Jonathan Amid - 2011-05-25 Untitled Document
Title: Black Heart
Author: Mike Nicol
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With the first two parts of his “Revenge Trilogy”, Payback and Killer Country (both published by Umuzi) author Mike Nicol forges a deeply unsettling vision of South Africa. An upper crust of fatcat nouveau riche tenderpreneurs and crony capitalists, by and large the beneficiaries of BEE, fight for their share of the country’s spoils while cold-hearted killers clear their path. Into this often grotesque realm step ex-gunrunners and now private security operatives Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso, drawn into an increasingly dangerous dance of death with the powerful and enigmatic Sheemina February, a woman tortured in the MK camps and hell-bent on exacting her revenge. By the tragic end of Killer Country much blood has been spilt and a loved one has been brutally murdered, and an all-consuming rage and need for vengeance by Mace Bishop sets the stage for an explosive, almost unbearably tense showdown between the grief-stricken Bishop and the unflappable ice maiden February.
Over the course of its dense 334 pages, Black Heart unfurls its mighty sense of menace at a breakneck pace, while a deeply-rooted air of melancholia sweeps its pages like the coldest south-easterly winds. From the opening paragraph until the tense closing pages we follow the heartbroken Bishop as he stalks the home of February, determined to deliver the killer blow in his showdown with the deadly mistress of mayhem. Nicol masterfully intertextualises The Rolling Stones classic “Paint it Black” as the soundtrack to Bishop’s emotional turmoil, repeatedly shining the spotlight on an inner sanctum of sadness:
I look inside myself and see my heart is black.
I see my red door and it has been painted black.
Hardly a page of this hard-boiled, frost-bitten book is bereft of brooding atmospherics characterised by a striking absence of light. Amid the breaking of the waves around Camp’s Bay, Nicol mixes a stark palette of whites and greys to convey an icy, unwelcoming Cape, while black and red are not only repeatedly used to magnify the sense of the macabre, but blow up the central focus on the fragility and vulnerability of the body and mind as sites of power, pleasure and, most importantly, pain. With moments of bucketing blood akin to the torrential downpour that hounds Bishop and Pylon Buso, the all-consuming physical and emotional pain and dis-ease that accompany crime and punishment are a central pre-occupation here.
Whereas the “black heart” of the title could most easily be applied to the perversely alluring Sheemina February and her lustful baying for Buso’s blood, the most compelling and humane inflection of the title resonates in the blackness, the nothingness that saturates the heart of a man reduced to a ghost, unable to run from his fate. It is ultimately in the beautifully rendered sorrow shared by the father, Buso, and his daughter Christa that we find the novel’s beating heart, the fulcrum of its emotional heft. Although February will long be remembered for her Machiavellian, cold-blooded symphony of destruction (boy, is she evil; and boy, does she enjoy doing damage) in her quest to settle a score, it is testament to Nicol’s skill as a serious writer that we find as much to enjoy as escapism in the novel as we do in questioning the permeable boundaries between fact and fiction, justice and vengeance, city and citizen.
Nicol’s final instalment of the “Revenge Trilogy” is both satisfying and deeply unnerving as a work of crime fiction. It is a veritable anatomy of anarchy with a tone as black as coal, black as night. Less allegorical than Eben Venter’s wrenching Trencherman, Nicol’s fiction paints a picture of Cape Town as a contaminated city awash with symptoms of post-apartheid decay at its coalface. All around the Devil’s Peak the falcon cannot hear the falconer; the centre cannot hold.
Whether the writing here is speculative or symptomatic of a failure of South Africa’s authors to imagine a more hopeful present is an open question; that Nicol’s Cape Town is all too easy to imagine is rather telling. A highly recommended tale of revenge as a dish best served ice-cold, Nicol’s state of the nation is brilliant yet unremittingly bleak, its black heart clear as a freshly cut diamond.