Friday, April 19, 2024

Piggy Boy’s Blues: Why Memories Wear Make-up


By Tinuke Adeyi

  • Title: Piggy Boy’s Blues
  • Author: Nakhane Touré
  • Publisher: BlackBird Books
  • Number of pages: 156
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

‘The novel is an event in consciousness. Our aim isn’t to copy actuality, but to modify and recreate our sense of it. The novelist is inviting the reader to watch a performance in his own brain’. – George Buchanan

There are no perfect moments, the saying goes, only perfect memories. But what is a perfect memory? Do humans actually remember events exactly as they happened or do they simply recreate emotions that past events elicited? Can the entities we call memories be ‘perfect’ in being true to actual events or are they no more than lies we tell ourselves so we do not catch an honest whiff of our own smells? Have we merely become perfect at recreating the emotions we want attached to memories?

Writers often play the same game with reality as humans do with memory: they toy with their sense of it and push at limits they would probably not practically touch in private lives. This reviewer toys with but one sense of the novel, gleaned from studying it. It is also why when the last page has been turned, it would be quite easy to draw out the similarities between South African singer and author Nakhane Touré and Davide M, the protagonist in his debut novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues. The reflection works equally in both directions.

Piggy Boy’s Blues describes a brief period in the life of Davide, the conflicted 21st century descendant of a royal Xhosa family. For Davide’s family, concepts of tradition and duty have been a matter of pride and personal integrity for centuries. Davide’s pedigree is full of royal chiefs and warriors, strong leaders of men whose progeny grew up to be hotter-headed versions of their ancestors. For all of their famed mental stamina and physical prowess however, his ancestors had been far from discreet with their sexual proclivities. Davide’s grandfather had died estranged from his great-grandfather who had rejected his infant son and wife in favour of a newer, younger lover. Davide’s own upbringing in a single-parent home was consequently not particularly striking in the grand scheme of things.

The novel begins as he arrives at the home of his uncle, Ndimphiwe, in Alice, for a brief stay. The purpose of the visit is not immediately clear but its import is revealed much later. While there, he meets Gray, Ndimphiwe’s self-effacing, rather talkative lover, whose unflattering physical appearance had earned him the unkind nickname of Piggy Boy in adolescence, and who has a long history of unrequited love. Gray has also recently moved in and has taken an instant, amorous liking to Davide. He wastes no time communicating that he is willing to pursue his interest with Davide while a guest in his lover’s home. The feeling is not mutual despite the two men spending a lot of time in the company of each other, and sometimes in apparent enjoyment. Yet, Gray only succeeds in eliciting disdain and sometimes revulsion in Davide whenever the subject arises. The inevitable tension inherent in this living arrangement sets the stage for the various conflicts presented in Piggy Boy’s Blues.

It eventually becomes clear that Davide’s presence at Ndimphiwe’s had always been about ‘finding himself’, exploring his sexuality and escaping the realities of his own life in Johannesburg, where he lived with his mother. He is a young man caught between his Christian faith and his personal, sexual struggles, in a South Africa whose beliefs about sexuality has changed very little since the days in which Davide’s earliest ancestors were first crowned royalty.

Through Davide’s experiences, issues of faith, rape, sexuality and self-love are skimmed with broad, albeit beautiful, strokes. The pages are full of his introspection, which has a religious bent, makes many scriptural references and often draws witty connections between events and biblical stories.

Piggy Boy’s Blues has characteristics to recommend it. Nakhane Touré’s artistry shines through in his prose, and it is easy to see the award-winning singer in Touré the writer. A truly talented musician, Touré’s debut album Brave Confusion was nominated several times and went on to win the South Africa Music Award for Best Alternative Album in 2014. Here is an artiste used to strumming words and coaxing them till they sing the exact note and strike the specific chord of his intent.

Perhaps the best demonstration of that in Piggy Boy’s Blues is the almost hypnotic depiction of a rape scene. The human brain, designed for self-preservation, usually aims to shield the victim’s mind when a trauma proves too violent to be immediately processed. As the rapist puffs and pants atop his quarry in Piggy Boy’s Blues, the victim’s mind protectively vacates the scene. The rape is happening to someone else and the victim, like the reader, is no more than an anonymous observer. As the violent intrusion progresses, the victim contemplates the complex intricacies involved in lovemaking, the mystery that is unveiled when one possesses the body of another human being, and whether complete possession is ever even possible. One cannot simply and completely become one with another body by coupling genitals, our victim reasons, certainly not in the same sense that a person becomes one with the food they consume. It is an interesting proposition that keeps the mind of the victim engaged during a horrific trauma, and Touré is deft in his handling. Considerable effort is also invested in the aftermath of the rape: a victim’s fight to pick up the pieces and, perhaps, heal.

