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Chaka

If you’re reading this, you are about to join me on a trip to an early moment in African literary history. Thomas Mofolo‘s Chaka is a novel languishing in the dark, airless pit of the African literary archive.

Join me as we dig it up, give it a good dusting, and see whether it’s cool enough for the contemporary lover of African novels.

***

Who doesn’t love a good story about the rise and fall of empires, blended with a spicy bit of romance and the gothic intensity of a mad king?

Chaka, a novel written by the Lesotho writer, Thomas Mofolo, is that kind of novel—a weird and gripping tale about one of the most enigmatic figures in African history.

“I do not believe,” Mofolo writes, “that there was ever a human being whose life was as full of mystery as that of Chaka.” An attempt to capture this mystery led Mofolo to write Chaka in 1910. But his missionary publishers were so freaked out by the novel that they refused to publish it until 1925.

Chaka is the guy who grew up knowing that everyone, except his mother, wanted him dead. Tough luck for a kid born near perfect. Tall, handsome, brave, hardworking, and self-sacrificing, Chaka could not understand why everyone hated him. Like any oppressed soul, Chaka believed that things would change since right and justice was on his side. That illusion faded away when he heard his father order his death even as he stared Chaka in the eye.

Chaka is on the run from assassins when he meets one of the most ruthless witchdoctors that ever graced the pages of an African novel. Isanusi is the guy who makes things happen. He is the magician, the sorcerer, the therapist, the priest, the conman, the strategist, the visionary, the confidante, the doctor, the hit-man, the fixer—the everything man— that every great empire-builder in history has had by his side. The novel is worth reading just to see Isanusi at work.

He’s the one who “inoculates” Chaka with the “medicine of blood.” “If you do not spill blood,” Isanusi explains to Chaka, “it will turn against you and kill you instead. Your sole purpose should be to kill without mercy, and thus clear the path that leads to the glory of your kingship.”

Isanusi turns Chaka into a killing machine. A man who had been hunted all his life had returned to bring the world to its knees.

Mofolo’s novel is a dark, mysterious, and poetic critique of the principle of violence that defines all empires.

By living up to this mandate to kill or be killed, Chaka instituted a political order never before imagined in his part of the world. But the blood on which his beautiful empire is built does not stay still forever. Chaka is eventually consumed by the violence that made him king and lives out the rest of his days in what Wole Soyinka has described as schizophrenia. The story of great emperors gone mad is old and familiar, but Mofolo tells it with all the dark, romantic flair of an African storyteller—sorcery, the supernatural, graphic violence, and tragic love. 

No story about war and empire is complete without a special someone. The love of Chaka’s life is the “amazingly beautiful” Noliwa—the girl with the “light brown complexion like a cannabis seed.” How Chaka screwed things up with such a goddess of a woman is a depressing and perplexing story. It is easily one of the most sublime moments in the history of modern African tragedy.

If Achebe had not happened, Mofolo’s Chaka would have been the Things Fall Apart of our generation. There are novelists in Africa—a multitude of novelists. But there’s only a handful of storytellers. Achebe was one. Mofolo was another.

Anyone who loves a damn good story should partake of Mofolo’s dark and quirky love song to a king who inspired a continent and paid the ultimate price.

 

Buy Chaka by Thomas Mofolo trans. by Daniel Kunene for less than a dollar HERE.  

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

7 Responses to “Africa’s Mad and Most Loved Emperor | Chaka by Thomas Mofolo | A Book Review” Subscribe

  1. Jane Easley August 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Yes, and let’s hear it for Kunene’s translation!

  2. Ainehi Edoro August 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    Thanks Jane for giving a shout out to Kunene.

    I always tell people to steer clear of the 1931 translation.

    It tries to dumb down the darker aesthetics of the work.

    It’s until Kunene’s work that the beauty of the novel really comes through.

  3. sheldon August 28, 2014 at 4:24 am #

    Most empires are built on a millenia of blood thirst. Shaka’s blood thirst was normal given the circs of his reign.He’s like every unelightend despot worse, he’s absolutely convinecd he’s right
    He’s a misunderstood King

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] primera novela conocida en el continente?. Comparada con Shakespeare y con las tragedias griegas, se la ha colocado a la altura de las obras de Achebe pero no ha tenido nunca su repercusión. Habría que estudiarlo, ¿suficiente con un […]

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    […] con Shakespeare y con las tragedias griegas, se la ha colocado a la altura de las obras de Achebe, (http://brittlepaper.com/2014/08/africa-mad-emperor-chaka-mofolor-review ), pero no ha tenido nunca su repercusión. Habría que estudiarlo, ¿suficiente con un […]

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