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Tsotsi: A Novel (1980) - Athol Fugard


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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 08:53 AM

Alright, Tsotsi it is. Here's the Amazon link again. Athol Fugard looks like an interesting fellow. I'll start on it within the week.

Edited by Persiflage, 01 July 2011 - 11:52 PM.


#2 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 09:35 AM

Link to our thread on the film.

#3 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 19 May 2011 - 05:46 PM

My copy just arrived in the mail. I'll start reading it tonight.

#4 David Smedberg

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Posted 31 May 2011 - 03:21 PM

I'm re-reading this now (I had already read it in 2005) and I'll be posting my thoughts this weekend. Anybody else got in in progress?

#5 Christian

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Posted 31 May 2011 - 04:54 PM

No progress to report at this time, although I have the book and am hoping I'll start it this week. Don't hold back your post on my account, though. I take a long time to read a book.

#6 Christian

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 07:54 PM

I'm 60 pages in. Good pick, David!

So, first thing I learned: Ahtol Fugard wrote Harold and the Boys, which I remember seeing performed in college. The story was a decent drama, but I was amazed at the time that it was, if memory serves, one act. That floored me. I couldn't fathom how the actors remembered all their lines without once getting a break. Not that most actors check their lines during their time off-stage -- I have no idea; never been in a play. But I remember thinking there was a LOT of dialogue, and that the actors pulled it off flawlessly.

#7 David Smedberg

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Posted 03 June 2011 - 11:53 AM

Never have seen that play (or any of his others). I looked it up, though, and it turns out that a movie adaptation, starring Ving Rhames among others, is going to be released on DVD in the US in July. The website is here--looks interesting!

Edited by David Smedberg, 03 June 2011 - 11:53 AM.


#8 Christian

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Posted 03 June 2011 - 06:50 PM

Halfway through now. Today's insight: The author spells "surprise" as "surprize." I don't recall ever seeing that, although Merriam Webster's lists "surprize" as an alternate spelling of "surprise." No other dictionaries do, though.

#9 David Smedberg

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Posted 07 June 2011 - 09:20 PM

I originally planned to write a whole post last weekend. Now, you get a half post on Tuesday. Well, I guess this is life. :P

I was surprised, reading this book for the third time, to see how spare and unsentimental Fugard's prose is. To be sure, it has the occasional flourish of simile or description, but I had not recalled it being this dispassionate. When Fugard describes emotions, he does so primarily to help us understand them--rather than trying to force us to feel them ourselves--at least, that's my opinion.

I think I misremembered this because the story itself is quite melodramatic, in at least two senses. The first sense is that the story is built of stark contrast between good and evil. The actions of Tsotsi's gang that open the book literally add insult to injury, in a way that can't be justified by material poverty. They truly are evil, and 2 of the 4 aren't even slightly aware of it. The second sense that this book is a melodrama is that how the characters feel, and even their ability to feel at all, is at center stage. The difference between the 2 gang members who can see the evil of their handiwork, and the 2 that cannot, is that 2 of them had mothers that loved them. Thus, even though the style of Fugard's writing may be spare, his chosen story is teeming with sentiment.

For me, this incongruity creates a rich experience. After all, love--which is the most powerful feeling one could ever hope to feel--is far more than just a feeling, it is a choice, and it is also a fundamental basis of reality! Thus, the mystery of being human, which I think Fugard has captured remarkably. Think of what the beggar, Morris Tshabalala, says:

"Rain. Falling Down. And wind blowing, and trees growing, and the colour of things, and the streets where I have heard birds sing. Do you understand now? I want to live. Do you understand?"

He's invoking the experience of beauty, the feeling of awe, to explain his desire to live--and what is it that has made him realize he wants to live? Another feeling: Fear. He hadn't expected to fear death, but he did, and it taught him something deep about himself. Tsotsi, meanwhile, can't understand what Morris is getting at, but it's enough that he feels with him.

I'd just read a very different book before I read this, and it reminded me of something from that. Let me share that connection that I made, and see what you think. The Book is Alexandre Kojeve: Wisdom at the End of History.

Kojeve was a post-modern philosopher and politician. It was the philosophy that really grabbed me. The author, James Nichols, has a gift for pulling out the key points.

Kojeve's argument sets forth from the observation that human beings are distinguished from other animals by being conscious of themselves, of their human reality and dignity. ... Kojeve critiques [the classical definition of man as rational animal] for not adequately describing and explaining the human being. ... The self, in fact, is most deeply constituted by the character of its desire (my emphasis)... Distinctively human desire is the desire not of some natural good things but of desire itself; that is, it is the desire to put oneself in the place of the object of the other's desire, to be oneself the object of desire, or to be recognized as an autonomous value or as having intrinsic dignity (page 24).

Now, one may or may not agree with this--from a Christian POV, it would certainly need some refining. But it has a certain similarity to Tsotsi's reflection on what makes him spare Morris:

The truth of the matter was not his [Tsotsi's] feelings, but the other man's. It was Morris Tshabalala's fear, his desperation, the agony of his futile effort to escape, his gladness when the inevitable had been deferred for a little while longer.

