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The History of Man

by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

Those of you who, like myself, adored Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s award winning The Theory of Flight will be pleased to know that there’s more where that came from.  The author is planning a series of books – not sequels but companion volumes which will orbit around The Theory of Flight, picking up various characters and expanding on their stories.  I love this concept!  (Remember the Shadow of the Wind?)  The History of Man is the first of these.  It’s a completely different book – much more grounded, no magic realism which is completely in keeping with the character of Emil Coetzee.

In an interview with Kate Sidley in last week’s SA Sunday Times, Ndlovu says that Emil, who is a minor character in The Theory of Flight, had been in her mind for more than a decade when she started to write this book. “He is a civil servant who toed the line, didn’t ask questions, had power and abused it, a bit of a womaniser- actually, all the stereotypes you would dump onto this person. I thought I would have some fun taking down this white colonial male, and say a lot of things about power and privilege. But when I started writing him, and seeing how he got to be who he was, he became a fully dimensional, more complicated, character.”  (Do read the full Sunday Times review here: https://bit.ly/3pMzSJz)

Emil Coetzee is the Head of the Organisation of Domestic Affairs – a position he created for himself – which records the life of every African from the moment of their birth to the moment of their death. This way there would be no fear of leaving ancestors behind.  Africans would have more than a past, they would have a history.  We meet him washing blood off his hands.  How did his “great plan” come to this?  

Playing with the theme of history, Ndlovu tells the story of Emil’s life from his birth in Durban, his days at a privileged boarding school with the motto ‘It is here that boys become the men of history’, his womanising, his drifting uncertainty,  his falling in love with his best friend’s wife, his marriage to socialite Kuki Sedgwick, his unsatisfactory relationship with his son to the conception of his idea for the Organisation of Domestic Affairs. 

I would recommend reading The Theory of Flight first as I am a bit of a stickler for doing things in the right order but The History of Man definitely stands on its own – as the blurb says – as a powerful tale of human fallibility – told with empathy, generosity and a light touch – an excursion into the interiority of the coloniser.

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