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B+ : jolting (in presentation and overall) but gripping
See our review for fuller assessment.
* review of the earlier translation
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Chaka is a novel based on the real-life figure, also known as Shaka Zulu, who lived from ca. 1787 to 1828.
It is certainly more legend-story that historically accurate portrait, but Mofolo's novel is built on the real-life foundations of Chaka's life, rule, and death.
It is also no fanciful hagiography: this Chaka is both hero and anti-hero.
he experienced untold suffering. The other boys harassed him, and always beat him up most severely, for no reason whatsoever.At least constantly being attacked and beat up teaches him how to fight and (try to) defend himself. But even when he kills a lion, or saves a girl who is taken by a hyena, the gratitude is limited; indeed, the general attitude is: they just want to kill this kid. Eventually he sees no choice but to flee. The lesson he takes with him is a troubling one:
he realized that here on earth people live by might only, and not by right; he decided that here on earth the only person who is wise and strong and beautiful and righteous, is he who knows how to fight with his stick, who, when people argue with him, settles the matter with his stick; and he decided that, from that day on, he would do just as he pleased, and that, whether a person was guilty or not, he would simply kill him if he so wished, for that was the law of man.Chaka encounters a 'doctor' and diviner, Isanusi, who sees all his potential -- and can draw out all of it with his medicines and his own rather super-natural powers. He does demand that Chaka follow his commandments to the letter -- and notes that, eventually, a fee will be due ... -- but he assures him that if Chaka lets him do his doctory (or sorcery), the world is at his feet -- or at least his father's kingdom will be his.
The 'treatment' shows just how much magical thinking there is behind Chaka's eventual success -- as does Isanusi's ability to know exactly when he's needed, and for what, easily summoned by Chaka when he really needs him. As to the procedures, well, for example:
Secondly, the doctor made a cut at the hair-line on his forehead, lifted the skin and stuffed a powdery medicine in there, and he also put in one containing the brain of a crocodile.Embracing the empowering medicines comes at a high cost, too. As Isanusi warns Chaka:
the medicine with which I have vaccinated you is the medicine of blood; if you do not spill much blood, it will turn against you and kill you instead. Your sole purpose should be to kill without mercy, and thus clear the path that leads to the glory of your kingship.Chaka has worryingly little difficulty embracing this:
Indeed, Chaka returns with no human feeling left in him, his sole aim being to kill, resolved that he will settle every dispute and every quarrel with his stick by killing both the accuser and the accused.If not immediately fully put into practice, it is a philosophy that is deeply enough ingrained in him that, once he comes to true power, is pretty much exactly how he acts.
First, however, he has to become king, and while Isanusi can not be there all the time for Chaka -- he's a busy guy (though he does react pretty fast when called for) -- he does eventually provide him with two of his servants as all-around helpers to help him get to power. There's one who deceptively appears to be a "half-wit", Ndlebe, as well the more imposing Malunga -- who explains:
We will stand by you in these wars: Ndlebe will be your ears and will hear all the news for you; I will be your arm, and fight for you.No one suspects that Ndlebe could even understand what's going on around him, so he is the perfect spy to overhear all the local gossip. He and Malunga are very good at what they do -- and vital to Chaka's continued success.
Chaka comes under the protection of local ruler Dingiswayo (another historical figure), and shows himself to be a valuable warrior for him. Women don't figure prominently in Chaka's life, but the one he does fall in love with also happens to be one of Dingiswayo's daughters, Noliwa -- and she is also madly in love with him.
After the death of Chaka's father, one Chaka's brother quickly acts to consolidate power and take over as king -- upsetting Dingiswayo (in no small part because the way this was done didn't show due deference to him), who then supports Chaka's takeover of the position he agrees is Chaka's due. Chaka does indeed step into his father's footsteps -- but that is only the beginning, as his ambition knows no bounds.
The physically imposing Chaka is a superb fighter and brave, but his success is presented as depending on the supernatural. It is Isanusi that is his guarantee of success, appearing when Chaka needs that added support:
At that very moment Isanusi suddenly burst into view, among them, and he came in already talking: 'Let your courage rise, Chaka, I have come, and there is no manner of harm that can befall you.'Chaka shows no mercy -- not only in battle but also afterwards, here, for example, ordering that: "all of Zwide's people, men, women and children, be killed" (save the young men, whom he integrates into his own armies).
Even once Chaka has consolidated his position as king, Isanusi tempts him with the possibility of ever greater power and success -- and Chaka is willing to do anything for that: "there is nothing I would spare as long as you take me to all the things I desire". He isn't kidding, either: Isanusi demands a horrible sacrifice if Chaka is to get even greater power, and Chaka barely bats an eye -- though Mofolo nicely draws this out by both having Isanusi make Chaka take time to think it over, and then circumstances delaying the act itself.
