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Victor Dlamini

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Review: Bitches’ Brew by Fred Khumalo

Fred KhumaloThis is a review of Fred Khumalo’s first novel that I wrote recently – accompanied by an even more recent photograph; for an excerpt of the book, see the link below.

With Bitches’ Brew Fred Khumalo bares his own soul by revealing his own love for the beautiful art of jazz. It is his ability to narrate the story of a love that promised so much and how it was strangled by the hard hand of history, that makes Khumalo’s novel stand out. He does not flinch from taking the reader beyond the glamour and shine of the life a successful bootlegger and budding musician.

Bitches' BrewThose that insist that the greatest love affairs often defy logic will not be disappointed because Khumalo has paired Zakes and Lettie whose love is symbolized by the butterflies that appear only to them, but their love is doomed almost from the start. In the course of Bitches’ Brew, both Zakes and Lettie take on many lovers, but in a manner that seems to defy logic, their chance encounter on the bus to Durban leads to a life-long love affair of sorts, and part of the magic of the novel comes from trying to figure out just what it is that makes their relationship so enduring

In the characters of the larger than life Zakes and his first love, Lettie, the crime King Bhazabhaza and the coterie of smaller characters, Khumalo has captured something of the infectious hedonism of the late 60’s and early 70’s. He shows us that booze and music were always at the center of lives lived to the fullest, and as we trace the trajectory of the life of Zakes and those around him, we see how the sordid and the sublime often mix without the slightest hint of contradiction.

Khumalo brings us face to face with the ruthless power that is unleashed with such barbaric enthusiasm by the many strongmen that seem to style themselves on the underworld bosses of Chicago’s bootlegging era. Characters such as Bhazabhaza Dlamini, Zorro Sibisi, Laluki Molewa and of course Zakes himself in later life wear the tag of strongman as if it were the ultimate badge of honour.

They may differ in their approach to their chosen life of crime, but whenever they face opposition, it is to violence that they turn. It is Khumalo’s skill as a novelist to present these appalling men within the complexity of their own need for love, for recognition, for influence, and in this way make them fascinating characters.

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