Essay written by Innocent Madzhoni

The Will to Die

(Can Themba; 1972; Publisher: AfricaSouth Paperbacks; Rating: 4/5)

NOTE: this book is a collection of Can Themba’s short stories, journalistic writings/reporting, and ‘non-fictional’ and personal writings; and they are categorized in that order in the book.

‘Written in immaculate language’ is often a phrase book reviewers use when words fail them, but here lies the true essence of what immaculate language absolutely means. With that language, Can Themba successfully paints violent, hopeful, dreadful, and insightful pictures of Sophiatown.

It’s hard to review Can Themba’s work without reviewing Can Themba as a man living in the 50s (the Drum decade) and 60s, where eventually he lost his life, in the delightedly written and culturally alive Sophiatown (which was destroyed in 1958). This is because Can von Themba (as he called himself) as a man is as interesting as the stories he writes. Many of them read like and are semi-autobiographical.

For instance, a story like Crepuscular which serves as the first story in the collection. Can Themba cruises in an ancient Morris to Sophiatown with a white girlfriend named Janet. He flaunts to her the vibrant Sophiatown, which to Can were the sheebens. Janet gets in there with a doek on. News reach his ex-lover, Baby, that Can is dating a white girl. Baby takes matters in her own hands by reporting Can to the police, because not only were inter-racial relationships illegal, but like God to sin, they were naturally the worst thing possible.

Mr. Themba, no, Can Themba writes this story in first person and even attributes the main character with his real name, this further proves how personal the stories Themba wrote were to him. It’s hard to draw that thin line between fiction and reality in Can’s life and writing.

If there’s such a thing, Can Themba was the quintessence of what it means to be a writer: he was a thorough reader, a heavy drinker, an enthusiast for intellectual conversations (in his one roomed bachelor flat, called ‘House of Truth’), he was a seeker of the truth, ah man, Can Themba was so much with so little. What sets him apart even more is how he evidently knows the truth so much, yet he didn’t impose it.

The piece, The Bottom of the Bottle, is proof of how aware Can Themba was about issues national of importance. In it, with this artistic reluctance, he writes about tribalism, the migrant labour system, impacts of colonization, the illusions of white education, the psychological effects of exclusion into white civilization, to name a few. The piece, clearly written under conditions of anguish, is all over the place and doesn’t have a definitive theme. One that stands out of the piece is the impact the migrant labour system had on the tribal settings of the rural areas, where men would travel home – the rural areas – from laboring in the city with little to no respect for the tradition of things. This caused a disturbance or rather disruption, because these men became influential, in an aggressive manner, to the ‘unspoiled rural Africans.’

‘As I brood over things, I, with my insouciant attitude to matters of weight, I feel a sticky despair which the most potent bottle of brandy cannot wash away. What can I do?’ he writes, in the last sentence of The bottom of the Bottle.

It must’ve been that inability to transmute his own existence which made him settle for the ‘self-corrosive cynicism’, as he declares in The Boy With The Tennis Racket, a dedication piece in celebration of Nat Nakasa’s life after Nat committed suicide in America.

However, wherever Can did sit to tell his truth, he did so with creative subtlety or over dramatization of the situation. This romanticism with the truth and not wanting to tell it as it is, makes his ‘reporting’ to be an alluring read but not too honest. There’s no objectivity in the writing. I could argue that only Henry Nxumalo was objective out of the Drum journalists’ stratum. Boozers Beware of Barberton is a journalism writing in which Can is reporting on people who had drunk a drink called ‘Barberton’ and had gone mad. If one is not informed that this was actually journalism, you would probably guess that it is one of his short stories.

Maybe I am being harsh, because Lewis Nkosi did say in the obituary of Can – which appears in this book – that writers then had to dumb it down, to ‘reassure very dumb white citizens whose sense of security was threatened by any “native” who seemed imaginative enough and talented enough.’

It should also be noted that the romantics of the Drum writers in the 50s led to a branch called ‘New Journalism’, where the journalist becomes the center of the journalistic work. They make journalism to be subjective instead of totally factual and objective. This new form of journalism become famous in the 60s in America.

However, we have to realize that Themba was a fictional writer first, a journalist second. He got the Drum job after winning a Drum short story competition. Before that, he was writing fiction and poetry at Fort Hare. His descriptions of the hope, despair, highs, lows, and life in Sophiatown transcend the grasp of reality, they were stretched to appeal to the reader. To trigger their emotions more than they would trigger their minds.

