The Book of the Dead
by Kgebetli Moele
Kgebetli Moele is a South African novelist who has won several prizes. Not surprising, given his passionate prose. In this new novel, he’s clearly angry about the HIV pandemic so predominant in his country. Unfortunately he’s written a strange work: artful but so angry as to exclude the characters from compassion and the reader from full engagement.
The first, quite readable part of the work traces the trajectories of Khutso and Pretty, who rise from poverty to affluence as lawyers in post-apartheid South Africa. They’re raising their young son when Pretty learns that she is HIV-positive. Shortly after, Khutso also tests positive.
As we approach the second part of the book, things get creepy, switching to first-person narration by HIV itself. Through Khutso, HIV sets about to infect as many people as possible, inscribing their names and deaths in the “Book of the Dead,” a blank book “leather-covered like a Bible, with the same quality paper as a Bible.” Then comes a litany of female conquests—all depicted without empathy. Since HIV is the voice here, that may be the point, but it’s relentless and nasty. If I hadn’t been reviewing this, I would have put the book down. Moele does include more interesting commentary on grotesque attempts to deal with HIV through traditional healing methods and on the mores and materialism of newly affluent South Africans. Toward the end of the work a character says “…there is no Aids [sic] only people, and that is the worst thing about Aids.” In this book, people are the problem. Moele ends the work with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Aids is no longer just a disease, it is a human rights issue.” Indeed. I wish Moele had brought more of the human into his work. Perhaps he will in the future.
Nancy Ellegate is a sometime book reviewer for A&U.