The Madonna of Excelsior is based on an
astounding apartheid miscegenation scandal which led to
disgrace, scandal and suicide. The setting is Excelsior, a rural
Free-State town dominated by so-called upstanding Boer citizens and
their church life. However, Mda reveals the town's secret - the
'eminent' white men spend their evenings indulging in partner-swapping,
alcohol-fuelled sex with their black 'maids'. When the women become
pregnant the scandal explodes, several of the men attempt suicide
and the government is faced with an embarrassing contravention of
the 'immorality act'.
Mda's narrative is centred around Niki, one of the
women who becomes pregnant after her revenge-fuelled affair
with a white townsman (she is humiliated by the man's wife), and
her mixed-race daughter Popi, who finds as she grows up that she's 'not
white enough for the white people, nor black enough for the African
people'. Mda became fascinated with the story on one of his trips
around South Africa, and was intrigued as to how the children of
the 'scandal' had managed to reconcile their pasts.
The novel is at times almost too painful to read,
although Mda handles issues such as rape, abuse and alienation with
skill and compassion. Although he has been criticised for his
'commentary' on certain political and social issues (such as his
polemic against the creators of an abrasive 'skin-whitening' cream
used by many of the novel's characters), it is a compelling novel that
exposes the absurdity of apartheid and the dignity and strength of
those who lived through it intact.
The title alludes to the real-life art works of Father Frans
Claerhout, an artist who painted the women of Excelsior, and who
inspired the author.
The background is the notorious 1971 case in which nineteen citizens of Excelsior in the Free State were charged with breaking apartheid's Immorality Act, which forbade sex between black and white. In an extraordinary alchemy of words into art, Mda tells the story of a family at the heart of the scandal ? of Niki, the fallen madonna, Popi, her daughter by an eminent white citizen of the town, and Viliki, the betrayed son, and of how they come to terms with the repercussions and find resolution in surprising ways.
By turns earthy, witty and tragic, this energetic novel deftly handles issues of racial identity, rape and revenge. It is also a brilliantly observed study of the inner workings of small-town South Africa, and the changes rural communities have undergone.
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