century-old effigies of apartheid. However, it is rather distressing to note that, more than a decade later, South Africa has not been committed enough to reconcile her internal dialectics, to rise above her web of lie and emerge as a true African renaissance.
Dog Eat Dog depicts the fragility of South Africa's brave new world, as Dingz, despite his penchant for robustness and intemperance, comes to find out that every carapace could be cracked or shattered. He realizes the relativity of his own vulnerability in desperate moments.
Niq succeeds in drawing our attention to the maxim that democracy goes beyond mere "running around without thinking." He denounces the time in which he lives. Being a South African of both worlds, apartheid and post-apartheid, he understands the surreal (culture) shock faced not only by the blacks but also by the whites. Thus, he allows his characters not to denounce deliberately the asymmetrical institutions, of which Dingz is both a beneficiary and a victim, but to toss us headlong in to the wild waters of change the country desires to ford through but is afraid to fully venture into.
Indeed Niq's novel is like the billboard at the end of Jorissen Street forewarning us to be careful, "Don't be sorry." He makes you know that no country, including his—South Africa—can continue to ignore the "bubo" on her groin. Indifference would only breed acute pain and discomfort. Yes, it is never too late to look at the "bubo on my groin," never too late to take studied and personal steps to ameliorate it, to prevent one from limping painfully along the thorny, unsympathetic road of issues and counter-issues.
I have always found South African literature absorbing yet heart wrenching, especially in the tyrannous days of apartheid, because although Nigerians did not live through bloody Draconian laws and cower under the acidic clouds of "apartness," I still could identify with such a multicultural society. Most times, when I read a novel or a poem penned by a South African writer, I juxtapose the realities with those of Nigeria and, quite ironically, I realize that a chillingly similar fate is shared by the majority of the citizenry of both countries: a fate that pounds the impoverished millions, a fate thrust upon them by some oligarchic "blind" supremacists.
I think Dog Eat Dog is not only highly readable but also a very significant contribution, not just to South African literature but world literature in general.