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Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda: Book Review

Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda is a work of magical realism set in an unnamed town. The book is a love story, following Toloki, a professional mourner, and his new girlfriend Noria- who grew up together many years ago in the village as kids, Noria used to sing to Jwara, Toloki’s father who was an artist, he believes that there was something special about Noria’s singing- something that’ sparked his artistic furnace, it is some several years down the line when Toloki reunites with his long lost friend Noria and a spark is ignited between them as they begin to spend some time together, as Toloki is the knight in a shining amour for Noria after the death of his son.

Toloki, who has faced an extreme amount of hardship from his father to a point that he had to leave home and swore he would not return as long as his father was there, he embarks on a journey to the which took him 3 months of walk, walking barefoot because he wanted to preserve his shoes, along his Odyssey he takes odd jobs here and there, momentarily works here and there and then he’s soon gone.

Toloki takes an odd occupation of being a professional mourner at different funerals, he goes around scouting where people are wearing black clothes, where people have lost loved ones to the beast that is death, there he offers he services of mourning and the family of the bereaved offer him whatever amount of payment they can afford, Toloki does not have fixed rates as yet, but he hopes to create a fixed rate as time passes as he sees that death has come like a tide of cold air in winter. He has special mourning regalia for his occupation, it is narrated he was bought this costume by the owners of a restaurant near where it was sold because the owners of the neighboring restaurants got tired of getting complaints from customers about this odd man who is always around, as resolve the owners made Toloki promise that If they bought him this costume he would never be seen around, and that was it.

Along the journey Toloki is reunited with an old childhood friend Noria who they grew up together many years ago in the village, it was at the burial of Noria’s second child Vutha the second where the two met, then Noria invites Toloki to visit her in the squatter camp once the sad sentiments have subsided, and Toloki is happy to visit an old friend. 

Toloki and Noria spend a lot of time in the company of each other after that one chance meeting, Toloki helps Noria rebuild her house, at a later stage Noria asks him to move in with him, after some thoughts, he falls under her spell and they end up staying together

The book symbolizes the pain and struggle of post-Apartheid South Africa, speaking to the complexity of life during this period when intra-Black violence was not reported for fear of retaliation from white police and leaders looking for any excuse to reinstate old systems of power, there are parts in the book where they mention the senseless killings of people and it is rumored to be the work of some nearby chief.

There are many shades of the absurd in Mda’s darkly humorous descriptions of the death, crime, poverty, violence and ethnic unrest that plague the characters, but there is also an element of love in the book amidst all the chaos, the deep affection that exists between Noria and Toloki.

Book Review by: TOKELO HLAGALA