The suggestion that having read both of these books close together gave me was this: Our feelings, which are part of our animal reality, can be ennobled when they are recognized and shared with others. Tsotsi is providing the man Morris with the proof that he is a man; Morris had claimed to be a man many times, but now, by having his perfectly ordinary feelings and emotions recognized by another person, he can really recognize his own humanity. Note, as I said before, the gift he gives back to the Tsotsi, is an overtly sentimental reminiscence of love's apogy:

"Mothers love their children. I know. I remember. They sing us songs when we are small. I'm telling you, tsotsi. Mothers love their children."

A note on the politics of the story: as I mentioned, the interplay between material poverty and moral poverty is inescapable here. Tsotsi's journey to becoming a killer isn't shown in depth; instead, we see him as an innocent child picking up wastepaper to stay warm, and then we skip several years, and we meet him again as a heartless thug. It couldn't be clearer: The social injustice of South African society made him what he is. If I thought that this political message was the most important theme of the book, I wouldn't have nominated it. I think instead that the book is affirming that even such a man has a way home--and then showing, in at least an imperfect way, what home will mean.

I have more to say, about the ending as it is and the hints we have about the ending as it was before it was edited. Maybe next week? I make no promises. Hope all are enjoying the book.

Edited by David Smedberg, 07 June 2011 - 09:24 PM.


#10 Christian

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Posted 15 June 2011 - 12:08 PM

Good thoughts above, David. I've read only about 25 pages since I hit the halfway point nearly two weeks ago. Work has been crazy. I do plan to read a bit more tonight (another Metro ride, although a short one). It looks like it's just me and you, so I'll try to man up and finish!

#11 David Smedberg

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Posted 15 June 2011 - 09:06 PM

It looks like it's just me and you...

If anyone else has tried the book and given up, please feel free to tell us about why. As the nominator this time around, I'm also interested to hear if people weren't as rewarded as I was/am...

...so I'll try to man up and finish!

No problem... we have been doing 2-month cycles, but it may end up being most feasible to try 3-month! Whatever seems most likely to keep this fragile thing we call a book club alive.

#12 Nathan Douglas

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Posted 19 June 2011 - 05:41 AM

It looks like it's just me and you...

If anyone else has tried the book and given up, please feel free to tell us about why. As the nominator this time around, I'm also interested to hear if people weren't as rewarded as I was/am...

...so I'll try to man up and finish!

No problem... we have been doing 2-month cycles, but it may end up being most feasible to try 3-month! Whatever seems most likely to keep this fragile thing we call a book club alive.


I wasn't planning to take part this time, but I happened to find a used copy a couple weeks ago for dirt cheap and bought it. I'm about four chapters in and I've found it to be fairly brisk so far, but I'm only reading it on the morning commute at the moment, so it might be a few weeks before I'm done. It's my first Fugard, and I think at this point I'm most impressed by the nonstop edginess of Tsotsi -- I get tense just thinking about him musing to himself on the street about his past, let alone doing his business on the trains (which is one of the most blood-chilling passages I've ever read).

I'll try to chime in with some thoughts soon. Thanks for hanging in there, guys.

Edited by N.W. Douglas, 19 June 2011 - 05:41 AM.


#13 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 22 June 2011 - 01:25 PM

With all the things going on right now, I've been neglecting this discussion. My plan is to start writing thoughts here down this weekend. I'm also beginning to construct a book review, that I'll post a link to here when it's finished.

I'm not even opposed to giving our discussion on this another month. (Not that picking a book for July/August won't stop us from picking up speed on this discussion.)

#14 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 27 June 2011 - 03:08 PM

Alright, beginning, I found the novel riveting. I'm beginning a career in criminal defense, and one of the very first things I've struggled with in this work is trying to understand how some people - people locked into cycles of crime, violence, poverty, drug addiction, etc. - think. What goes through your brain to get you to hurt someone else without any apparent motive or purpose? There are good and innocent people caught in the system who walk through my office - and there are hardened criminals who walk through my office. I finally finished the book this weekend, and it's going to provide me with further reflection on these questions I've been struggling with. I think spending time on this and thinking some things through will be able to help me. So I'm actually surprised how relevant our second choice here has seemed to my current situation. It is my job to try and help reach men like Tsotsi, Boston, Aap, and Butcher; or, when it's the right thing to do, help guide their path towards prison. I'm wrestling now with a book review for this.

I was surprised, reading this book for the third time, to see how spare and unsentimental Fugard's prose is. To be sure, it has the occasional flourish of simile or description, but I had not recalled it being this dispassionate. When Fugard describes emotions, he does so primarily to help us understand them--rather than trying to force us to feel them ourselves--at least, that's my opinion.

He is, after all, more of a playwright than a novelist, right?

The first sense is that the story is built of stark contrast between good and evil. The actions of Tsotsi's gang that open the book literally add insult to injury, in a way that can't be justified by material poverty. They truly are evil, and 2 of the 4 aren't even slightly aware of it ...

