REVIEW: ZULU CRUSH
REVIEWER: DAISY BIRCH (DURBAN LIVEWIRES)
Zulu Crush is a charming and thoughtful novel. It is unusual to read a story of love and loss from the perspective of a male character, and this novel presents us with just that. The novel opens with the narrator dropping off his partner, Zandile, at Schiphol airport, as she and her son return to South Africa.
He then backtracks to where they first met, how they became a couple, and how this partnership begins to unravel. The narrative moves from the gritty streets of Johannesburg to the cosy interior of an apartment in Rotterdam. It shifts back and forth as the protagonists themselves travel between dusty South African townships and the efficient offices of the European bureaucracy.
This constant movement reflects the sensibilities of the novel. Although both characters are firmly rooted in the cultures from which they come, they are constantly negotiating the ‘other’. All relationships involve some sort of blending and moulding, as two personalities with two separate histories come together and try to understand each other. In Zulu Crush, you times that by two, as this couple have to negotiate not only each other’s personal histories, but also their cultural and continental differences, as they work out how they fit in and how they stand out.
The novel works at different levels. On the surface it is another sad love-song: you can read the story at this level, and enjoy it for what it is. But the narrator raises it beyond this genre. The main character is constantly aware of the clichés and the stereotypes of cross-cultural relationships, and of what people think from both sides of the fence, or in this case, both sides of the equator.
The organic chaos of life in the third world meets the organised European approach, and these two worlds collide in a relationship that cynics would say was doomed from the start. Rational, controlling, and kind, the narrator is Europe, and his love is the naïve, yet somehow knowing, and still unknown, Africa. The novel raises all sorts of questions regarding the relationship between the first and third worlds; who gives and who takes, who wins and who loses, who colonises and who is the conquest. The same questions can be asked about love. I’m not sure that Zulu Crush answers all of the questions it raises, but that is not the point. As the reader, we clearly see who has lost in love, and we sympathise.
The novel takes these philosophical questions and wraps them up in a delightful bundle of humour, and a quirky turn of phrase. Reading it in English, it is clear that the narrator is non-English speaking, and this adds to his charm, as he sometimes clumsily negotiates his way through the story. His fondness for his sea-fearing grandfather, dressing up and creating imaginary worlds in the attic, his cantankerous apple-growing father and his dead poetess mother add to the allure. The descriptions of the theatre work that the narrator loves opens a door into the behind-the-scenes work of a theatre genius with great artistic vision. This backstage pass is inspiring for readers interested in theatre.
It is in this way that the novel cleverly appeals to a wide audience of lovers, artists, travellers and thinkers; to those who are intrigued by the goings on after midnight in a cemetery in South Africa, and also to those who are happy to sit on their comfortable Dutch couch. Read it as a love-story if you must, but it has so many more possibilities.