Music is at the heart of Nthikeng Mohlele’s latest novel, his sixth, called Illumination.
It focuses on a jazz musician and composer, Bantubonke, a man out of tune with fads. He is ageing, his cherished wife is living away from him in France, studying for a degree. Bantubonke has suffered an injury to his mouth — which means he can no longer play as he once could.
Mohlele skilfully weaves in the notes of music so central to Bantubonke’s life, a man who even compares the ring of a front doorbell in musical terms: “Like a chopped note in the key of G.” His wife’s name too, Bird, is another note on the musical scale.
In conversation, Mohlele is soft-spoken, measured and thoughtful in his responses. I ask about how he was able to get the musical notes right, so to speak. He smiles quietly and says, “It’s instinctive. I’m learning to play the guitar. I love music, I’m exposed to live concerts, I know musicians, it’s just observation, research.”
As to the central theme of loss — in terms of ageing, in terms of losing one’s skills and one’s wife — I ask how he came to understand this process. “I’ve always been an old soul, and I’ve always been aware of age and ageing. My character demanded it, he needed to have lived to have that level of catharsis. If he were 28 that would have made no sense.”
The word “illumination”, says Mohlele, refers to “searchlights”. “When you illuminate all you can see is what’s in front of you, the surroundings may be dark, or in silhouette, and that is what literature is, illuminating the light and shadow and darkness.”
The story in Illumination unfolds gently, slowly, the writing poetic and lyrical. We are introduced to the nuances of Bantubonke’s life, his accident, his decaying friendship with the woman who saved his life, his departed wife.
Mohlele says he is not interested in writing in a conventional way. For example, the character’s name remains unknown right till the end of the story. Mohlele says he is interested in “breaking the mould, in discovering new ways of perspectives, of thinking, of perceiving, of discovering, of analysing things. You don’t do that by appealing to the mundane, you do that by stretching the consciousness of people. I never want to know the ending, because there wouldn’t be a point for me. It’s not fresh for me. I only discover the ending when I get there. The trick is to trust the material”.
And yet this is a story firmly set in the fabric of its time. Johannesburg looms as a character: “At once inspiring and scandalous, Johannesburg has a beautiful arrogance about it, a refusal to succumb to comparisons, an insistence on setting standards, breaking life rules.”
There is awareness of the social fabric of the times Bantubonke is living in. Running through the story is the story of Moses, on trial for a farm murder, the son of Bantubonke’s driver. “I didn’t want to have a monologue only,” explains Mohlele. “Bantubonke is this person with all his problems, but he lives in a real world.”
In addition to dramatic arts, Mohlele also took publishing studies, as well as African literature at Wits, which served to introduce him to many writers from the African continent. Other writers he had been exposed to include Camus, Kafka, Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
From an early age he knew he wanted to be a writer. He also describes himself as a closet poet, for now. If the inspiration doesn't come, “I don't punish myself”.
He writes no more than two drafts, and credits “my brilliant editor, Sean Fraser. We finish each other’s sentences, and we respect each other.”
He continues to be a prolific reader and reels off a list of books both on his bedstand, in his car and on his tablet, all in progress. The list includes Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day, a reread of Camus’ The Outsider, Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, and digital versions of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
In addition, he watches YouTube interviews with screenwriters and he watches a lot of documentaries. And he is rereading The Bible. “Psalms and Proverbs, there’s a lot of wisdom there.”