A Man Who is Not a Man
Author: Thando Mgqolozana
A review by Nantume Miriam Kasibante
This is a beautifully written book that tells a tale of hope and second chances. The author makes you feel the emotions of his subject: where he feels shame, you feel it too! Where he feels love, you feel it too!
Set in South Africa, this story is about the transformation of Chris from boyhood to manhood. Among the Xhosa people of South Africa, circumcision is the passage from a boy to a man.
One must not flinch, one must not cry, one must not express his pain in any way if he is to be considered a ‘true’ man. One must heal naturally and properly in order to be hailed victorious in this journey, even though the healing of one’s body is the work of God.
So when Chris’s circumcision goes wrong, his penis rotting and shrivelled, he ends up in hospital and his society treat him as an outcast. The society is embodied in the character of his grandfather who can hardly look at him or even narrate to the doctor what is happening with his grandson. He calls his grandson ‘weak’ and blames him for the rotting of his ‘limb’. He calls today’s youth fragile and refuses to accept that he had a role to play in the outcome of the circumcision due to his absence during the healing of his grandson.
Even at the hospital we see the remnants of old society in modern society through the characters of the spiteful nurse and the ‘Ugly’ gentleman. They treat Chris with scorn and disdain for going to the hospital which is ironic, for if they did not believe in the effectiveness of hospitals they would not work at one. At this point of course, Chris too feels ashamed and does not lift his head to meet their judgemental eyes. They are a reminder of what he will find waiting for him in society once he is discharged from hospital. They chastise and mock him.
The novel criticises society for holding onto old customs and yet abandoning the responsibility of teaching the young the proper way of observing these customs. It criticises cultures that have lagged behind and remained stubborn despite the concrete evidence that these customs are harmful.
It is worth noting here that Chris is not the only one suffering from the fate of a failed circumcision at the hospital nor is he is the weak one. There are others, like him, in the hospital that are suffering more. There are people like Chris all over South Africa and this is validated by the news on the television. They report that many suffer from sepsis, others have their ‘limbs’ amputated and even worse others still die from a failed circumcision. This is far from comforting for Chris.
Then again, this is a story of hope. He tells us about his life before circumcision. He has been judged numerous times and so he tells the reader that he doesn’t care if the reader too judges him. This story was written not for the reader, especially the judgemental one, but as a step towards the healing process. This story was written for Chris, who is tired of pleasing others instead of himself.
We see a young man transformed from a life of crime to a life of responsibility and success. He is able to start afresh with his mother whom he had not known as a child. He is a bit sceptical at first about his mother’s love toward him, perhaps sometimes blaming her for abandoning him, but at each stage of his healing process he is assured of her love.
He joins a new school where he vows to work hard and leave his old criminal ways behind. He finds a beautiful girl, Yanda, with whom he falls in love and they make plans for the future. He emphasises her pure and natural beauty at every point. Later on, as though to confirm that looks can be deceptive, she describes her former life of sex and abortion but despite this he still loves her. They plan to excel and go to university together. Unfortunately, only he manages this and she does not, leaving him devastated.
He chooses to return to his home town to study at the University of Cape Town which brings back horrible memories, but what better place to heal than where it all started? This symbolises an acceptance of what had happened to him. The university is filled with foreign students, he welcomes this, since he aims to move away from those who recognise him and from whom he fears judgement. With these strangers he can choose to be a new person.
Chris successfully finishes his university education and expresses his joy. He secures a job of which he is proud. He tells us that his penis head is finally growing back. It is clear that this healing will be gradual. Chris has not forgiven his grandfather and has not returned to check on his childhood love for seven years. Perhaps he is ashamed to see her or perhaps he is waiting for his ‘limb’ to grow back fully before he gains the courage to face her. He is still a virgin because he fears he will be judged by the person who he would choose to know intimately. Despite many beautiful women falling for him he does not welcome their advances, letting them think he is gay.
Deep down he is still ashamed and angry but he also acknowledges that gradually this will all pass and he will be healed completely. Maybe then he will make peace with his past and embrace the future. He will not see himself as others see him. He will see himself.