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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


After Tears

Niq Mhlongo

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To purchase After Tears

Title: After Tears
Author: Niq Mhlongo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 218 pages
Availability: After Tears - US
After Tears - UK
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Our Assessment:

B : decent, lively account of post-Apartheid life in South Africa at the turn of the millennium

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       After Tears is set in 1999-2000. It begins with its narrator, Bafana Kuzwayo, flunking out of law school in Cape Town and returning to his family -- his mother and uncles -- in Johannesburg. But they don't know that he's failed and greet him as a freshly minted advocate, expecting him to now embark on the legal career he'd been training for for the past four years.
       Bafana can't bring himself to admit his failures to his family, and keeping it from them turns out to be surprisingly easy. For one thing, he claims he won't get his official results and papers until he pays the university RS22,000. His family's understanding of how the world works is informed by long experience of corruption and bribery, so this doesn't strike them as odd; indeed, Mama is quickly ready to raise the money. As she does so, it becomes clear that the family -- and especially Bafana's lazy and hard-drinking uncles -- have gamed the system, too, and gotten things they didn't really deserve.
       The family muddles through, with small ambitions and get-rich-quick (or at least get-some-money) schemes. They live in a world where there's little one can rely on: the local tow truck drivers pay kids to disable the traffic signals on what then becomes known as 'The Killer Road' so that they can tow the cars that get involved in accidents "and charge you big zak to get them back", while a shopkeeper complains of the constant harassment by the police, always looking for bribes. And they see little hope -- beyond hitting the lottery or winning a hopeless disability suit -- of making any real money:

     "If you're black and you failed to get rich in the first year of our democracy, when Tata Mandela came to power, you must forget it, my bra," said Zero. "The gravy train has already passed you by and, like me, you'll live in poverty until your beard turns grey. The bridge between the stinking rich and the poor has been demolished. That is the harsh reality of our democracy."
       They do have some hopes for Bafana, since with his law-degree he should be able to rake in the money; ironically, in trying to raise the money he claims he needs to buy his results they run into cases of the law-and-order state actually functioning fairly well and justly -- which, unfortunately, works against them, since they previously abused the system.
       Money in hand, Bafana's hand is forced -- but he still continues with his ruse, and opens up shop, displaying fake documents and pretending to be something he isn't. It goes smoothly for a while, but not for long.
       Mhlongo gently suggests that there's a need to adapt to the new conditions, and that the old-style petty corruption can only carry you so far. Everyone who tries to beat the system here fails, more or less; even the sham marriage Bafana is bribed into entering (to make it easier for his Zimbabwean friend to stay and work in South Africa) doesn't work out.
       After Tears is a broad portrait of South African life and the many who can't quite find their place in a rapidly changing world. There are some very nice little touches, such as the uncle who won't join in prayer:
     "Why should I pray ?" said Unlce Nyawana. "I mean, God already knows all my problems, and if He's willing to help let Him come forward."
     "Bra Nyawana, do you expect God to come and find you ?" Zero asked when our eyes were closed in prayer.
     "I have my pride. If He's willing to help, He knows where to find me, I'm not hiding like He is," my uncle replied.
       Family life is fairly unstructured: Mama is pregnant again, one character brags about having appeared in "thirteen maintenance courts" (for child support) in South Africa alone, and while there may be several father-figures in Bafana's life, they are a sorry lot. AIDS also casts a long shadow (though Bafana himself shows considerable restraint, barely chasing any skirts), and the mix of self-delusion and misinformation is catastrophic -- including the likes of claims: "that sangoma of mine has just given me a powerful medicine. It's so potent that I can't get sick, even if I sleep with prostitutes without a condom".
       After Tears has slightly more of a story-arc than Mhlongo's earlier Dog Eat Dog, but in Bafana he again has a protagonist who seems pretty half-hearted about everything, and the story, too, progresses rather hesitantly. Mhlongo prefers to (and is better at) describing the small everyday scenes, and After Tears is, like its predecessor, more of a scenes-from-a-life collection than anything approaching a Bildungsroman. Worthwhile for the often nicely captured smaller scenes, colorful characters, and vivid language, After Tears falls somewhat short as a full-blown novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2010

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After Tears: Reviews: Other books by Niq Mhlongo under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       South African author Niq (Nicholas) Mhlongo was born in 1973.

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© 2010-2012 the complete review

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