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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Sculptors of Mapungubwe

Zakes Mda

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To purchase The Sculptors of Mapungubwe

Title: The Sculptors of Mapungubwe
Author: Zakes Mda
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 262 pages
Availability: The Sculptors of Mapungubwe - US
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe - UK
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe - Canada
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe - India

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Our Assessment:

B : fine if fairly simple novel, with appealing cast of characters and their conflicts in an unusual setting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
City Press . 10/11/2013 Charl Blignaut

  From the Reviews:
  • "I will confess that at times, while going through the pages, I pictured the author in his study dancing like a lunatic around his laptop. There is a freedom of language and convention that compels, that never takes itself too seriously. By taking us along for the ride, Mda is able to deliver some powerful blows in the end." - Charl Blignaut, City Press

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mapungubwe was a South African kingdom that thrived just under a thousand years ago. Zakes Mda's novel begins in 1223 CE ("Except in Mapungubwe they didn't count years that way") and centers on two men who were raised practically as brothers: Rendani (or Rendi), the son of master carver, blacksmith, and goldmine owner Zwanga, and Chatambudza (known as Chata), the son of a couple who worked for Zwanga; Chata's mother was a !Kung woman -- a smaller-sized race -- and widowed before Chata was born.
       In the present-day, Rendani is the Royal Sculptor, an important (and self-important ...) part of the bureaucracy and traditions of the kingdom, while free-spirit Chata -- who years earlier had strayed far in exploring the worlds beyond Mapungubwe -- refuses to do what is expected of him. So, for example, while Rendani already has three wives -- and is angling for a fourth -- Chata is still unmarried, a very unusual situation for a male of his age.
       Already in childhood some of their different traits were apparent -- with none more obvious and significant than their artistic talents. Both liked to mould animals out of clay:

While Rendi could mould oxen, bulls and cows that were so realistic that their legs had joints and their feet hoofs, whereas the other boys' cattle had only pointed stumps for limbs. Chata, on the other hand, created aniumals that never existed anywhere except in his imagination.
       Rendi feels superior because of his ability to render nature so closely, and even consoles Chata: "One day you'll know how to mould beautiful things too. I'll teach you." It comes as a shock then to Rendi when his father is more impressed by Chata's creation: "What imagination ! Your mind is a wonderful place to be".
       While the boys remain close, there's also a strong rivalry, with Rendani having good reason to continue to be annoyed over the years that Chata refuses to do things the way that is expected of him, from sculpting -- as he fashions fantastical creatures rather than true-to-life ones -- to his abandoning his homeland for a while to explore the world at large to his secretive lifestyle.
       Chata's unwillingness to be open about what he does gets him in trouble with the authorities -- artfully egged on by Rendani -- but Chata remains true to himself and more less doesn't let himself be bothered. Their rivalry becomes even more hotly contested when both are drawn to the same woman, the thwarted Rendani ultimately coming up with a near-perfect plan to sideline Chata -- by seeing to it that he is given a high title and important position at the royal court. (Rendani's clever (but almost invariably (and often amusingly) self-defeating) machinations are nicely presented and used throughout the story.)
       The Sculptors of Mapungubwe is not a strictly historical novel -- Mda's concerns and interests are as much in the characters, and specifically Rendani and Chata's roles as artists -- but Mda does provide an interesting introduction to this generally thriving but also fragile kingdom. Part of the global marketplace of the time, it attracted traders from far away (mainly because of the local gold, but also, more problematically, because of foreign interest in rhino horns). The king himself was a figure kept entirely separate from the population, and support and confidence in him was easily undermined when, for example, the rains did not come for extended periods.
       Mda plays around a bit too coyly with some of Chata's secret doings (and the book is much more effective when Chata is working out in the open, rather than behind closed doors), but he weaves together a variety of storylines quite deftly. Rendani is a good -- if sometimes too neglected -- foil for Chata, and his maneuvering for influence and position at the court is nicely presented. Mda is also very good in his suggestion of the power of art, Chata's creations rising beyond the naturalistic representations that are the norm -- and recognized as something extra-ordinary (and, as such, also as something that poses a threat to the existing order). "Art creates you as you create it", one of the characters finds herself thinking as she observes the development of Chata, who becomes a better and more complete human being; meanwhile, Rendani's failure certainly traces back, in large part, to his abandonment of art (as he focuses instead on positioning himself at the court, trying to gain influence, standing, and power).
       The writing is fairly simple and straightforward -- occasionally too much so:
He knew exactly what Chata was trying to do -- to win back the people's favour after his disgrace. And the suckers were sucking it.
       But overall Mda does recreate this very different time and place and culture well. Some of the figures are too stock simple -- including the presence of a village simpleton --, some of the revelations and turns rather too predictable, and some of the action skimmed over rather fast (the story skips along quite quickly), but there's more than enough here to make for an engaging and interesting read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 July 2013

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The Sculptors of Mapungubwe: Reviews: Zakes Mda: Other books by Zakes Mda under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       South African author Zakes Mda (actually: Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda) was born in 1948. Best known as a playwright, he has now also written several internationally acclaimed novels.

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