BOOK REVIEW: Novelist conjures an apocalyptic future from SA’s dystopian past
Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum is a fearless portrait of life over four decades from apartheid’s collapse to the maws of the corporate machine
The date is December 2043 and the SA National Space Agency has received a mysterious package containing a memoir and a set of digital recordings from an unnamed woman who says the world will end in 10 years. Dr Naomi Buthelezi is hired to investigate the authenticity of the materials and the writer’s claim.
Masande Ntshanga’s latest novel is bizarre, in a good way. One of the most inventive and exciting writers in SA today, he uses the device of the found manuscript to frame Triangulum, a multi-genre tale that encompasses historical narrative, coming-of-age tale and science fiction, with a hint of the dystopian thrown in for good measure. Even Edenvale gets a mention.
The story unfolds over a period of 40 years, beginning with the collapse of apartheid’s Bantustan system in the early 1990s, moving through the economic recession of the first decade of the 2000s, and ending with a glimpse of impending ecological disasters resulting from global warming.
A retired professor and science fiction writer, Dr Buthelezi prefaces the book by saying she has found a book. But a manuscript has a life of its own. There is anxiety over its authenticity. One never knows where it will land up. Its future is uncertain: it could be destroyed, lost, or find itself in the wrong hands. “There is a force even more powerful than humankind,” the reader is warned.
From the manuscript, we learn that a mysterious woman — the unnamed narrator of the tale — spent her life being haunted by visions of a machine. Her mother went missing in the 90s, and when three girls disappear from their town in the Eastern Cape on her mother’s birthday, the 17-year-old is convinced that “the machine” has something to do with these events.
Herself anorexic, she has to deal with a sick father who has never recovered from the shock of his wife’s disappearance. She escapes by experimenting with drugs and sex, and with friendship across racial barriers.
A fearless portrait of contemporary SA life, the novel interprets SA’s dystopian future through the lens of its dystopian past. The narrator describes how a town, once a mission station, “was named after a monarch whose general turned natives into settlers — offering the Mfengu British citizenship in exchange for each other’s blood”. There are also moments of lovely teen indulgence; she recalls how she was cured of acne in 1999, the same year “Nelson Mandela had announced his retirement”, “and the world was ending because of a computer bug”.
It’s in part two of the novel, “Five Weeks in the Plague”, that Ntshange’s meditation on the effects of technological progress in the world about us really hits home. The narrator encounters “The Returners”, an eco-terrorist group targeting companies involved in deforestation, mining, GM crops and the like, and opposed to the path of the Industrial Revolution.
“It was a direction that that had taken us off course, they argued, and compromised our survival in the universe. Now this also included digitisation, the Industrial Revolution’s youngest heir and our presiding ruler, or what they called The Path of the Machine.”
The theme of urban renewal in Johannesburg, a refrain those who live in the world-class African city might view with fatigue, takes centre stage. The narrator is employed by Grant Regulation Office, or GRO, an Orwellian edifice which she and her colleagues call Population Control, that began as a “corrective government initiative”, after a social welfare department and its US tech partner “were found be colluding against grantees, coercing them into high-interest loans and cellphone packages that generated billions in profit instead of nutrition and housing”. Sound familiar?
When on TV a sociologist rails against privately owned “Zones”, developments that would eventually fall under corporate rather than government regulation, calling them a new form of apartheid, a community organiser tells him that people need to eat. “The usual,” the narrator remarks.
Triangulum in not an easy read, but it’s an important one. Ntshange has produced an utterly compelling and disorienting cinematic vision of our imagined future, which for most will remain a dream that never delivers.