The only way to judge Keletso Mopai’s collection of short stories, If You Keep Digging, is to open the book’s purple covers. You’ll be greeted with Madness, the first story in the collection. As far as first lines go – “He looks different in the coffin” – is short and memorable.
We are introduced to the narrator, Dikeledi, as talks about his dead brother, Lucky, who for one reason or another, becomes mentally challenged, and subsequently dies. As far as mental challenges go, these are not the only mentally unstable people in the family. There is Ausi Thembi and Dishembe.
There’s a soft touch to Mopai’s descriptions, that her writing in Madness will force a smile or two on your face.
“Thanks to his madness, Lucky was famous. Everyone in our township knew about the madman who roamed the streets showing people his penis,” Dikeledi tells us.
On first read, this a fun statement – something to laugh at, maybe; but after one or more reads, Dikeledi’s statement is a bitter and cutting remark on how the society reacts to behaviour outside the norms.
The themes are madness and death. But, there’s some other kind of madness and death going on in the story. More painful, if you will. While the story Dikeledi talking about her dead brother, it’s also about Dikeledi, her mother and nosy neighbours. It’s almost like two stories in one.
When she is sexually assaulted, nobody believes her.
There are a lot of characters in the story. And as Dikeledi’s mind wanders all over place, the feeling is akin to reading a long novel. Compressing so much history is an impressive task.
Death and funerals are mundane subjects. But does Mopai’s handling of the subjects add more to our knowledge on the subjects?
The main events take place at the funeral. It’s what Dikeledi sees, it’s what she remembers. Some of the narration is real time. There’s a sense of helplessness. Nobody believes her. To add to her frustration, her rapist shows up at the funeral.
The mention of a Peugeot 306 locates the story occurring sometime between 1993 and 2002 (the time until that model was discontinued).
Dikeledi is a passive character. She’s an antihero. Nothing much happens in the story. And we don’t know who she’s telling the story and why?
You can’t have ordinary people doing ordinary things. Maybe extraordinary people doing ordinary people.