Successful as founder of and lord over a newly-named -- "Zulu ! Mazulu !" -- and quickly expanding empire, Chaka can't sit back; instead, he continues in his power-hungry frenzy, more madman than leader:
Chaka, right from his childhood, did not have many wishes; his desire was for one thing only: kingship and fame. Now he is very famous and he is a great king. Is it possible he will be satisfied ? Never ! Now his greed has been aroused, and he is in search of something which even he himself does not know.Chaka goes on a war-tear, over-running huge amounts of territory -- and upending life everywhere. As Mofolo notes, the human toll was horrific, the consequences lasting, with Chaka's advances creating a domino-effect of carnage:
All the nations joined the stampede of the southward flight, and they killed each other with such viciousness that sometimes they waded through the blood of the slain. Often when Chaka came upon the people he found them already broken, tame and lacking the strength to fight, and he would simply finish them off. Those whom Chaka killed with his armies were far outnumbered by the victims of those fleeing from him. And that was the beginning of the difaqane and of the wandering bands: it was through Chaka that these things began.Chaka is no enlightened leader; instead, he is become: "Chaka, originator-of-all-things-evil".
The slaughters are so great, the piles of the dead so enormous that:
the vultures ate till they could do no more than just stare at the food; the hyena ate till it just lay down; but it was not even noticeable that they had eaten anything. The stench of decay grew, and the stench was beyond description.Summing up Chaka's rule, too.
It's pretty late in the day when the slightest twinges of remorse come up -- "in the midst of all that wealth and all that glory he began to suffer pain and a gnawing sense of discontent in his soul" -- but of course it's way too late. He essentially sold his soul to the devil, and Isanusi eventually comes for his fee. His subjects and even his loyal warrior-followers can only take so much, and of course some turn on him -- but his conscience has too: Mofolo even allows him to find his end in a dream-state (but then of course the reality of everything he's done, not least the killing of so many of those closest to him, is almost impossible to face head-on).
Chaka is presented as super-human, in some ways. Isanusi's intervention makes him so in part -- but even his corpse remains untouched by the animals it's left for. And while alive his extraordinariness is apparently overwhelming -- so much so that:
Even on the battlefield his men, when wounded and about to die, would request the king, as their last wish, to disrobe so that they might admire his body for the last time, and thus die in peace; and he would, indeed, do as they asked.(As with much in the novel, there's a lot that can be read into such details .....)
The novel -- and Chaka -- degenerates into almost uncontrolled depravity; Chaka's reign, once he has consolidated power, reads like that of the most notorious of the Roman emperors. But the horrible circumstances of Chaka's childhood -- the behavior more limited (basically just targeting Chaka) but similarly unconscionable -- suggest an environment where his embrace of power above all -- and certainly above any concept of 'right' -- is almost inevitable. One might be tempted to believe that he could have claimed the throne and been satisfied there, settling in in the position and governing with a firm but gentle hand -- but Mofolo suggests that his rise to power was only possible because of the same ruthlessness that made it impossible for him not to continue to want more. he was destined and doomed to forge ahead, mercilessly -- with horrific consequences.
There are many effective and well-turned scenes in Chaka, including the young Chaka's encounter with an enormous sea snake; here as elsewhere Mofolo emphasizes Chaka's vulnerabilities -- he does feel fear, for example -- which helps keep him human in the eys of the reader (for a while, at least).
A few of the examples are even (inadvertently ?) comic in their horror -- such as the threat of hyenas:
On many evenings, while the people were sitting around or as they were about to turn in, a hyena, if it had found no goats to eat, would come into the village and grab a person and run off with him, with no one brave enough to go in pursuit and force it to abandon its prey. The poor person would scream continuously in the middle of the darkness, saying: 'It's picking me up ! It's putting me down ! It's picking me up again ! It's putting me down ! Now it's eating me !' He would shout these words in an attempt to raise the alarm so that people would know where he was and come to his rescue. But in spite of all that, it would eventually eat him with no one coming to help.While Chaka begins as an almost psychological study into what might have made Chaka the man -- and ruthless militarist -- he became, in focusing on his horrible and numbing childhood, Mofolo nevertheless can't resist providing a supernatural explanation to his success. Chaka's powers -- even medicine-enhanced -- do also come from within, but Mofolo makes Isanusi and his interventions essential to Chaka's success (if one can ultimately call it that ...).
Midway through his story, Mofolo steps back slightly to observe:
I do not believe that there was ever a human being whose life was as full of mystery as that of Chaka.Mofolo takes advantage of that, as it gives him great space and liberty to imagine much behind Chaka's life and deeds, and he does fashion a compelling -- if also deeply disturbing -- story out of it. The mature Chaka is more anti-hero than anything else -- yet Mofolo doesn't withdraw all sympathy, practically suggesting that Chaka becomes that way almost despite himself. But there's no way around the carnage, and the willingness to sacrifice even what he is closest to and loves most dearly (Chaka eventually even kills his mom). The way the young Chaka was treated is indefensible -- but the adult Chaka's actions are beyond the pale as well, making for a life-story with a very bitter aftertaste.
The writing is a bit rough, the story moving forward in fits and spurts and some of the expression (see the above quotes) somewhat stilted, but there's decent quality to it. Chaka is an uncomfortable read, in a variety of ways, but certainly of interest.
- M.A.Orthofer, 31 August 2018
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Lesotho author Thomas Mofolo lived 1876 to 1948.
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