Out of the six journalistic reports, only one stands out as a precise work of its kind – Brothers in Christ. Can Themba visits various ‘white-only’ Christian churches in and around Johannesburg. With one visit resulting in arrest. He pens this one and makes you aware of the cruelty of apartheid even at church, where God is supposedly about love and not segregation.

I enjoyed the fictional stories more, because they felt and read as original as the language they are written in. Can Themba didn’t shuffle the dictionary to find the perfect word, he always had the perfect in his mind. How? There are instances where you can tell he could’ve used a big word, but he doesn’t because that would ruin the flow of his writing. His excessive use of the English’s big words comes at the perfect time and they depict what is really going on in the mind of Themba:

‘But then on all Monday mornings I feel rotten and shivering, with a clogged feeling in the chest and a nauseous churning in the stomach. It debilitates my interest in the whole world around me.’ A passage in the short story The Dube Train. See how Themba honestly uses the language, and does so without a cloud of pretense?

With such sincere and immaculate prose, sometimes intertwined with local idioms to display the depth of his characterization, Can Themba delivers nothing short of brilliance. He puts you in a front row of a theater and makes you see all the people he has met, shebeens he has been to, the despair he has felt, everything he has heard around the block, and he squeezes you inside his ‘House of Truth.’

His most famous and my personal favorite ‘The Suit’ is also inserted in the collection. A classic tale of infidelity and revenge and forgiveness and, in an allegoric way, oppression. Philemon, a faithful man, who even delivers his wife breakfast-in-bed, hears that his wife is having an on-going affair with a young man whilst he is out to work. He jets back home to find the boy in bed with his wife, in a devastating calmness he says he forget his pass and he is there to collect it. Meanwhile the boy crams himself out of the window naked and forgets his suit. Philemon treats the suit as a guest, which his wife has to place a plate of food for and has to look after, like taking it to the dry cleaner and taking it out for walks.
The story scratches more than the surface it presents. You have a man trying to be enough to a woman he loves under scourging conditions of oppression (with overflowing chemical toilets just outside the door shared by thirty people). The woman, when you scrutinize the story, is the primary reason Philemon wants to exist. This is more than adultery; it is a case study in a psyche of man who is oppressed, but at the same time a psychotic hopeless romantic. On the other end, it is about a woman, with incredible intelligence, living in society that disregard women, probably tied to a man she no longer loves, but can’t do anything about it.

In general, the stories are written with fine subtlety, wit, and a mockery tone. The Dube Train is a story exploring human decay, people who have become accustomed to violence and thuggery, caused by the apartheid government, are less concerned about the violence that occurs in front of their eyes. But with the little unrotten pieces in them, they react. This sort of narration continues in The Will to Die, with a complex character, Foxy. An investigation into the love of danger and self-destruction. Foxy, at the height of pain and sorrow, keeps gulping beer and making all the wrong choices, even though he is an intellectual. This is a semi-autographical story, so parallel to Can Themba’s life. Foxy even reaches a point where he is unredeemable; and eventually he met what he has desired but never had the courage to do directly: death.

It’s said by the legendary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile (in an interview with Siphiwo Mahala, for his PhD thesis) that Can Themba never really had time to sit and write like many writers would. He wrote on the go, he wrote at sheebens whilst drowning his sorrows with good stuff. Keorapetse argues that if Can had had an opportunity to sit and write, he would’ve released work what South Africa would celebrate till Jesus decides to leave the comforts of heaven and return to the miserable and laughable mess he created. This is the same argument Lewis Nkosi posits. Though novelist Nadine Gordimer disagrees, she thinks Can Themba just didn’t have the acute self-discipline to produce a longer work of fiction.

Can Themba never had that time, he was consumed by the consumption of his drinks. The drinking didn’t come from carelessness. It came from the internal sorrows that any person who can see more than the average person can is meant to endure. The pain he felt inside, you can almost touch it on the pages of his stories – it came with a derisive humor. Though he claims that such humor belonged to Casey Motsisi.

What’s common across all these short writings is the consistency of Themba’s pen. He writes like he owns the language. An intellectual tsotsi with stacks of books (undoubtedly those of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hugo), pen and paper, and a bottle of brandy on his writing table.***

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