Troy Blacklaws is a South African writer with a knack for describing the beauty and cruelty of the continent where he grew up. His first novel Karoo Boy – set in 1970s South Africa – tackles the seemingly inescapable problem of racism. However, in his latest work Cruel Crazy Beautiful World – set in 2004 – racism has become xenophobia. Instead of focusing on the relationships between whites and blacks within the country Cruel Crazy Beautiful World explores the ways in which South Africans (of all colours) react to immigrants from other African nations, particularly Zimbabwe.
Cruel Crazy Beautiful World (the title comes from a song by British born South African artist Johnny Cleg and his band Savuka) alternates between two stories. Jerusalem (Jero for short) is a young coloured South African man, half Jewish and half Muslim (though Jerusalem identifies with neither religion: “Maybe God hides in the static between radio stations,” he thinks, “in gaps between frames in film, in gullies between panels in comics, in silences between lines of a play.”) Jerusalem is a poet and a student, but his studies haven’t been going well. His father – Zero – has had enough of paying for Jerusalem to read books and sends him to a small harbour town called Hermanus to sell handicrafts to tourists. The novel’s second protagonist is Jabulani Freedom Moyo, a teacher from Zimbabwe who loses his job for mocking President Mugabe’s shirts. When we first meet Jabulani he is crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa, hoping to find a job to support his wife and two children. He is quickly captured by a group of men who make their living rounding up illegal immigrants and forcing them to farm marijuana. The cruellest of the men is an albino known as Ghost Cowboy, and he haunts Jabulani for the rest of the novel.
The first thing I noticed about Cruel Crazy is the simple beauty of the writing. The descriptions are at once visceral and ever so slightly surreal. Almost every sentence is perfectly crafted; poetic in a way that makes you smile but also keeps the story rolling along. The writer John Gardner said that a story must be “vivid and continuous”, and Cruel Crazy is both of those things. A few examples:
On the roadside a tow truck, like a morbid mantis, dreams up its next victim.
Instead we had an iguana-eyed backyard guru in a faded pink Lacoste shirt who could dart a sparrow out of our lemon tree with his blowpipe.
In my mind her skin’s a flawless canvas. I paint in pale-pink nipples and her navel, a comma halving the flat plane between the parentheses of her hips.
Blacklaws feeds the reader information about the story and its characters so artfully; barely a sentence goes by that is not lovely. And it is the wonderful combination of poetry and specific detail that captures the reader’s imagination and propels them from one paragraph to the next. Here is a description of Zero:
He endlessly waxes his Benz, fills his hands with a whore’s tits, slices kudu biltong against his thumb, douses his fish and chips in vinegar, turns sizzling chops with his bare fingers and licks them off.
I found a few paragraphs here and there a little convoluted or heavy with alliteration, which made some ideas less clear and slowed me down. Overall, however, passages and chapters are short and sweet and the story moves along at a comfortable pace.
The novel’s themes are well drawn: Jabulani and Ghost Cowboy serve as strong reminders of the violence and injustice that still plague post-apartheid South Africa, a place where men are “killed for the sin of being foreign.” Blacklaws succinctly describes the struggle of those African immigrants:
[Y]oung Africans with a fiery dream may head south, leaving behind them countries where a leopard-hatted ruler fattens his gut on overseas funds … they walk for miles and miles, crossing borders, dodging the men and animals that prey on them under a vulture-zoned sky.
At the same time Cruel Crazy is a coming of age tale, as Jerusalem lets go of “a gone boyhood of being sandy and sunburnt” and tries to figure out what it means to be a man:
Is a man as scared of the random hop of frogs as I am? Does a man blow kazoooing bubbles through a straw in the lees of a mojito? Does a man cry freely during a film? Does a man just let his mother fade out? Does a man bow to his old man’s plan for him instead of heading out into the world to seek his fortune?
As with Karoo Boy, I found myself spellbound by Cruel Crazy Beautiful World. I lost myself in a world of sharks, crocodiles, whales and peacocks. This book seems to jump right from the page into the reader’s imagination, and all in technicolour detail. A thrilling and beautiful read.
Cruel Crazy Beautiful World was first published by Jacana Media in 2011. Troy Blacklaws is the author of three other novels including Karoo Boy, reviewed here. Read more at Troy’s website troyblacklaws.com.