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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Rich Man
of Pietermaritzburg

Sibusiso Nyembezi

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg

Title: The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg
Author: Sibusiso Nyembezi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1961 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 199 pages
Original in: isiZulu
Availability: The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg - US
The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg - UK
The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg - Canada
  • Zulu title: Inkinsela yase Mgungundlovu
  • Translated by Sandile Ngidi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : unpolished, in part, but appealing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Times . 22/2/2008 Rachel Holmes

  From the Reviews:
  • "This timely translation of one of the great South African novels brings to a larger international audience a literary treasure once obscured by apartheid. It is a hilarious and pleasingly briskly paced comedy of manners, wit, political allusion and deft cultural insight. (...) Some of the sharper edges of the book's humour and wordplay inevitably elude translation. But Ngidi's elegant rendering of the prose of Nyembezi (...) captures beautifully the description, dialogue and spirit of the novel, and its subtle commentary on Nguni philosophy and Zulu society." - Rachel Holmes, The Times

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:

       In The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg a mysterious stranger shows up in out-of-the-way Nyanyadu in the northern Natal. C.C.Ndebenkulu announces himself in a letter to Zeph Mkhwanazi, but no one has any idea who this man is or why he wants to come here. He claims to have the best intentions, wanting to help rural folk, but it's hard not to be suspicious from the beginning. Even his name is one no one has ever heard before.
       When he does show up, Ndebenkulu does make quite an impression -- for one because he's obviously quite full of himself:

     "Madam, I am someone whose friends include prominent white people. I even correspond with them. Whenever they write to me they never forget to add at the end my title of Esquire." As he spoke he kept tapping his chest and peppering his speech with English.
       He's presumptuous, too, never bothering to explain why he should be called 'esquire' (even as he constantly reminds everyone that that's the title white people refer to him with), nor where he got his supposed wealth, nor why he wants to come and help, of all people, those of Nyanyadu. He complains about being transported from the nearest town by cart and wishes he had brought one of his cars, but he also puts up with the lowly living conditions he finds.
       The rural folk are hospitable, if a bit confused about this stranger in their midst. Not everyone takes to him, including most of Mkhwanazi's family, but Mkhwanazi himself is readily swayed by the smooth-talking stranger, regardless of how condescending he is. Ndebenkulu wants to help them get rich, after all, and even though they know nothing about his background the lure of easy money is hard to resist.
       Ndebenkulu is a con man, of course, and The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg describes the con unfolding, as Ndebenkulu eventually reveals how he wants to help everyone -- he has contacts at abattoirs who would be willing to pay much more than the locals could otherwise get for their cattle -- and he navigates between the suspicion of some of the locals and reeling the gullible ones in. Ndebenkulu is able to take advantage of local and social conventions and expectations, which prevents many of the locals from challenging his claims -- and there is also the constant issue of respect for one's elders, as it is the young men of the area who don't believe the con man, but whose suspicion is seen as disrespectful. Meanwhile Mkhwanazi also did not properly defer to the local chief in holding the first meeting to introduce Ndebenkulu.
       The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg is a sort of cat-and-mouse game, with a local who is a "renowned criminal inspector" also getting drawn into it, and much of this -- including what leads to the final unmasking of the con man -- is a bit simplistic and simply drawn. But along the way the novel is rich in atmosphere, and the exchanges among the locals (and especially inside Mkhwanazi's family, where the son and wife both can't stand the esquire-man ("It's a real white man, I swear !" Mkhwanazi's wife says in exasperation at one point)) are particularly entertaining. There's psychological subtlety, but unfortunately it only goes so far, as Nyembezi cuts corners along the way, in particular in how Mkhwanazi gets convinced to hand over his cattle.
       All in all it ultimately feels a bit too hasty, but it's still a generous and warm portrait of South African country life some half-century ago -- and Ndebenkulu makes for a very entertaining villain.

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The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg: Reviews: Sibusiso Nyembezi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South African (Zulu) author Sibusiso Nyembezi lived 1919 to 2000.

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© 2008-2019 the complete review

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