South African literature has a line of apocalyptic fiction that stretches from Eugène Marais’ “Ondergang van die Tweede Wêreld” to recent novels of Lauren Beukes and others. Like the best of these works Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum extends the limits of fiction not simply for spectacular effect, but to explore the human condition philosophically, and to cast an eye on humanity’s home, the earth, from his particular South African viewpoint. I was reminded, in reading Triangulum, of the French astronomer Flammarion’s end-time story La Fin du Monde of 1894.
Like many end-time stories Masande Ntshanga’s is told in a series of found documents. In 2040 the memoir of an anonymous woman and a set of digital recordings come into the hands of the South African National Space Agency. The documents claim that the world will come to an end in 10 years and Dr Naomi Buthelezi, a retired academic and science-fiction writer, is asked to report on the reliability on the documents, and especially on the claims to have been in touch with “a force more powerful than humankind”.
Triangulum begins with Dr Buthelezi’s “Foreword”. The story proper takes us into the complex life of a South African girl, approaching adulthood in the early years of the post-apartheid state. Her father is a university-educated functionary of the Ciskei and her mother a self-taught polymath.
In a traumatic beginning three girls go missing on the mother’s birthday and soon after the mother disappears. When the heroine’s mine-damaged father cannot survive the loss of his wife and dies a few years after her, their daughter lives with an aunt. The girl has inherited her mother’s intellectual and psychic gifts and, convinced that her mother’s disappearance is linked to that of three girls, she and two friends set about investigating the mystery. The novel closes on the ambiguous but harmonious conclusion to this search, but in between we are taken through the narrator’s adult life, from 2025 onward.
Her work as a science-writer and employee of an anonymous corporation gives her access to an understanding of the complex and sinister processes by which development capital hi-jacks the forces of civil society to recruit (or enforce) labour and to generate profit. She is sought out by and helps a group of eco-terrorists known as The Returners, and in one of the group’s actions, a raid on a deceitfully pollutant paper plant, the woman she loves loses her life. By adoption she achieves motherhood, and in retirement she learns that she has inherited from her mother a great deal more than mathematical genius.
This is a philosophical novel, facing important questions, but the fiction is not here in the service of the philosophy: the philosophy is in the service of the fiction. Triangulum is a learned, dextrous, extremely skillful story, but it never loses its humane and human touch, nor its sense of irony. Ntshanga’s sympathetic understanding of his characters goes along with an acute sense of where South African history is now, and its involvement in global forces of transition. The title connects with a delicate chain of symbolism which runs through the novel: planetary, global, national, local, familial.
This novel deserves a wide readership.