Although last week I issued an Indigenous Reading Challenge, I confess to not having started it yet, because newly purchased titles for Kinna’s African Reading Challenge are beckoning me from my bookshelf. I started South African Lauren Beukes’ urban fantasy Zoo City on the weekend and am hurtling through it.
Zoo City is a missing person story with a difference. Well, lots of differences. The missing person is a teenaged Kwaito/Afropop star, whose troubled rags to riches story reminds me of that of Brenda Fassie.
This is a classic that I remember dancing to at nightclubs in the 1990s.
Kwaito is a South African reinvention of House music. It’s been described as the music of the post-apartheid generation, that tends to be apolitical, but also sometimes pushes at the boundaries of what’s acceptable to the older generation.
That video was very slick and clean compared to the Zoo City of the book’s title — a rundown squatter township of criminals. These people are called ‘zoos’ because their guilt has literally come home to roost on their shoulders as birds and animals, which they cannot get rid of without dying themselves. On the upside, these creatures also come with magical gifts.
Zinzi, the main character, carries around a sloth, and has acquired the ability to find lost things (and people). Sloth is Zinzi’s permanent companion, burden and conscience, and seems to be trying (unsuccessfully so far) to steer her clear of more wrong-doings. But as the book makes clear, when you’re already visually condemned as an outcast, it’s difficult to stick to the straight and narrow.
Around 200 pages in, I’m enjoying Zoo City. I like the way it switches from Zinzi’s first person perspectives to online reviews, magazine articles, news items, and emails that fill out the back-story of how the ‘animalling’ came about and why Zinzi is now under the … protection? … surveillance? … of a sloth. One of these extracts even references Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, in which peoples’ souls manifest as animals. It’s a cool bow in the direction of one source of Beukes’ inspiration.
I think the other sources must include crime fiction, the challenges of life in post-apartheid South Africa, and new African music itself (witness the echoes of Brenda Fassie’s music, struggles with addiction, and ventures into fraud). I was pleased to find that Beukes and and the African Dope record label have put together a soundtrack for the novel. This is the first song.
You can listen to the rest here.
I’m also enjoying the hard and fast style of Zoo City, the inclusion of a diverse range of characters that reflect South Africa’s multiculturalism, and the adventures of feisty, inventive, imperfect Zinzi. Here’s a sample.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I still have a few pages left to read.