Book Review: The Heart Of Redness by Zakes Mda (2000)

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Release: 2000

The first thing I notice upon reading The Heart Of Redness is how similar it is to the other African novel I read this year, The River Between. Both stories read like a sort of folk tale. Both stories examine the conflict between development and tradition and both feature a love story pulling the protagonist into the middle of the issue. I think the Heart of Redness is the more impressive novel with a better developed story, but The River Between examines the issue from a much simpler perspective. The Heart of Redness jumps back in time and develops a more immersive history of the story and this helps to propel the story into a more impressive realm. Don’t get me wrong, both books are interesting reads and neither one is amazing.

In the Heart of Redness, the focus is on Camagu, an outsider who has returned to South Africa after an extended time in America. He becomes involved in an ongoing cultural conflict in a small town deciding whether or not to embrace development or stick to tradition. Camagu is pulled both ways by the beautiful, intelligent and reserved school teacher fighting for development and the wild and lively girl following tradition. Both sides pull him, the school teacher is beautiful and alluring but a bit cold, she is difficult to work with. The traditional girl is wild and free, a challenge to understand, but welcoming. The girls reflect the decision of the village, but the history shows that the traditional is fluid, only traditional at the now. By jumping back into history the story examines how the town was shaped and how what seems to be the usual way of things is really a fairly recent creation. Though the traditional way is easier, I feel Zakes Mda is hinting that development is the better road. It’s not perfect, but he presents an image where the future can quickly become the traditional. The traditionalists are set in their ways, but their ways are only a few generations old. The change they are looking at has its problems, and the traditionalists fear the completely new. Only by delving into the troubles posing both sides of the issue, can any real solution be found.

The book is interesting, and presents the issue simply. At first it seems that “redness” is a negative, counter to development, but the more that Camagu gets involved the more he sees that “redness” is beauty. Those fighting for development see it as ignorance, and those embracing “redness” see it as their heritage. Camagu is an outsider and from his perspective he can see things more clearly. Development neglects the locals, but “redness” and tradition are stagnant. The society needs to move forward, but with the unity that “redness” brings, with traditional values and culture. This seems to be the issue that Zakes Mda was trying to drive home.

The arguments presented in the book are not new or unique, but the are presented incredibly well. The history examined bit by bit is fascinating and the present day development lacks the same intrigue. The stories parallel each other and show that these issues often come up again and again when change is on the table. Overall I think it is an interesting glimpse at some of the issues in smaller South African towns. The title is a play on the Heart Of Darkness, where the darkness is an evil or darkness inside of all of us, here it is “redness” a history and tradition that shouldn’t be feared but embraced, a history and tradition that shouldn’t be forgotten but carried proudly into the modern world. It was interesting, and worth a read, but never quite reaches the heights I was hoping for. I’d give The Heart Of Redness three out of five stars.

35 Novels from 35 Countries

  1. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (England)
  2. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (Denmark)
  3. The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)
  4. The Stranger by Albert Camus (France)
  5. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Chile)
  6. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
  7. The Heart Of Redness by Zakes Mda (South Africa)
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