South African author and playwright Athol Fugard’s recently-published novel Tsotsi, is a compelling and brutal tale that follows the life of the story’s eponymous protagonist. Set in Sophiatown — a black township in Johannesburg that was razed in the 1950s to make way for homes for the whites — Fugard uses the oppression of the apartheid regime that segregated the lives of the country’s black and white populations, as a backdrop for the novel’s main setting: deep-rooted racism, the abject poverty of the black community, brooding violence.
The book was originally written in draft form in the early 60s, only to be resurrected and reedited some 20 years later. The bulk of the story focuses on three transformational days in the life of Tsotsi, a stone-cold killer who leads a gang comprising of Die Aap, nicknamed because of his slow brain and immense strength; Butcher, an expert at murdering people by skewering their heart with a sharpened bicycle spoke; and Boston, who is brainy but a coward. The word “tsotsi” itself means “gangster” or “thug”, and harks back to a time when many South African township streets were plagued by such ruthless killers who would kill for pennies or pleasure. Some say the word is derived from Zoot suit, the chosen apparel of the Hollywood hardmen of the day.
Tsotsi the character is a man without memory, name or age – though one assumes he is in his early twenties. His name is simply a banner, an indicator of the guiding force behind his life and actions. Violence. Questions about his past are not tolerated, and often lead to more brutality being dispensed on the enquirer, as Boston finds out for himself.
It is here that Fugard really works his magic. For Tsotsi does not have a hidden past that he is trying to cover up, or one that he is trying to remember: he literally has no recollection. He is an intensely primal character, for most parts practically devoid of self-reflection, but when he does look inwardly all he sees is “darkness”.
The few flashbacks of memory he has act as lighting bolts that penetrate this darkness, a process that Tsotsi finds deeply disturbing. For him it is simpler to view life as ugliness and pain, and for those unlucky enough to come across the gang, increasingly short. Violence is a survival mechanism, not in terms purely of day to day physical survival, but rather as a means of stability and affirmation.
Life is a straight line, for Tsotsi, with no memory or past, just the present, “one continuous moment carrying him forward without questions or regrets…” However, this changes when he finds a baby boy in a shoebox, though Fugard avoids making this dynamic overly trite or sugar-coated. He is not miraculously transformed by the heart-tugging power of the baby and its burbling, in fact he is troubled by the fact he doesn’t just kill the child.
The turning point comes from the child’s vulnerability, and its lack of history. This catalyses a shower of fragments of memory from the past which pierce the cold, hermetically sealed darkness in which he resides, sending him into a psychological turmoil. Even though this turns his world upside down – as the past creeps into the present, and his backstory is filled in – his sociopathic tendencies are partially eroded. The flood of emotions, of sympathy and the ability to connect with other people, start to diminish his fatalistic nihilism. A world of new alternatives is born in its place.
With Tsotsi Fugard has crafted an intelligent and insightful novel. One which humanizes brutality, exposes the corruptability of humans, and conversely presents the possibilities for redemption, not in a biblical sense but in the more down-to-earth manner in which individuals can take an opportunity to change their life for the better. While the book reflects a particularly bloody time in South Africa’s history, it is not a gratuitous offering. Acts of sex and violence are not described in explicit detail, instead the writer zones in on the characters and causal factors.
Perhaps this comes in part from Fugard’s work as a playwright – he has written some 30 odd plays and won numerous awards — an industry where special effects are sparse and context is ever present. At times Fugard is repetitive with his use of descriptions and metaphors, and some of the characters are a little two-dimensional, shoring up aspects of the storyline, rather than emanating their own complexities. Nevertheless, none of this detracts from novel’s narrative power or emotional impact.
The film adaptation of Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Language Film at this 2006 Oscars.