A note on the politics of the story: as I mentioned, the interplay between material poverty and moral poverty is inescapable here. Tsotsi's journey to becoming a killer isn't shown in depth; instead, we see him as an innocent child picking up wastepaper to stay warm, and then we skip several years, and we meet him again as a heartless thug. It couldn't be clearer: The social injustice of South African society made him what he is. If I thought that this political message was the most important theme of the book, I wouldn't have nominated it. I think instead that the book is affirming that even such a man has a way home--and then showing, in at least an imperfect way, what home will mean.

I'll have to mull over this one now that I've finished it. I don't think there's any question that the characters are making moral choices. To say that one's environment made you into the person that you are is to say that you didn't have a choice. Social injustice hurts and destroys - but it doesn't stop someone like Tsotsi from making his own decisions. If such a man has a way home, he can choose to go there. What's even more interesting about this is that the baby doesn't really make Tsotsi feel any different at first - in fact, he surprised by his own choice not to kill it. In other words, he finds he can make choices against what he feels. It's by making the right moral decisions, in spite of his own self, that starts to change him. If everyone is just a product of their environment, then wouldn't their feelings just dictate/predetermine their actions?

For me, this incongruity creates a rich experience. After all, love--which is the most powerful feeling one could ever hope to feel--is far more than just a feeling, it is a choice, and it is also a fundamental basis of reality! Thus, the mystery of being human, which I think Fugard has captured remarkably. Think of what the beggar, Morris Tshabalala, says:

"Rain. Falling Down. And wind blowing, and trees growing, and the colour of things, and the streets where I have heard birds sing. Do you understand now? I want to live. Do you understand?"

He's invoking the experience of beauty, the feeling of awe, to explain his desire to live--and what is it that has made him realize he wants to live? Another feeling: Fear. He hadn't expected to fear death, but he did, and it taught him something deep about himself. Tsotsi, meanwhile, can't understand what Morris is getting at, but it's enough that he feels with him.

I happen to be reading Greg Wolfe's "Beauty Will Save the World" right now as well. I'll have to go back and find it, but I seem to remember just reading Wolfe making the argument than beauty is tied to goodness and therefore, even if one cannot understand the feelings that beauty will give to you, it's a beginning - a sort of awakening that there's a different path or direction besides pursuing your own little self.

James Nichols, has a gift for pulling out the key points.

Kojeve's argument sets forth from the observation that human beings are distinguished from other animals by being conscious of themselves, of their human reality and dignity. ... Kojeve critiques [the classical definition of man as rational animal] for not adequately describing and explaining the human being. ... The self, in fact, is most deeply constituted by the character of its desire (my emphasis)... Distinctively human desire is the desire not of some natural good things but of desire itself; that is, it is the desire to put oneself in the place of the object of the other's desire, to be oneself the object of desire, or to be recognized as an autonomous value or as having intrinsic dignity (page 24).

Now, one may or may not agree with this--from a Christian POV, it would certainly need some refining. But it has a certain similarity to Tsotsi's reflection on what makes him spare Morris:

The truth of the matter was not his [Tsotsi's] feelings, but the other man's. It was Morris Tshabalala's fear, his desperation, the agony of his futile effort to escape, his gladness when the inevitable had been deferred for a little while longer.

The suggestion that having read both of these books close together gave me was this: Our feelings, which are part of our animal reality, can be ennobled when they are recognized and shared with others. Tsotsi is providing the man Morris with the proof that he is a man; Morris had claimed to be a man many times, but now, by having his perfectly ordinary feelings and emotions recognized by another person, he can really recognize his own humanity. Note, as I said before, the gift he gives back to the Tsotsi, is an overtly sentimental reminiscence of love's apogy:

"Mothers love their children. I know. I remember. They sing us songs when we are small. I'm telling you, tsotsi. Mothers love their children."

"The self, in fact, is most deeply constituted by the character of desire." Hmmm, this reminds me of philosophy class, except I'm pretty sure there are some philosophers who would disagree and say that the self is more deeply constituted by the will - the free ability to make moral choices. I'm not particularly convinced the will or our desires are more important than the other. However, one distinction that can be made is probably to say that we don't choose our desires. All our desires either come from God or from our nature (and this could be our sin nature, the new nature we get in Christ, and perhaps even our evolved nature for the sake of argument). Point being, we have desires that we cannot will away by deciding not to want something anymore. But, again, we can choose to act contrary to our own desires. In the situation you're using, Tsotsi is choosing to act on the desires of another instead of his own. This is a moral development that did not exist in Tsotsi at the beginning of the story.

... we have been doing 2-month cycles, but it may end up being most feasible to try 3-month! Whatever seems most likely to keep this fragile thing we call a book club alive.

I'm cool with this. 4 books a year is even easier to do than 6 books a year. And I absolutely think we should spend more time discussing Tsotsi. So, without objection, I'll just wait to initiate our next book selection until the end of July. In spite of multiple distractions and free time killers, I'm still committed to making this work. No matter what is going on, I'm not going to stop reading and I might as well share some of my reading with you guys to be given the opportunity to talk about it. So, anyone have any objections to keeping Tsotsi our book for discussion for the month of July?

As I progress in writing my book review, I'll have a number of other thoughts to add.