There is an important, not-so-subtle point to Piggy Boy’s Blues. Touré slips in the subject of homosexuality without fanfare (‘I would have fucked Barry Hertzog…’, says Gray, p 18), and once he does, it is handled as a matter of fact. This in itself is worthy of mention. While the subject of sexual orientation is not new by any stretch of the imagination, the past decade has witnessed a rise in the cacophony of public opinions on the subject, across various local and international stages. Among writers, approaches to the issue have undergone drastic metamorphosis since Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters of the ‘60s.

The Ghanaian author, playwright and academic, Ama Ata Aidoo, depicted homosexuality as an undesirable, Western import in her 1977 novel, Our Sister Killjoy. Nigeria’s Jude Dibia presented the subject with a tentative, even apologetic air in his 2005 novel, Walking with Shadows. On the weekend of his forty-third birthday in 2014, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina boldly and quite publicly declared his homosexuality.

This evolution of presentation and growing public reception has not come without backlash. Despite social media outrage and televised international protests, anti-homosexual legislation have sprung up and since worsened all over the world and, in particular, Africa. Thirty-five, out of fifty-four, countries on the continent have banned homosexuality, and it carries the capital punishment in four of those countries.

In her short story contribution to the anthology Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, Nigerian writer Chinelo Onwualu foresees these issues will persist into the future in her futuristic tale, ‘CJ’. No, there is nothing trivial about this subject, and here is why Touré’s presentation is powerful. He makes homosexuality normal. He lets a member of the LGBT community be a regular human being with regular problems who reacts in regular ways to a regrettably common trauma. Touré achieves this aim without necessarily meaning to, and in so doing joins other South African writers, such as K Sello Duiker (The Quiet Violence of Dreams) and Ian Murray (For the Wings of a Dove) in lending a powerful voice to a troubling societal issue, one which it may be safe to assume the writer himself is intimately acquainted with. He is an openly gay man in present day South Africa. His personal life, chronicled from various interviews granted in the past, has a lot in common with Davide M’s. Much of the protagonist appears to be fashioned right out of Touré’s memories, or what he has shaped those memories to be. This is interesting when juxtaposed with the words attributed to Davide in Piggy Boy’s Blues:

We own nothing. Even our memories do not possess a semblance of permanence. So why waste our grief on things that have happened and will probably be remembered falsely? (p 135)

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, one begins to wonder whether the whole point of the book is merely to show off Touré’s way with words, and he writes beautifully. There is a persistent disjointedness as the tale progresses. You wonder, at the end, why so much attention is given to establishing Davide’s entire family background (which could have been better presented with an illustrated family tree). You wonder at the many flashbacks inserted unceremoniously between chapters. You wonder why the novel dwells on the meeting between Sikhumbuzo, the bartender, and Davide. You wonder why Ndimphiwe stubbornly stays in the kitchen for most of the book and is made out to be little more than a curiously silent spectator of happenings that are so deeply personal. Even in the scene that is perhaps meant to cast doubts on his fidelity, Davide’s uncle remains resolutely passive and somewhat boring.

There is a general laid-back approach to character development that cheats a reader out of actually getting to know, much less connect with the characters. Most of the story stays in Davide’s head, with a considerable fraction devoted to ancestral tales and events. While this might suffice in any well-written novel, the rather pale supporting characters cast their pallid shadows on Touré’s efforts and considerably lessen the reader’s enjoyment.

Piggy Boy’s Blues took seven years of ‘on and off writing’ to complete, says its author. That places him at about age twenty at the time of its genesis. Twenty is an interesting age to begin a debut novel, in part because a lot of the personality and essence are just about settling into their prepared moulds and things still have a chance to easily go either way, and also because there is the observed tendency of personal bits and pieces finding their way into the output of the inexperienced writer. There are many parallels between the lives and journeys of David M and Nakhane Touré’s personal life. The novel sometimes reads like a storied private journal, great for personal therapy, rather weak as a literary statement.

Words (read lyrics) are but one part of the make-up of music. The output of coordinated instruments, vocals of the singer and the magnetism of the song performer all contribute to making great music. Thousands of music lovers would agree that Nakhane Touré excels at this. With a novel, words are really all a writer has to create with. The writer must wield them as such. Touré wields words beautifully, but he wields them as if they are complemented by other agencies with which he is making a connection with his readers. This assumption takes his readers for granted. Readers are likely to feel justified in losing interest in a book whose writer is perceived to have lost interest in engaging them. At this point, perhaps the most interesting thing about Piggy Boy’s Blues to the kind reader is the curious and unusual shape of the book.

Photograph: ‘Lipstick’ by pomo mama

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Tinuke Adeyi
Tinuke Adeyi
Books and writing saved Tinuke Adeyi from the life she was born into. For this reason, she is in a lifelong relationship with reading. She is a medical practitioner and lives with her husband in Lagos.

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