Title: In Corner B
Author: Es’kia Mphahlele
Publisher: Penguin Books (reprint)
Year of Publication: 2011
Category: Fiction (short story collection by one author)
Whenever I get the opportunity to ready any of Prof Es’kia Mphahlele’s tantalizing work, I always do so with the idea that he wrote the work to be read by the everyday black man. This idea is locked tightly at the recesses of my mind and it is also a filter through which I will experience Mphahlele’s said work. It’s a curse (or gift?) that I developed a while back and hasn’t left me since. I developed this filter when I first came across the Prof Mphahlele’s work in 2008. I came across a tattered 1950s edition of Drum magazine tucked in some dusty corner of the local library where I live and, subsequently, found out that he and a group of other equally brilliant writers (Nat Nakasa, Can Themba et al) – The Drum Boys – used the magazine to chronicle the lives of ordinary black South Africans throughout the ’50s and ’60s. I read it once and I was hooked. Since then, I have read a lot of Mphahlele’s work and I’ve been lucky enough to do so with the same filter guiding me through his work.
In case you didn’t know already, Prof Es’kia Mphahele is a legend among legends, an icon of note that we (South Africans) sadly haven’t given the respect that he deserves. Luckily, though, there is enough written about him for me not to regurgitate whatever second-hand information I managed to dig up on him in the dusty archives of the internet. But, for the sake of those who have been living under rocks since the time Kofifi first became a thing in this country, I will give you guys a brief biography of this great man anyway …
For want of a better expression, or way of saying it, the good Prof was to South African literature – to African literature, actually – what the EFF is to South African politics: an earthquake whose aftershock will be felt by many for generations to come. He was the epitome of a South African man of letters and his work speaks volumes in support of this seemingly preposterous claim of mine. He was born in Marabastad, Pretoria, in 1919 and grew up to become a world class educator, man of letters, sub-editor and writer for a vanguard lifestyle magazine for black people in South Africa (which was the first of its kind), and an all-round thorn on the side of white privilege and white ignorance in apartheid South Africa. His life, though, is better narrated by the man himself in his brilliant autobiographies “Down Second Avenue” and “Afrika My Music”, so you better get reading.
“In Corner B” is a collection of eloquently written short stories written by Mphahlele during two different periods of his life: during his time as an educator and generally awesome guy in South Africa, and his time as an educator in Nigeria after he was exiled by bullies of apartheid South Africa. True to Prof Mphahlele’s brilliant eye for picking out hidden gems in the many stories about the cruel existence of black people in apartheid South Africa, and his impeccable ability to tell even the most complex of stories in a beautiful and almost lyrical way, “In Corner B” is filled with classical short stories set in the backdrop of both rural apartheid South Africa and the busy and enterprising streets of Nigeria.
Each story is exceptional in its own right. None is similar to any other in the collection in style, length or pace and this gives the reader a feeling of having read a number of different books at the same time. He was no doubt a master with the pen and he didn’t hold back with this collection. Reading it was an experience like no other. Look, I generally don’t jump on my bed with excitement for anything fiction, but when it comes to Prof Mphahlele’s work, I can’t help but drool over how brilliant this man was. His characters never seem too made up. They always seem like they exist beyond the stories, like they have lives beyond the story and this is the thing I find very hard to come by in a lot of fiction. He writes fiction in a believable way. I know, it’s a stupid thing to say, but that is why I love his work as much as I do.
I know I know, I’m going on about the Prof being brilliant and everything, like I found nothing wrong with his work and I would be wrong if I said so. Even with all the brilliance dripping out of his pores, the Prof wrote in what Tony Morrison sometimes refers to as the “white gaze”. Put simply, he wrote in translation – both literally and figuratively. For instance his translations of phrases written in Setswana to English made it clear to me that, even though he was indeed writing for the reading pleasures of the day to day Africans, there was always a white man peering over his shoulder reminding him that he wouldn’t be able to understand what those phrases meant and that he should therefore translate them for him. It’s a both painful and sad truth that I found myself cringing every time I came across and unfortunately, can’t change.
But, all in all, this book is brilliant. If I were to rate it anything bellow 9 out of a total of 10 – even with the white man constantly tugging at my shirt to remind me that he was there when the stories were written – I wouldn’t be doing this book any justice. Go grab yourself a copy and read it because, I promise, you won’t regret it.