The Madonna of Excelsior A Novel

Zakes Mda




Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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An American Library Association Notable Book

In The Madonna of Excelsior, the new novel by the acclaimed South African writer Zakes Mda, a sex scandal in a small town is transformed into an emblematic story of a country whose racial history can be rendered authoritatively only in art.

In 1971, nineteen citizens of Excelsior, a farming community in South Africa's rural Free State, were charged with breaking apartheid's Immorality Act, which forbade sexual relations between blacks and whites on the pretext of avoiding miscegenation. The women were jailed as they awaited trial and their white counterparts were released on bail. In the end, the state withdrew the charges, but the accused women's lives, already complicated, became harder than ever.

Mda tells the story of a family at the heart of the scandal, revealing a country in which apartheid, even as it sought to keep the races apart, concealed interracial liaisons of every kind. Niki, the fallen Madonna, transgresses boundaries for the sake of love; her choices have profound repercussions in the lives of her black son, Viliki, and her mixed-race daughter, Popi, who come of age in the years after the end of apartheid, when freedom allows them—indeed compels them—to figure out their racial identities for themselves. As the story advances to the present, the mixed society of Excelsior comes to suggest South Africa today, a society far more complex—and more dramatic—than conventional notions of black and white will allow.

In this, his fourth novel—his first since the acclaimed The Heart of Redness—Zakes Mda once more reclaims the troubled history of his country as the terrain of the imaginative writer. Many novels have sought to dramatize the consequences of apartheid; The Madonna of Excelsior is the rare work in which the political issues are only one aspect of a vital and complex human drama.


Praise for The Madonna of Excelsior

"The Madonna of Excelsior is a book of huge emotions, a book with the depth, if not the breadth, of a classic like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Like his other novels, it paints a winning and irresistible picture of Zakes Mda. But here, the voice that emerges suggests not just a writer who can seduce us through beautiful language and unfailing humor. We also encounter a writer who has the power to shock and frighten us, to astound and anger and unsettle us. The Madonna of Excelsior suggests, in short, that his is a voice for which one should feel not only affection but admiration."—Neil Gordon, The New York Times Book Review

"As South Africa's political imperatives have shifted, so too have those of Mda's fiction. No longer fixated on apartheid's horrors and its wished-for end, his work now examines the difficulties of transition: bourgeois decadence and the abandonment of revolutionary principles . . . the many dark shadows of political freedom. The Madonna of Excelsior [is] among the most profound and revealing portraits of life in post-apartheid South Africa. Mda succeeds in creating a South African present of compromise, bitten anger, hypocrisy, and conflicting perspective . . . Perhaps his best work."—Benjamin Austen, Harper's

"Graceful . . . This novel is by turns biting and sympathetic . . . As with his fine earlier novels The Heart of Redness and Ways of Dying, Mda refuses to undermine his nation's problems with cheap melodrama. But he doesn't shortchange the inherent horrors of apartheid, or South Africa's struggles to heal itself. Yet his gift, in addition to being an extraordinary writer, is to infuse the past with meaning, to make urgent the challenges of the present, and to reveal the gentle, often stinging, human comedy in both."—Renee Graham, The Boston Globe

"Mda [is] a canny writer [and] a subtle and evocative writer who can range from lyricism to satire with surprising effect, and never descends to the formulaic . . . By refusing to sentimentalize, by remaining alert to complexity, Mda does justice to the people in his story, and to the actuality it reflects."—Charles Matthews, The Tallahassee Democrat

"A marvelous work . . . In this tale of tortured, striving characters, black, white and in between, Mda envisions and evokes the sort of reconciliation in which outrage and forgiveness curl side by side, which art allows but which history too rarely accepts."—Ben Ehrenreich, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"The Madonna of Excelsior has the captivating symmetry of an alterpiece."—Peter Campion, San Francisco Chronicle

"Black South Africa has found a strong new voice in Zakes Mda, a marvellous storyteller . . . [This] fine new novel [has] all the strengths of The Heart of Redness . . . [This is] a novel exercised mainly by the interaction between people of different colors as they come to terms with their pasts, presents, and futures. Corrupt members of South Africa's new black elite will nonetheless find The Madonna of Excelsior makes uneasy bedside reading. So will their white apologists."—The Economist

