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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ways of Dying

Zakes Mda

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To purchase Ways of Dying

Title: Ways of Dying
Author: Zakes Mda
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 212 pages
Availability: Ways of Dying - US
Ways of Dying - UK
Ways of Dying - Canada
Le Pleureur - France
Si può morire in tanti modi ! - Italia
Formas de morir - España
  • Winner of the M-Net Book Prize

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive (if somewhat simple) story of recent South African history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 16/9/1999 .
The NY Rev. of Books . 16/1/2003 Norman Rush
Publishers Weekly . 1/8/2002 .
The Village Voice . 20/8/2003 Anderson Tepper
World Literature Today . Winter/1996 Brenda Cooper

  Review Consensus:

  Generally favourable, though find it a bit simple

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Mda adds a touch of magic to the grim realism more common in accounts of black South African life." - The Economist

  • "Mda finally seems to be saying that if violence is in this particular people, then so is the answer and solution to violence, in the form of the people's gods and ancestors. The spirits will deliver." - Norman Rush, The New York Review of Books

  • "There are shades of the absurd in Mda's darkly humorous descriptions of the crime, poverty, violence and ethnic unrest that plague the characters in this oddly affecting novel." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(A) rollicking, at times whimsical tour through the dying days of apartheid as witnessed by the Professional Mourner, Toloki, who wanders from township funeral to township funeral with the hapless wonder of a Chaplinesque loner. Despite its lighthearted touches, though, as the title suggests, Mda's story is still rooted in the endemic violence that has long stained South Africa" - Anderson Tepper, The Village Voice

  • "Ways of Dying is a politically brave work, one which uncompromisingly suggests that the new leadership about to assume power has elements that are elitist and corrupt (.....) Ways of Dying is saved from its whiff of didactic one-dimensionality by the eccentric quirks of its main character. (....) Ways of Dying is not an adult novel and will frustrate the English adult reader. However, very few works address the sophisticated needs of a young adult to be challenged and captivated by issues that are appropriate to a teenager but in a language accessible to a second-language user. Ways of Dying does just this." - Brenda Cooper, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ways of Dying covers only a few days, from Christmas through New Year's Eve, but these mark a considerable change in the life of the central character, Toloki. He meets and winds up moving in with a childhood friend from his hometown, Noria, as both come to terms with much of the past and find in each other a person that perhaps can complete their respective lives.
       The world they inhabit, in a South Africa just beginning the post-apartheid transition, is far from idyllic. As Toloki says:

     'Death lives with us everyday. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living. or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying ?'
       With death omnipresent Toloki has chosen to deal with it head-on: he has become a Professional Mourner, the first of his kind. He already has something of a reputation, and people hire him to come to the funerals of their relatives. In his dapper mourning outfit he makes quite an impression. Like another standard feature of funerals -- the Nurse, someone who describes the death of the deceased --, Toloki thinks he's onto something. For now he still accepts whatever people are willing to give, but eventually he hopes to set fixed rates for providing this professional service.
       The book opens at the funeral of Noria's son, and Toloki eventually re-connects with this woman he knew from his village. Much of the book revisits the past, something both of them have left behind but not completely escaped from. Noria was a bewitching child, and it was especially Toloki's dad, Jwara, who was under her spell: when she sang for him he was inspired, and created fantastic small figures. He would bribe and praise her, but as she grew older she found that she could get more interesting rewards from men closer to her own age. Without her, Jwara was sullen and could not create -- and he took much of his frustration out on his ugly son, Toloki.
       Toloki eventually ran away from home, finding some success along the way and then in the city. By now, however, he was reduced to being homeless, keeping his belongings in a cart by the beach. It was a lifestyle that suited him: he wasn't particularly ambitious and he got by well enough.
       Noria married badly and had a child who died horribly, as would the next one. Her circumstances by now are also poor -- "I have been chewed, Toloki. Chewed, and then spewed", she explains --, but she had become a generous soul, and made do with her lot.
       Death is all around, and it is a big part of the book. Senseless violence touches almost everyone, and some of it is truly shocking. Yet, helped by the fact that Toloki and Noria are almost relentlessly optimistic, the book is also surprisingly upbeat. Life is not easy, heart-breaking tragedy common, but still the two of them are able to look forward and find some joy in small things. Their generosity of spirit, and willingness to allow imagination to trump reality (as when they decorate the walls of Noria's new shack, and practically move within the images there) is enough to allow them deal with the horrors all around them.
       Both Toloki and Noria are broken people, but instead of going entirely to pieces they have found ways to channel their despair. Toloki's mourning for strangers -- praised as adding: "an aura of sorrow and dignity that we last saw in the olden days when people knew how to mourn their dead" -- is, of course, also a mourning for all that he has lost and never had, and for a whole society in trouble.
       Their circumstances, and that of the whole nation, are extremely difficult, but Mda suggests there is hope for it all. The message may be too simplistic: neither Toloki nor Noria are entirely believable characters, but the stories are well-told and woven together, making for a powerful and appealing novel. Mda's light touch keeps the death-horrors from overwhelming the book -- though occasionally death is also kept almost too much at a distance. The central death -- that of Noria's boy, buried at the funeral where Toloki meets her -- is, when finally explained, absolutely devastating, and the reactions not entirely convincing. This is the book's biggest failing: that it confronts the horrors only obliquely, and that Mda is not willing to allow his characters to react fully to them.
       Ways of Dying is a very good book: powerful, entertaining, and well-written. It is full of good stories and scenes, and Mda manages to present his material without sensationalizing it, which is far more difficult than it looks. Well worthwhile.

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Ways of Dying: Reviews: Other books by Zakes Mda 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 Zakes Mda (actually: Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda) was born in 1948. Best known as a playwright, he has now also written several internationally acclaimed novels.

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