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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Black Diamond

Zakes Mda

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To purchase Black Diamond

Title: Black Diamond
Author: Zakes Mda
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 315 pages
Availability: Black Diamond - US
Black Diamond - UK
Black Diamond - Canada
Black Diamond - India

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Our Assessment:

B- : some decent fundamentals and scenes, but ultimately too simplistic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Mail & Guardian . 8/1/2010 Gwen Ansell
The New Yorker . 26/1/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The skeleton of what could have been a gripping crime film is still visible through the novelistic flesh. The cast of characters is limited, the forward unfolding of the plot episodic. And there is almost none of the surprise -- a pinch of dreams, a nip of time travel, a hint of ancestral intervention and a bucket of enchanted coincidence -- that has made Mda our finest magical-realist writer." - Gwen Ansell, Mail & Guardian

  • "(A) vibrant portrait of South Africa today." - The New Yorker

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:

       The 'Black Diamond' of the title refers to the "fat-cat BEE [Black Economic Empowerment policy] beneficiaries" who have parlayed their apartheid-era political and social contacts -- often established while in prison -- to their own benefit in post-apartheid South Africa. Don Mateza is among the few former guerillas whose bona fides are indisputable -- he was the legendary AK Bazooka -- yet he hasn't managed to take achieve Black Diamond-status. It's not his style to operate the necessary way, and he hopes to get his just rewards by instead actually proving his worth at the security firm he works at and getting the promotion to CEO on his merits. His girlfriend, Tumi, formerly one of the top models in the country and now running her own highly successful modeling agency, is annoyed that Don isn't willing or able to use his connections and background to become a Black Diamond -- and she does everything she can to nudge and push him along.
       The first few chapters of the novel alternate between Don (and Tumi), and magistrate Kristin Uys, who is on a crusade against the local prostitute-rings and bordellos -- symbols of: "the new age of utter degradation" that lurks ahead (though as it turns out there are personal reasons for the bitter judge's loathing of these elements of society). She can't put away the Visagie brothers for the case before her, but does find the nastier one, Stevo, in contempt of court, allowing her to give him a prison sentence. He vows to get back at her and begins, through his subservient brother, Shortie, a harassment campaign against her. More annoyed than scared, she doesn't go to the police to get them to investigate and thinks she can handle it herself. Eventually, however, she's forced to accept a bodyguard -- and it's Don who gets the call.
       Don and Kristin share a love of cooking, and each has a cat, so their getting closer would seem to be in the cards -- but the judge does not make it easy. She doesn't want to be watched over, and remains closed-off and off-putting, making Don's job all the harder. With Tumi egging him on not to take menial jobs like this one -- and insisting he get rid of his beloved cat -- there's some decent tension as to who Don will eventually wind up with, with both women not helping things along with their off-putting sides.
       The Visagie family faces tensions of its own: the imprisoned brother wants the judge to pay -- obsessively focused on sending a message by cooking her cat -- , but it's Shortie who has to do the dirty work. Meanwhile, there's tension between Ma Visagie and the former nanny, Aunt Magda, each wanting to lead the charge in the fight for Stevo's freedom. With Stevo in jail, money is also tight, which further complicates matters.
       The Visagie's make good on some of their threats -- though fortunately the cats can take care of themselves -- and the judge begins to understand she might be in serious danger. Meanwhile, she also manages to loosen up a bit -- especially thanks to Don. But there's that other woman in his life, and his career advancement, to think about.
       The novel begins well with its alternating chapters introducing the characters and the basic sources of tension. Apparently originally envisioned as a film script, there are large parts of it that still read very much like one -- and, for better and ultimately worse, the story unfolds very cinematically. While Mda starts off well in introducing the characters, it's left at that, and the action then doesn't help make more of them: they remain rather two-dimensional. Still, the backgrounds make for some interesting insight into and detail about contemporary South Africa, as do smaller side-stories such as Tumi's efforts to get her foot in the door of larger projects put out to tender.
       It's all ultimately a bit too simplistic -- especially some of the scene-jumps that might work in a film but leave a novel feeling thin. Too much of the action is also rather unbelievable, especially Kristin's actions and decisions. That Don should be considered for the position of CEO without showing managerial experience of any sort (and not really doing too impressive a job as security guard over the course of the story) is also completely implausible.
       Mda is best on some of the small incidental detail, from Don's unusual love of cooking to the various locales visited by the characters in the course of the story to Aunt Magda re-using the methods of the Release Mandela Committee to support the Visagie brothers on trial -- right down to using the 'Free Nelson Mandela' anthem, just changing the words 'Nelson Mandela' to 'Visagie Brothers'. Mda has fun with the extremes of relationships -- there's relatively little simple, normal, everyday interaction -- but relying so much on heated conflict (and passion) comes to feel pretty one-note.
       There's a neat cross-section of contemporary South Africa on display here, but most of it dangles off of what ultimately is too loose and simple a story. Still, the story is reasonably exciting over stretches -- sufficiently that it would probably work pretty nicely on the big screen -- and a decent read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 April 2015

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Black Diamond: 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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