I read both of Smith's first two novels (including #1 Mixed Blood
) in one fell swoop, part of a larger project I'm fiddling around, trying to see if/how it might develop. (If you're interested...I'm interested in the explosion of South African crime fiction since '94... what, how, why, who. Other than having an assumption that pop culture embodies and enacts a complex and intriguing approach to social issues, cultural values and beliefs, and the knotted tangle of who "we" are -- I haven't any predetermined theses. And I'm a fan of crime fiction.) But I'm not going to spend a ton of time boring you with a tedious "real-time" performance of how the project evolves. Instead, a quick "review" there
and here a couple of open issues that Smith's two novels provoked me to consider.
1. The Brazilian film City of God
set up some passionate debates between some friends and me. I kind of loved the film, found its stylish crime thriller a great vehicle for mass-marketing a critique of economic inequalities and persistent social injustice. They, like a sharp critic named Joao Marcelo Melo, saw a triumph of "aesthetics" occluding any ethical vision whatsoever. Or, ye olde pop culture debate, useful for thinking about crime fictions in South Africa: to what degree do the pleasures of consumption (or the pleasures in these novels explicitly crafted with an eye toward many slick readerly pleasures) diminish or outright dismiss any political or social impact and influence? Smith's books use familiar crime tropes, mapped over a heightened bleak vision of crime on the Cape Flats that is the subject of countless cultural anxieties. Clearly this is fiction in an "exploitative" vein--and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing; I think the films and novels of "sleaze" do many, many, many intriguing things to disrupt (say) masculinity even as they seem to reinforce it. Or, here, that Smith plays with sensationalized depictions of rampant crime that echo and exaggerate the mainstream discourse. (Rapists, pedophiles, serial killers, endemic drug usage... that's just "how the Cape Flats is"....) Does this stuff simply feed the beast, reinforce the stigmatized stereotype of a viciously self-destructive poor community?
2. That problem becomes even more consuming when you think about who's doing the consuming. Who's the audience, who's reading? Blaxploitation flicks may have been made and marketed by predominantly-white production companies, but they were seen and used by different sorts of audiences--who saw and interpreted differently, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes blasting away at mainstream assumptions about poverty and crime and race. In the new South Africa, where the wealthy are--as Smith carefully and repeatedly points out--at a very comfortable distance from the everyday impact of poverty and thus able to wring their hands while lying in their villas... in this new South Africa, who's reading this new wave of crime fictions?
And beyond? Melo was frustrated by how City of God
was marketed to northern audiences, who knew nothing about the complexities of the film's representations of local reality. I was startled by a few posts and reviews on Smith's novels, readers and critics saying they loved the novels, and knew better than to ever to go to South Africa now. The crime novel has a patina of "authenticity" which can be used to exploit cultural fears and assumptions... and when you read a writer from a particular country translating rands to dollars, or carefully explaining details of past history, or referencing bits of "local color" ...(one cop always eating a local delicacy called the Gatsby -- I mean, always. Again, and again, and again, and... OKAY. I get it. He lives on the Cape.) Well, it can seem like a ready-made export. And what does that mean or suggest? Why is this vision being sold, to whom, and what do they get from it?
I ask these questions not to "get" Smith. I think he's playing in that system but also challenging it. I think ALL pop culture does it, and Smith's work has a lot going on. But I did find myself occasionally startled by the endless translations, the sense that he knew I and other dull Americans might be reading it, and he was pitching to us. (And sometimes this happens when a novel travels; Peter Temple's thick Australian slang gets a glossary in some American versions. But it appears--and I haven't looked too much--like Smith's first novel got published in the States first, before RSA publication. So....)
3. Explanations for why things come to pass, why this crime or viciousness and bad behavior is so pervasive, are intriguing -- Smith repeatedly has characters explicitly musing that "it's Africa," or coincidence, or destiny, or in the blood, or a by-product of childhood trauma/training... All of these explanations seem to sidestep the particular political, social, and economic histories of the country. Seem is the operative word, though--I think there are many sharp, subtle reminders that other explanations don't explain enough: Smith is not writing a social tract, but his crime fiction isn't just repressing the social in heightened depictions of Villainy and cultural Otherness. I can't imagine a reader not recognizing that the crimes and conflicts exceed the various characters' explanations; the books' unsolved mysteries invite, I think, a readerly engagement with social ills that goes beyond simplistic stereotypes.
These are the sorts of things aroused by Smith's stuff that I want to keep exploring, batting around.