Phila, one of the two central characters of Mputhumi Ntabeni’s exceptional novel The Broken River Tent, is a 40-year-old, disaffected South African. Trained as an architect in Germany, where he spent nine years, he is back in the Eastern Cape, having been through a professional disappointment, and, it seems, alienated from all those with whom he should be most involved. His family, friends and lovers, indeed, sense that Phila is suffering a mental illness.
Early in the story Phila is travelling on a bus in Port Elizabeth when there appears on the seat beside him the second central character in the story, “a stocky muscular, prune-faced old man with a cadaverous visage, wearing traditional Xhosa clothes and a leopardskin blanket thrown over them”. He speaks old-fashioned Xhosa and tells Phila that he is come “to tell you about my life. To learn you the truth.”
This is Maqoma (1798-1873) the most eminent of the 19th century Xhosa leaders, who did what he could to settle peacefully with the colonisers but eventually fought in five of the nine wars of dispossession, achieving his greatest success in the Waterberg in the war of Mlanjeni of 1850-1853. He seems also to have tried to resist the Cattle-Killing of 1856-7. He spent 12 years on Robben Island, was paroled in 1869 but re-imprisoned there when he tried to re-settle and died under mysterious conditions in 1873.
The complex plot of this rich, learned and sympathetic novel becomes the journey of Phila and Maqoma through first the Eastern Cape, its history and geography, then through South Africa, to a complex dénouement on Robben Island. It offers an account of our past from a Xhosa point of view, enabling us to come to terms with and see beyond a present still haunted by its violent and duplicitous history.
Mputhumi Ntabeni has claimed, too modestly, not to be a writer in terms of a career, but his long years of work on The Broken River Tent have produced something beautiful. It is important that, despite the fact that it should send us back to the historical sources with new interest, this is a novel, not a tract: the characterisation, attention to descriptive detail, and sense of place and voice are exquisite. The sympathy is generated partly by the wide range of reference. Phila is highly educated, sophisticated (when we first meet him he is reading Boethius): Maqoma speaks from beyond the grave and thus has personal experience of many of the great minds whom Phila knows only through their books. That the two “meet” as they do is a realistic reflection of Phila’s disturbed state of mind.
Maqoma and Phila have distinct historical preferences and seem to share their creator’s sympathy for the Presbyterian missionaries (and their Scottish archives). Between them the two characters achieve a personalised revisionist history which counters the sometimes demeaning narrative of the Xhosa past.
Maqoma is this a figure of great sympathy and wisdom whose guidance of Phila generates the personal plot of the novel as it leads the young man out of his impasse and brings him to a kind of peace, in which he can enter history independently, and enlisting him under his full name in a roll-call of freedom-fighters that begins with Maqoma himself.
Mputhumi Ntabeni, The Broken River Tent: A Novel, Auckland Park: Blackbird Books, 2018