A Man Who Is Not a Man

Author: Thando Mgqolozana

Reviewer:
J. Steven Svoboda

Young South African scholar, nurse, and data analyst Thando Mgqolozana has published his first book. The novel professes to be the autobiography of Chris, a young man who undergoes the customary circumcision initiation performed on all the males from his Xhosa village when they come of age.

Chris suffers from an unfortunate, extremely dysfunctional home life. One vague reference to possible sexual abuse by his uncle can easily slip by the reader, but other abuse—sexual and otherwise–is also evident in his home, and the after-effects of his mother’s and father’s separation directly help create the problems that form the core of the novel. After his father moves away, he is forced to rely on his unreliable uncle and his perpetually drunk grandfather to guide him through the initiation, and they utterly fail to provide any help. (To make matters worse, the grandfather celebrates other boys’ initiations while ignoring that of his own flesh and blood.) Forced to fend for himself, Chris is slow to realize the seriousness of the damage his glans sustains during the circumcision, and eventually must be spirited away and rushed to a hospital. Chris’ main concern, however, is that this hospitalization conflicts with the directives with which boys are charged not to leave the ritual hut for any reason until a fixed number of days has passed. In Chris’ case, waiting the prescribed number of days would lead to his death.

Mgqolozana deftly conveys the highly asynchronous flow of time during Chris’ time in the hut. The writer’s habit of referring to parts of his body as people (“head people,” “stomach people,” “limb dude”) initially struck me as strained but over time comes to form a component of the narrator’s personality and to complement the book’s other unusual stylistic aspects.

The author movingly contrasts a kind night nurse with a heartless, cruel day nurse whom he effectively labels “Nurse Know It All.” When it is time for Chris to leave the hospital, he receives a safe armed escort of his friends, who take him to his mother. A memorable scene follows in which everyone seeks to view what they have all been told through rumor is his deformed penis. Chris is understandably distraught in the extreme by all that has occurred. But luckily, his mother’s blessing gives him a reason to go on living and happily, his uncle is called to task by Chris’ friend Rain. It is surprising yet somehow fittingly that Chris turns down the opportunity to lose his virginity in the customary post-initiation sex rite.

The grandfather’s final failure comes when he has a last opportunity to make verbal amends, poor though they would be, and instead he speaks some nonsensical platitudes about lions that add up to nothing. By contrast, in a moving act of blessing, almost benediction, the wise elder Oon Dan gives Chris his own traditional stick that is symbolic of manhood.

Chris’ soulmate Yanda, with whom he had built edifices of future plans prior to his circumcision, more or less vanishes from his life without explanation afterwards. In a second blessing, a friend of Chris’ assures him that he is now a man. While Chris may not be convinced, the rest of us are. Seemingly less plausible is Chris’ closing statement that if he had it all to do over again, he would not change a thing, and would even choose to undergo a circumcision botch again because of the wisdom he thereby gained about himself and his masculinity.

“A Man Who Is Not a Man” possesses in virtually every sentence a somewhat elusive sense of otherness, a combination of slightly stilted language and sophomoric aspects (though these largely disappear as the narrator comes of age). The novel’s genuine and unique perspective also displays a rural edge and provides details utterly foreign to life in the United States. The author is a real talent and has a powerful story to share. Thando Mgqolozana has written a deeply authentic and powerfully unique novel to which I give my highest recommendation.