I have a review of Zakes Mda's latest novel Cion up at WIN Magazine, which is the quarterly magazine of the War Resisters League (and which used to be called The Nonviolent Activist). Unfortunately, WIN hasn't made my review available online, but I've pasted some bits below on the slim chance you're interested to hear what I thought about the book.
By Zakes Mda
312 pages, $14, paperback
In the 2002 novel Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda introduced readers to Toloki, a poor man living in an unnamed South African city who decides to take up mourning as a profession. In exchange for coins, Toloki wanders from one funeral to the next, grieving for those who were lost during South Africa's bloody transition from Apartheid to democracy.
When we meet him again in Cion, Mda's strange yet beguiling new novel, Toloki finds himself stranded in a country at its own unique political moment. He is in small town America on the eve of the 2004 Presidential election. To be precise, it’s Halloween, and Toloki is making his way through a roiling street parade in the college town of Athens, Ohio. Though there’s mention of an illusive “sciolist” character who brought him along for an erstwhile lecture tour, it remains unclear--and unimportant--what a professional South African mourner like Toloki is doing there (though it might be worth mentioning that Mda, who has made Toloki into a kind of alter ego for himself, now lives in Athens).
As the title of the book suggests (which is an alternate spelling of the word “scion”), tradition--a sense of one’s personal and cultural lineage--is the specter haunting the novel. In Mda's configuring, tradition makes us who we are at the same time that it has the potential to keep us from being what we might become, and this double-edged idea of tradition, especially as typified by Ruth and her fanatical loyalty to making quilts the way her ancestors made them and eating food her ancestors ate and destroying the innovative designs of her fragile daughter, can be a kind of slavery in itself.