ABCs of 1001 Books: Down Second Avenue

A – I did read the description of Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue before picking this novel (unlike with Pynchon’s book), and I was intrigued that it is an autobiographical account of Mphahlele’s life under apartheid in South Africa during the 1920s through 1950s. It reads more like a series of essays in a memoir than like a traditional novel.

B – As a former and aspiring teacher, I was especially interested in the sections that describe the problems the main character, Ezekiel, and his fellow teachers faced after the passage of the Bantu Education Act. When all the African teachers at his school were fired for being African, many students stayed out of school to protest. And the teachers were arrested! They were accused of “inciting the boycott and consequently public violence” (168). The teachers were in jail for 4 days, but were later acquitted. Mphahlele covers this event in about two paragraphs, none of which describe the emotions of anyone involved. But I guess I can’t really capture my emotions reading it. Shock? Empathy? Outrage? Just, yeah… real life…just, yeah.

C – There seems to be confusion about whether this book is an autobiographical novel or an actual memoir. The editors of 1001 Books include it as fiction, as does Mphahlele’s article on Wikipedia. However, several of the websites that appear on the first page of my Google search for “down second avenue” label the book a memoir, including sites produced by Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin Random House. I wonder if he had to publish it as an autobiographical novel because he would have gotten in more trouble for a memoir or maybe simply because it was easier to get novels published than memoirs in 1959.

D – The level of detail varies considerably from chapter to chapter so that some incidents that seem the most emotional and dynamic are glossed over in a sentence while other incidents that seem more mild and everyday are given pages of description with dialogue.

E – The author later changed his name to Es’kia, but Ezekiel is the name on the edition I read and was his name when he wrote the book. The narrator’s name is also Ezekiel, though it is very rarely mentioned.

F – I should have published this post on the fourth Friday in February. It’s late because I had difficulty writing it, sorting my thoughts and emotions.

G – The narrator’s grandmother plays a prominent role in the first half of the novel. The family lived all together on Second Avenue. She’s a complicated character as presented through the narrator’s complicated love.

H – Another shocking historical event that the narrator mentions is that students set fire to their schools as part of political protests. The narrator says of one of the schools he attended, “Adams College itself lost its beautiful high-school and library buildings: they were gutted by fire” (146). But he doesn’t go into detail about these types of events because, he admits, at the time his “own political consciousness was vague – in an intellectual sense” and he “shut everything out” because he was obsessed with not failing in his studies to become a teacher (146).blogDowncover

I – Unlike the previous two books, this one’s cover illustration actually fits the story. It’s a simple sketch of box-like houses in a row as viewed through the bare window. It captures the stark poverty of the titular Second Avenue as the narrator experienced it.

J – When the narrator works as a journalist and literary editor for a magazine in Johannesburg, he has a vision for the magazine. He explains that the magazine “had plunged into a reading world which hadn’t developed any definite magazine taste (the non-European readership); that it should produce healthy material in an original style wherever possible and, in a sense, dictate what the public should read, without necessarily being snobbish and intellectual” (187). But he doesn’t always get to carry out his vision because of pressure from the higher ups to follow old policy and appeal to vulgar tastes. This part stood out to me because, sadly, I think many writers in many countries who work for magazines – or other pop-culture-driven media like television – find this kind of tension.

K – The narrator knows several people who were killed or became killers under the pressure of racism. He tells their stories with brevity and dignity.

L – One of the many frustrations the narrator feels as a teacher is having to teach the Afrikaan language. He states, “I taught Afrikaans as a mere duty, and it was a most painful thing for me to feel that, together with my pupils, I was caught up in a situation where a language had been thrust upon us which was the instrument of our oppression and the source of our humiliation” (166).

M – From the ages of 5 to 13, the narrator lives in a village called Maupaneng. He reflects on recollections of his childhood in a poetic passage: “I had nobody to shape them into a definite pattern. Searching through the confused threads of that pattern a few things keep imposing themselves on my whole judgment. My grandmother; the mountain; the tropical darkness which glow-worms seemed to try in vain to scatter; long black tropical snakes; the brutal Leshoana river carrying on its broad back trees, cattle, boulders; world of torrential rains; the solid shimmering heat beating down on yearning earth; the romantic picture of a woman with a child on her back and an earthen pot on her head, silhouetted against the mirage” (16-17).

N – The narrator expresses in his graduate thesis what I guess is Mphalele’s opinion on South African national literature. He writes, “Non-whites live in locations, or in the Reserves, or work for whites in towns and on farms, where they are either labour tenants or squatters. There can hardly be a healthy common culture in conditions that isolate whole communities and make social and economic intercourse difficult or impossible. And the problem of a national culture is per se the problem of a national literature. It must remain sectional and sterile as long as such conditions prevail” (196).

O – Seven obituaries from 2008 dominate the thirteen sources of the Wikipedia article for Mphahlele.

P – Mphahlele clearly describes the plodding tediousness and degrading nature of the pass system under apartheid. African men needed a pass, also known as a passport or reference book, in order to just travel around their own cities in the regular course of their day.

Q – I’m including so many quotations from this book because I just admire Mphahlele’s strength in being able to write out of and about such a life of struggle, suffering, repression, frustration.

R – I would recommend this book to anyone who likes realistic, unsentimental personal histories.

blogDowntornpageS – The paperback edition I borrowed from the library was published by Seven Seas Books in Berlin, Germany in 1962. It has the most dry, brittle pages of any book I’ve ever read. Here and there as I turned a page, a piece would come away under my fingers, soundlessly, more like the breaking of brick than the tearing of paper. The torn edges look bitten, as if trying to visually display the metaphoric way I devoured this book.

T – The narrator describes white oppression as “a tragedy the most decent of us are caught up in whether they like it or not” (178). He does have some white friends who acknowledge this problem and work to resist it. The first step is acknowledgment.

U – There’s a universality to the way Mphahlele describes the people of Second Avenue in the first half of the book. They seem like they could be anyone’s neighbor anywhere, with their petty worries, wry cleverness, fickle affections, and touching forbearance.

V – My view of Mphahlele’s characters is echoed halfway through the books in critical reviews of the narrator’s short stories. But the critic expresses it better: “Thus his stories give us not economic or political theories about human beings, but real people; frail noble mortality, unchanging through the centuries beneath all their apparent alteration” (164).

W – Towards the end of the novel, the narrator explains why he has to leave South Africa in order to write. He tells a friend, “I’m sick of protest creative writing and our South African situation has become a terrible cliche as literary material. It’s just a continuous battle to feed and clothe a family amid the yells of mad white men who are doing all to stop me and sap my energy so that I’ve nothing left for writing” (211). I admire Mphahlele for including an opinion that others might look down on, but that is really understandable.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – You should read this book; you’d probably get even more out of it than I can describe here.

Z – The narrator includes the political opinions of his friends such as Zeph who espouse views different from his own. This inclusion adds both realism and balance to his life story.

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