“Grow up. Fast. Very fast. Lightening speed. Everything is always like that. Quick. You must act quickly. Understand quickly. Otherwise someone will fuck you up nicely. They’ll beat you up so that you must always remember.”
Meet Azure. Standing shoeless on of the cusp of manhood, thirteen or about to turn thirteen, he is not really sure when he was born. Both his parents are dead. Murdered. He has made his way from Johannesburg to Cape Town – a mean and ugly Cape Town – where he sleeps near the swimming pool in Sea Point or, later, when that option is denied him, under a bridge in Green Point, home to a wretched collection of thugs and gangsters.
He makes money primarily picking up tricks, engaging in degrading, often rough sex with closeted married men. He is hardened, tough, able to endure these encounters with a detached resignation. Yet when he looks inside, when he faces the more invisible persistent fears that haunt him as he wanders though the city, past the train station, up Long Street, into the Company’s Gardens; we see what he truly is – a child on the street. His is a coming-of-age story that is relentless, ruthless and, in the end, remarkably redeeming.
As Thirteen Cents, the debut novel by K. Sello Duiker opens, he has taken to looking after nine year-old Bafana, a boy who has run away from home, his life on the streets a drug fueled choice. Azure lectures him on his addictions. The only drug he himself has any interest in marijuana when he can afford it.
“I’m not his father, I say to myself. That laatie is getting under my armpit, under my soft spot. I mustn’t let that happen, I tell myself. I’ve seen too many kids disappear. There’s no point in getting too close.”
Azure knows where to find discarded food, has a few trusted “grown-up” contacts, many of whom will turn out not to be the allies he had thought. In a slice of Cape Town in which each man or woman has to look after themselves first, judging character is a slippery exercise. One that can be brutal, if not fatal, if the shifting rules are not understood or respected. His one friend from home, Vincent, a man who is beholden to the same rules but somewhat older and wiser, manages to impart to young Azure an unusual vision that will ultimately prove more valuable than money or any other form of protection.
In the meantime, his greatest liability is one he cannot control. He has black skin and blue eyes. Hence the name, pronounced he informs us, Ah-zoo-ray. It is a gift he holds from his beloved mother which is stolen when Gerald, the powerful thug currently holding sway over the homeless population, renames him Blue.
“… I can never look at myself too long in the mirror as my blue eyes remind me of the confusing messages they send out to people. I wear my blue eyes with fear because fear is deeper than shame.”
Race is a currency of power in the community in which he has found himself. Gerald who is a coloured man, trading on his lighter skin, straight hair and reputation of exceptional violence, is especially drawn to and maddened by those blue eyes. The punishment he extracts on our young hero is by far the most persistent, horrific, and devastating aspect of this gritty tale. He is beaten, locked up, starved, and abused for days on end for no apparent rational pretext. But the emotional abuse, the attempt to undermine his self worth cuts deeper:
“Why do you feel sad? I ask myself. Because my mother didn’t love me. Gerald is cruel. That is the ugliest thing anyone has ever said to me. It is worse than having a bus crush you. I think of my mother and I feel confused. No. She loved me, I tell myself. And I loved her, no matter what Gerald says.”
As much as Azure/Blue holds to the conviction that he is almost a man, must not cry, must hold within himself the emotions a man can not afford to admit; he continually talks with frustration about “grown-ups”. Their ways allude him, anger him and ultimately drive him on a mission of self healing driven by an almost supernatural desire to destroy all that is trying to destroy him.
As Thirteen Cents moves into its final chapters, the story takes on a folkloric, mythical tone. The stark hyper realism of the earlier account crosses the threshold of magical realism. To escape the horrors existing for him in the city below, Azure makes the first of two ascents up the slopes of Table Mountain where he will spend several nights, have dreams and visions and find, we are led to believe, the beginning of a path out of the life in which he had found himself trapped. The voice that lingers, long after the book is closed, is one of resilience, one of hope.
Sadly his creator could not hold to that same strength. K. Sello Duiker was born in Soweto, South Africa in 1974, raised in middle class black family. His university educated parents wanted to secure a good education for their son. After achieving a degree from Rhodes University he studied briefly in Cape Town where drugs and mental illness disrupted his academic career. He would draw on his experiences in the city to write Thirteen Cents and his other major work, The Quiet Violence of Dreams (TQVOD). Recognized as one of the first important young black voices emerging in post Apartheid South Africa, he ended his own life in 2005 at the age of 30.
The edition of Thirteen Cents that I read, published as part of the Modern African Writing Series of the Ohio University Press, includes an introduction by Stellenbosch University professor of English, Shaun Viljoen which provides an exceptionally helpful context for the placement of Duiker’s work in the evolution of contemporary South African literature along with a glossary of the expressions and slang, mostly Afrikaans, employed throughout the text.
I have not, to date, read many black South African writers, but I brought a selection of titles back from my recent visit to the country. Duiker has long been on my radar and all 600 pages of TQVOD has been stting on my bookshelf for more than a year. I am glad I went back to this novel first, standing as it does in a pivotal context for black South African literature and look forward to reading more of the young voices that have emerged in recent years.
For another positive review of this powerful book, see my friend Penny’s blog.