Book Review | Intruders

Mohale Mashigo’s stories are parables for South Africa’s present and future as the author shows us worlds filled with the zombified, the mutilated and the disenfranchised.

There’s an eerie un/reality in the collection of short stories, Intruders, by Mohale Mashigo. Divided into three sections – The Good, The Bad, and The Colourful – Mashigo plays with wor(l)ds that are both speculative and immediate.

The story, “Ghost Strain N”, for example, riffs on B-grade zombie movie tropes, sweeping the reader into the lives of unlikely best friends Koketso and Steven. When Steven doesn’t come around for some time, Koketso starts noticing the virus in people all around him and the zombie-like vacuity it leaves in its wake.

“You would think that the nation would have sat up when its young people lost their ability to stand up straight or speak,” writes Mashigo. “If nothing else, people who are harassed by life have a wry sense of humour, because they would eventually call these vacant young people ‘Ghosts’.”

Despite the zombie personification and Mashigo’s tendency to tell rather than show her readers what is taking place, the incisive social commentary makes clear that these Ghosts are present all around us, in this life, now. In Koketso’s neighbourhood it’s “Ghost Strain N”, the same strain that gets Steven. “N” is for nyaope, because that’s what sustains the ghosts. Other viruses like “Ghost Strain T” – for tik – are also prevalent.

On wine farms it’s “Ghost Strain W”, a reminder of Apartheid’s “dop system” which, even though discontinued – at least publicly – lives on through ramifications such as foetal alcohol syndrome. These pervasive and seemingly impervious frames of whiteness and coloniality impress upon the reader that the virus pertains not only to the infected, but also to those who refuse to look. In Mashigo’s words: “The burning of Ghosts began in townships because the illness was euphemised in the suburbs.”

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The second part of the book turns to the bad, although the boundaries between the good and the bad are strenuous, hanging on hooks of abuse, killing, “monster-hunting teenagers” and death, but also on acts of survival, acts of living.

“There’s death somewhere on my land,” begins the story “Little Vultures”, hurtling the reader into the world of genetic manipulation, with designer baby projects and farmlands abounding with strange mutations of mini mammoths, horse-sized dodos and a “heterodontosaurus running around out of its own time”.

An aside gives us a glimpse into the quest for the elixir of not so much everlasting life as everlasting beauty, showing up the sadness – the maddening hunger and desperation – of what lies beneath. There is a deeper sorrow, a deeper ugliness centred on questions of ethics and hubris, but I leave this for the reader to discover.

Continuing the all-too-human odyssey of class stratification, Mashigo takes us into the world of space travel in the story “Untitled ii”. “We left so many people behind,” says the protagonist, gesturing towards the echelons between the Founders, the spaceship dwellers and the destitute on earth.

Mention is made, too, of the favouring of northern epistemologies in the spaceship’s library, filled with books by Ayn Rand, an observation directed not only at the larger decolonisation project, but also at the idea that a new world on space necessarily allows for new ways of living. We have to enact our futures now is the message that rings throughout.

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Finally, Mashigo takes us to the colourful, which it is, although the good, the bad and the ugly is remnant in each line. “The High Heel Killer”, for example, reminds the reader of the normalised levels of violence in the country, the exposed bodies of women in taxis, the vulnerability of those living on the margins. These are not Clifton, Llandudno, Bishopscourt and Constantia Upper stories. These are the stories of intruders.

“It’s beautiful from up here,” says the High Heel Killer, “the cruel city and all the people walking its streets at night. Why did I never look up at these beautiful old rotting buildings? I was so busy counting my steps and craving invisibility.”

Dense with the history of colonialism and apartheid, the failings of the new dispensation, the colourful lives of the seen, the unseen and the imagined, this collection of short stories weaves through fragments of memory; the dreadful, dreamlike un/reality where falling is mooring and mooring is plummeting.

“There is a secret room above my bedroom,” we read in a letter in the final story, “Nthatisi”. “There is a way to escape from there, should you need to. The Red Cloak has been in our family for a long time. My grandmother said it would shield (make invisible) the wearer from her enemies. Keep it on while you’re travelling.” Keep it on at all times. You may need shielding from intruders. And who knows, you may also need to intrude.

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