"In vibrant prose infused with equal parts satire and social criticism, Mda charts new emotional terrain exploring the Madonna-whore complex in a South African setting. Readers catch their first glimpse of protagonist Niki in the burnt umber brushstrokes of a Boer priest's canvases. Father Claerhout's models hitchhike from surrounding black townships to earn a pittance shedding their clothes for the artist-priest. While his intentions are innocent, those of the Afrikaner farmers Niki and her friends come into contact with are more prurient. Niki spends time in prison after her daughter, Popi, is born with the flowing locks and blue eyes of her Afrikaner father. Based loosely on true apartheid-era events and the notorious 'Immorality Act,' which outlawed miscegenation, the novel mercilessly examines the twisted mores of the times. A severe though often amusing social critic, Mda at turns belittles and exalts the women who bear dozens of 'colored' children by their employers while reserving his harshest characterizations for the Boer men who relentlessly pester African women. And Niki is a sympathetic—though sometimes frustrating—protagonist, who is thrilled by her power over the husbands of the Boer women who humiliate her. Mda's folkloric prose is filled with bitterness. As Niki is forced to submit to a white man's sexual demands, Mda writes, '[He] just lay there like a plastic bag full of decaying tripe on top of her.' Readers follow the lives of Niki, Popi, and Popi's politically active brother, Viliki, for more than 30 years, into the post-apartheid era. While their anger simmers beneath the surface throughout the narrative, Mda's captivating characters ultimately find an uneasy peace in the newly free state."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This is an elemental South African story of relationships across the color line, first at the height of apartheid's madness and then during the freedom struggle and the ongoing transition to democracy. As in Heart of Redness (2002), Mda tells the big story through the personal lives of a few intimately connected people. The first chapters are based on a notorious 1970s trial in which whites and blacks in one small town were convicted under the Immorality Act for the crime of miscegenation. The focus is on a black woman, Niki, and her 'Coloured' (mixed-race) daughter, Popi, whose white father commits suicide after the public disgrace. Popi has a white half brother and also a black brother, who grows up to be a guerrilla fighter. In the transition, Popi becomes a city councillor, always ashamed of her body, an outsider to whites and blacks in the community. But all their identities shift with reconciliation and revenge, corruption and nostalgia. Mda writes from the inside with a rare combination of passion and truth that will connect with readers everywhere."—Hazel Rochman, Booklist

"Resplendent images of emerging African independence . . . The story is based on a 1971 trial in which white Afrikaners and blacks were prosecuted, under the notorious Immorality Act, for mixed-race sexual relations. In Mda's retelling, the focal characters are Niki, a beautiful black woman who is raped by one white farmer and becomes the lover of another, producing a son (Viliki) and a daughter (Popi), the latter looking 'almost like a white woman's baby' but then burdened with a discolored skin caused by Niki's desperate attempts to 'brown' the infant over a fire, to protect her from racist insults. There's a lot going on here. Every chapter begins with a detailed visual image ostensibly created by 'the trinity,' an unnamed 'man, priest, and artist' for whose 'madonnas' both Niki and Popi sit as models. There's a tense account of the trial of 'the Excelsior 19,' brought to an end when 14 black women are persuaded not to give evidence against the 5 whites they 'seduced.' Mda traces the sad history of Niki's marriage to Pule, who labors in mines far away and stores implacable resentment over her 'infidelities.' The story's political dimensions intensify when Viliki joins an 'underground' liberation 'Movement' and then later its army, and when he and Popi (whose awareness of her 'difference' has fully radicalized her) are elected to their local council, seated with the black majority among three sullen Afrikaners. But 'liberation' is imperfect. Viliki and Popi are voted out. The concrete-block house she builds for herself and Niki remains unfinished. Aging Niki becomes 'the Bee Woman,' communing with her creatures and dispensing honey, and Popi's conflicted freedom is beautifully encapsulated in a climactic conversation with the brother who grudgingly acknowledges her. A gorgeously colored picture of personal and cultural metamorphosis. Exhilarating stuff."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"In his best work to date, Mda continues his clear-eyed and compassionate portrayal of the new South Africa and the legacies of apartheid. During apartheid, sex between whites and blacks was forbidden by law, yet it was not unusual to see mixed-race children in the villages. In the early 1970s, protagonist Niki was charged with violating the Immorality Act, along with 18 others. Although no one was convicted, Niki, black son Viliki, and mixed-race daughter Popi have had to face the consequences every day thereafter. Through Popi, Mda shows that beauty can come out of even the darkest oppression and that freedom without reconciliation is an empty victory. Throughout, the author masterfully fuses descriptions of paintings with depictions of daily life, achieving with words what is usually possible only on film and making the novel itself a work of art. Recommended for all libraries."—Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

ATHESE THINGS flow from the sins of our mothers. The land that lies flat on its back for kilometre after relentless kilometre. The black roads that run across it in different directions, slicing through one-street platteland towns. The cosmos flowers that form a guard of honour for the lone motorist. White, pink and purple petals. The sunflower fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. The land that is awash with yellowness. And the brownness of the qokwa grass.
Colour explodes. Green, yellow, red and blue. Sleepy-eyed women are walking among sunflo
Read the full excerpt


  • Zakes Mda

  • Zakes Mda has received every major South African prize for his work, which includes The Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, and She Plays with the Darkness—all published in paperback by Picador. Born in 1948, he has been a visiting professor at Yale and the University of Vermont. Mda is now a dramaturg at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, and a professor in the Creative Writing Department at Ohio University.
  • Zakes Mda Sal Idriss
    Zakes Mda