He died, poor chap; of what precisely, no one knew

The young South African writer’s, Phaswane Mpe’s, sudden death was similar to a line that appears in his novel, Welcome To Our Hillbrow: “He died, poor chap; of what precisely, no one knew. But strange illnesses courted in Hillbrow, as Tiragalong knew only too well, could only translate into AIDS” (p.3.). Or at least an article that I bumped into, while searching for information about Mpe, suggests. The comparison might be twisted at first, but it seems that just like Refentse’s fictional work turned out to be Refilwe’s real fate in the novel, some of Mpe’s words have also translated into reality, that is, into his own life. The article bases this assumption on the fact that the causes of Mpe’s unexpected death have never been identified, and that only his struggle with creating more fictional works before his death is known.

It is suggested that the inability of his creative mind to flourish after his first novel was so severe, that a few months before his death, Mpe contacted a traditional healer who concluded that his ‘illness’ is a message from his ancestors that his new ‘career path’ should be one of a healers. Mpe, upon hearing this, aspired to learn more about herbal medicine, and listen to the stories of his patients, which, he hoped, would set his creative mind free. Tragically, he died before he was able to practice the ‘art’ of being healer.

One has the impression that, just like his novel, Mpe’s life was a fusion of magical realism and the hard facts of real life. And whether the story told above is true or not, I couldn’t say, but still, linking patterns in an author’s life and his or her stories is always a good and intellectually satisfying game to play. Naturally, while having fun one must remember not to take things too far, since after all novels are works of fiction and shouldn’t be considered as autobiographies. Or, what do you think?

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