Back in 1981, Es’kia Mphahlele wrote:
“Some years to come, when the house will no longer be divided, we may chat about these times of pain. And the season of creations will encircle the season of harvesting which will embrace the season of death which will encircle the season of waiting and enduring, spinning out the unbroken song of a people.”
What hopeful words for an exile from his homeland riven by apartheid.
Now, those years have come. The house is no longer divided: it is a rainbow nation. And the time has come to “chat about these times of pain.”
The Unbroken Song is a compilation of Mphahlele’s selected writings, short stories and poems. It was written over his years of teaching in the homelands, exile in Nigeria and sojourn in France. He was warned that to compete with whites in the field of letters could break him. He was advised to stay in his own territory and not be threatened with unequal competition. There were few enough publishers for black writers back in the 40s, so Mphahlele wrote because of his “desire to create strong and beautiful words.”
This he has done. In this day of tweets and posts, short stories are a powerful option to dipping into the past and gaining insights in less time than a novel requires. Finding the best authors is important.
Mphahlele writes from a life segmented by exile, hope, dreams, and longings. He understands, though, that life is all of a piece and is strung out in unbroken music: hence the title of this collection of short stories and poetry.
Many themes are covered in these pages. “A Point of Identity” focuses on the exalted African quality of ubuntu: our humanity contingent upon interaction with other humans. His experiences and insights from Nigeria resonate in “The Barber of Bariga.” The secondary, submissive position of women is pronounced in “A Ballad of Oyo.” While “Grieg on a Stolen Piano” illustrates the choices of selective knowing and understanding in a world where you do not play on a level playing field.
“The Suitcase” connects with the desperation of a man struggling with survival and providing for family. The arrogant god-complex of well-meaning whites is satisfactorily covered in “Dinner at Eight.” The tenuousness of life and reality of demonstrations under apartheid rule is vivid in “The Coffee-Cart Girl.”
Each story is a lesson of life in itself, as truly good short stories are. The one which revealed the depth of Mphahlele’s insight into the mindlessness of white complicity was “The Living and the Dead.” His suspense and the aura of impending tragedy are brilliant in this story in which a white man’s dawning awareness of something he had persistently disregarded unfolds. As his servant describes the unjustified beating he received at the hands of two random white passers by, Stoffel “sensed agony in every syllable, in every gesture of the hand. He had read the same story so many times in newspapers and had never given it much thought.” There is a point where this man realises he has no connection with his servant, Jackson, there is no ubuntu in his soul. He reaches a state akin to anger within himself and seems at the tipping point of action. This outrage against another human being almost brings him to admit the inhumanity of his society. But the wave which peaks and breaks upon us a hope for his soul, ebbs back.
“No. Better continue treating him as a name, not as another human being. Let Jackson continue as a machine to work for him. Meantime, he must do his duty . . . He was a white man and he must be responsible. To be white and to be responsible were one and the same thing.”
As this story fades, the reader is left with “responsible” reverberating; but responsible for what? Clearly, Mphahlele wants us to consider responsible for whom. (Mindful of another question: but who is my neighbour?)
This quality of short story will help us “chat about those times of pain.” If we do not reflect and learn from what happened, we will lose the benefit of those who endured before us.