Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying serves as a guide for living in a violent new South Africa. Moving between past and present, and traveling across a fictional village, shantytown, and city, the novel is infused with all of the magic and stunning imagery of a fable. It details the divergent paths of three villagers lives after moving to the city in their adulthood and finding various levels of success.
The protagonist, Toloki, ekes out an impoverished, monk-like existence in the absurd occupation of professional mourner. He is contrasted with his childhood acquaintance, Nefolovhodwe, who lives the unimaginably wealthy life of a casket maker. Noria, the pride of the old village, and the bane of Tolokis young existence, has, since childhood, earned money and favors from the prostitution of the otherworldly purity of her voice. Mda creates an hilarious mixture of the sacred and the profane in this novel, and in so doing, his layered text critiques the recently acquired indifference that allows for political and economic profit on the pain, suffering, and deaths of others.
To balance out of the morbidity of Toloki's daily existence, Noria, the novels catalyst, acts as a redemptive goddess. Hoarse with grief over her murdered son, she now serves as a mother figure (thus, recasting the familiar Madonna/whore archetype) to the orphaned children of her adopted shantytown. In the re-acquaintance of the two childhood rivals, Noria recuperates the voice that used to mesmerize crowds when she was young and finds a way to breathe life into Toloki's self-appointed mission to serve his community. The unlikely pairing of the two emphasizes both Toloki's comically unappealing disregard for propriety or hygiene and Norias extreme compassion, quest for beauty, and near saintliness for striving to understand his novel's approach to life.
Together, the two village mates forge a new art form with and for the younger generation, affirming and inspiring them with a rare, non-violent spectacle. "Ways of Dying" presents an alternative value system by combining art and political activism, rescuing beauty from commodification and rediscovering it in the kaleidoscope of everyday existence. In this novel, art is ephemeral, requiring the collaborative efforts of adults and children. It is produced, not by one person, but in the convergence of the artisan, his muse, and the audience - the play-starved children of the shantytown. Mr. Mda's efforts result in a rare novel of fantastic proportions that, nevertheless, makes a bold political statement. After describing a profound disillusionment with personality-driven political movements, Mda's characters find beauty and meaning in smaller, selfless, community based actions.The Picador edition of this novel, published in August 2002, is a much-awaited reprint of the original 1995 Oxford University Press publication.