Nthikeng Mohlele ought to be counted among the most interesting contemporary writers in South Africa. His novels, fervidly digressive works of fiction featuring Gainsbourgian protagonists, are very good when they are good, and a chore when they are not. They are boundary-stretching machines for working through ideas, usually ideas about the relationships between men and women, or people and their doings in the world. This is a typical Mohlele sentence, with a vaguely general description here, perhaps a second variation here, a third usually ending the line with the conjunction always excised. Here is Milton, the protagonist of Mohlele’s peculiar 2016 novel Pleasure, describing himself:
I enjoy a modest but weighty fame: television appearances, me discussing all manner of things – ranging from goings-on in the theatre circuit, a drop in film standards, illiterate film reviewers. But mine is a dry kind of fame: a quick nod my way from complete strangers, a hesitant wave of the hand, conspiratorial nudges from passing lovers; it is a bland fame, unlike that reserved for rock stars in leather pants, the kind that urges throngs to erupt into stampedes and succumb to uncontrollable heart palpitations, panty throwing and fainting spells. (5)
In Mohlele’s fiction, description is pressed into service both as a form of scene-setting and as an elastic way to tell us about the aloof characters who front his narratives, characters who do a great deal of observing, a great deal of appraising, a great deal of extemporalizing – much of it about existential indeterminacy – and a great deal of talking about what they notice in the world. These narrators are often raffish littérateurs or misanthropic sophisticates whose hyper-articulated absorption in the narratives of which they are part is both vividly and intricately drawn. He writes of funny and awful things with a beguiling hand and a willingness to reach for the idea that is further away. Often, this seeming fearlessness produces intriguing, if uneven results: his 2018 remix of JM Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K produced a very different literary contraption that was not an improvement on the original. The novel that followed, 2019’s Illumination, started well but the plot began faltering and taking on water midway through the journey.
This is all by means of saying that narration does a great deal more than plot movement or dialogue in Mohlele’s writing. The author is more interested in the machinations of thought that drive or thwart action, and so the ratio of doing to telling is low, certainly by the standards of most contemporary realist fiction. The effect is either intriguing or crowding, depending on your persuasion. Certainly, Mohlele’s 2022 short story collection The Discovery of Love displays much of the same fine-grained attention to narrative that makes his stronger works a pleasure to read.
The contour of this brief anthology recalls Javier Marias’ stylishly macabre collection of shorts, When I Was Mortal. Mohlele shares Marias’ fascination with the inner lives of organized killers and other shadowy types. In one story, a character expostulates on his role as a murderer-for-hire:
My being considered dangerous has little to do with my superior gifts as a marksman behind those scoped rifles – although there is that too, of course; no, the real danger is that I am motivated by the cerebral rather than the weaponry at my disposal. I suppose it can be argued that a sharp mind, intelligence, is in fact a weapon of sorts. (39)
All the protagonists of the 11 stories in this collection go on in this way, turning ideas over like rosary beads. The conceits are interesting, and because the stories lack much of the conventional fictional shaping, some of them are pleasantly pliable Occasionally, a kitschy word choice jars the effect (all Mohlele’s suave leads are wont to refer to ‘a panty’ in the singular, deflating their studied excurses); occasionally, a pop culture reference clangs because it is being asked to do too much work. In the otherwise compelling Lessons in Love (a Level 42 reference?), the father through whom the story is focalized tells us that he models himself on Lawrence Fishbourne’s character from John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz N The Hood. It serves as shorthand, but the effect of the artless quotation is to pull one out of the narrative by drawing attention to a bit of the writing that hasn’t been supplied by the author. Imagine if you bought a new piece of clothing, only to find that someone had tactlessly embroidered in a portion of silk cape from a vintage garment.
This is a problem of style that rears its head often in Mohlele’s work, for the author is fond of setting his table with other’s silverware. It’s one thing to thread one’s novel through with traces of other writers (as Mohlele does with Philip Roth and Javier Marias, amongst others). But too often, Mohlele will puncture the illusion of timelessness created in his stories by referring to a modern-day Hollywood film or an SUV (few things date fiction as horribly as a named thing from the present-day). In a story like Alexei Kuznetsov, we are given a secondhand account of the titular character’s meeting (and subsequent sense of appalment) with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, a leadenly unconvincing bit of fiction-making that doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t seem to demonstrate anything especially profound. Similarly, Dinner with Dambudzo (no prizes for guessing who appears here) is a story it’s difficult to sustain much interest in.
More troublingly, the thoughts of Mohlele’s various protagonists are often uninsightful: they do not suggest a deep understanding of dynamics between people beyond the recursive push-pull of heterosexual eroticism, or a man’s ideas of what that means.
A character’s thoughts are not the thoughts of the author, of course, but the continual reprise of the same prosaic fabrics with which Mohlele habitually upholsters the world of his fiction begins to hint at an impoverishment of perspectives.
If we ask, “who is thinking this thought?” as we read another text in which a male author sentimentalizes familiarly awful ideas about women, we are asking about what work the thought is doing in that moment. My sense is that it has become a mode that is at risk of ossifying into staleness.
But for all that, there are certainly moments of strength and even darkly absurd humour. In Kissing Widows, a pondering lothario wonders about disclosing his proclivities to the woman he desires:
How do I begin to share something like that – a private life passion, an eccentricity, some will say a sickness such as being drawn to widows – to a woman who has been a lover? You kiss me with a mouth that has kissed mouths that may have kissed a corpse goodbye, thus deviously connecting me to dead strangers? What would I say to that? What answer would be adequate or logical? Is there an argument to be made, compelling reasons why someone would leave perfectly free, balanced and even joyful potential lovers for love fished from cemeteries?
There are flashes like this throughout, where we see at once the seriousness of purpose undercut by laughter that makes Mohlele’s work so readable. While the stories in The Discovery of Love gesture to a philosophical reflectiveness that doesn’t quite bear scrutiny, they wash over one in an undemanding way. It’s a pity that a collection which turns over matters of eros and passion is itself so very bloodless.