Zoo City music

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.

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12 thoughts on “Zoo City music

  1. South African crime fiction.
    Simply not needed if you investigate the upper echelons of the ANC. Unimagined and unexplained wealth. And it explains their unenviable position on the gini coefficient table

    • Yes, truth can be scarier than fiction, that’s for sure 😦 I’ve finished the book now & corruption is definitely one of the themes, although not at a political level, more about wealth and celebrity power. I had to look up gini coefficient. The wealth ratio in SA is appalling, although sadly I think that’s the trend globally now as well.

  2. For example, Cyril Ramaphosa – ANC senior leader plus labour leader – is worth $675m today and counting.

    “During the Marikana Commission, it also emerged that Lonmin management solicited Lonmin shareholder and ANC heavyweight, Cyril Ramaphosa, to coordinate “concomitant action” against “criminal” protesters and is seen by many as therefore being responsible for the massacre.” Wicki

    But one example of ANC corruption and pure greed.

    Furthermore, Joseph Xuma is a scumbag of the first order. His wicki entry is a narrative of graft and sexual exploitation/rape. With leadership like him, it is little surprise that South Africa has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world.

    And people used to whinge about Ghadaffi.

    And lest any reader get the idea that I have some whitebread agenda here, I’ve been writing very positively about Mali andn other Sahelain states for ages.

    • It’s pretty sad after such a strong start after apartheid. I was surprised at the election of Zuma after the rape trial, very disturbing.

  3. This sounds like a very entertaining book about the search for identity. Zoo City, that is quite a title and I never would have guessed the characters are a walking metaphor for a zoo. Amazing that a soundtrack has been put together for the novel – it might bet people reading about the hardships in South Africa.

    I wonder why the animal sloth was chosen to sit on Zinzi’s shoulder. Sloths can be cute (at least some people think so) but they are known to be slow too. Maybe the sloth is symbolic of the rate of growth of the locals and the nation itself, in terms of identity.

    • Yes, it is very entertaining and a great title. I don’t know why the sloth was chosen – perhaps to slow Zinzi down, as she charges around impetuously, at great speed. It’s quite a sweet character, although mostly very much in the background.

      And I agree, listening to a soundtrack beats reading about hardship any day, It’s why I blog so much about African music, as a reminder of the humanity, resourcefulness and resilience of people that many non-Africans look down on or see as only victims.

      • Interesting suggestion that the sloth might be there to slow the protagonist down. In a way, the sloth sounds like her sidekick, the good voice in her head.

        I often wish books came with soundtracks. Although I like reading in silence, I do prefer listening to music while at it. I’m not a heavy African music listener, but from what I’ve heard African singers tend to sing with so much emotion and hope. Very raw emotions, and not surprising since so many of them have lived through devastating times.

      • Yes, the sloth is a bit like that – the good voice, or perhaps the ‘err on the side of caution’ voice. poor hing, not always heeded; although I guess the message is, sometimes you have to take risks

        I actually prefer to read in silence, otherwise I find the music too distracting – not so good at multitasking, but I do think the idea of releasing a soundtrack to go with a novel is a very cool indeed.

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