Ways of Dying
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Ways of Dying

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  714 ratings  ·  67 reviews
In Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda's acclaimed first novel, Toloki is a "professional mourner" in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city's crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At a...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published August 1st 2002 by Picador (first published 1995)
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Community Reviews

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Jonathan Fiencke
Jul 23, 2007 Jonathan Fiencke rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those with an interest in modern African Lit
A book set against the turbulent and violent South Africa of the 70's and 80's. For the residents of the slums, murder is a daily occurence and nobody is spared, not even children or pregnant women. The main character Toloki, the son of a blacksmith in the countryside, moves to the city and struggles to survive. In a somewhat disjointed career move, he dons a cheap plastic undertakers costume and becomes a professional mourner. During one of his appearences at a funeral on Christmas Day he encou...more
I liked Toloki's re-invention of himself as a professional mourner. I was immediately drawn into this book by this unique character and the first person plural narration. At first I thought that first person plural implied a folk tale, but this is a story that is too particular. The characters aren't archetypal folk heroes. Yet the book does reveal so much of what is happening to the poor in post-apartheid South Africa. In many ways the novel speaks for the entire third world where so many lives...more
This was incredibly strange, but an oddly satisfying read nonetheless. Ways of Dying tells the story of Toloki, a "Professional Mourner" in Apartheid South Africa. The narrative moves between Toloki's childhood in his village and his current, meager life as a vagrant in a large city who offers his services to those who are burying their dead. At one funeral, Toloki encounters Noria, an enigmatic girl he remembers from his youth; he travels to the settlement (alternately: squatters' camp) where s...more
This novel is unusual in the way it captures township life as South Africa is at the brink of either civil war or a new-found democracy, a time when the townships were being torn apart by war between the ANC and traditionalists. The main character is a professional mourner—a man who goes from funeral to funeral (and there are a lot of them) mourning loudly and paid through tips. He takes his job seriously, seeing it as a spiritual calling. When he meets up with one of his “home-girls,” a woman f...more
Having recently read novels by Coetzee and Gordimer I thought I’d see what was out there by a black South African writer. I can’t pretend I spent a lot of time researching the topic. This was the first one I came across and so I went with it. And I’m rather glad that I did if only for one reason, the style of narration. I’ve never seen anyone use first person plural before—never imagined how one might even go about such a thing—and yet when the narrators explain themselves it seems so obvious a...more
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Dec 28, 2010 Lisa rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Lisa by: Nicole
Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, is a brilliant book. I hope I can do it justice here.

The novel is set in an unnamed city in the dying days of South Africa under apartheid, between the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island and the relaxation of bans on Black political parties in 1990, and the democratic vote which brought Black majority rule in 1994. This traumatic transitional period was marked by violence which shocked the world community. The violence was inflicted by White supremacists det...more
I loved this book! From the first line through to the end. When I heard Mr Mda speak about two years after I read it, I was surprised to learn that this was his first novel (he was a playwright) and that he was somehow able to evoke such an amazingly crystal clear aura of the place in which he writes even though he spent so much time in exile (Apartheid).

I lived in SOuth Africa for a time- in two cities and traveled along the coast a few times- and I loved it. This book right away took me to one...more
“Profound Meaning” and “Blinding Light”:
The Derelict Characters of Mda and Wicomb

Zoë Wicomb and Zakes Mda present two characters, Jan Klinkies and Toloki, that are kept on the fringes of society in their books, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and Ways of Dying. Jan Klinkies’s and Toloki’s apparently peripheral importance in their communities is counteracted, when Wicomb and Mda suggest their derelict characters’ actions and lifestyles are forms of undermining their oppressive environment.
Don’t know what to think about this novel. I was little afraid because few weeks ago I’ve read Mda’s “The Wale Caller” which I really didn’t like. However this is much better novel.
The idea of professional mourner is quite original one, few surrealistic drops were quite interesting, background scene was …. Of course very cruel almost apocalyptic however I’m not sure how convincing was it. Indeed, there are few remarks about colour of the skin but there is no clear racist hatred while brutality i...more
Kevin Wilcox

After reading Ways of Dying by Zakes MDA I was awoken to the nature of how life is like in certain parts of Africa. The story evoked a sort of Hollywood picture of what is portrayed in movies the majority of the time. Although not an accurate overall view of the continent and its condition, the story of Toloki and Noria is one that borders upon the fringes of what is reality and nightmare. The detail that the author puts into describing certain scenarios surrounding death I found to be awkward...more
Jackson Barnett
Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda is the story of a professional mourner in the turbulent and very violent times of South Africa in the 1980's. The mourner, Toloki, goes on adventures that take him from a rustic village to the middle of a modern South African city. It is gruesome, harsh, and funny. The novel's title pretty much speaks for itself, since the book is mostly about "ways of dying", and how Toloki, who is in a world so chaotic and full of death, can find meaning (when there seems to be none...more
La Stamberga dei Lettori
Ci sono molti modi di morire, ma la crudeltà con cui si muore nel romanzo dello scrittore sudafricano Mda, o forse ancor meglio la facilità con cui si muore, lascia interdetti. Lo sguardo del narratore è quasi quello di un bambino: il romanzo è raccontato da una voce narrante onnisciente impersonata dagli occhi collettivi di un villaggio del veld sudafricano, come il coro di una tragedia greca, voce della coscienza comune; la narrazione si sviluppa per lo più sul piano del presente, quasi una di...more
South African literature is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. Except you can probably bet that you're going to get a truffle of sorrow, death, and despair. Every time.
This is one of my favorite novels. Rather than being told in standard first or third person, it is told as "We." The idea behind it is to incorporate oral storytelling traditions. The book itself is about love and imagination and actively choosing how we want to live. "Ways of Dying" is also unique in that it deals honestly with the violence that occurred within black communities in South Africa between 1990 (the year Mandela was released) and 1994 (the year of the first democratic election). Mo...more
I liked this novel of South Africa in transition--between the un-banning of political parties such as the ANC in 1990 and the country's liberation in 1994. Toloki, the main character, has invented a profession for himself as a "professional mourner" who, when invited, adds gravitas to family funerals by his spectacular sounds of grief. Following his "work" the reader gets an introduction to the almost unbearable violence of the era and the moral complexities of the changing society. His perspect...more
Sherly Molapo
A charming and funny record of South African history.
A refreshing way of sharing even our darkest parts
Jun 27, 2012 Abby added it
This was the strangest love story I've ever heard of...or maybe the strangest war story? At any rate, it's fantastic. I love these two people and their oddities, their histories, the way they grow together. I love their ways of living, which as Toloki points out, are also ways of dying. And I love that against all odds, this novel of South African turmoil has a happy ending!!

South Africa has gotten slightly better, I believe. But stuff like this makes me wonder if we would even recognize the apo...more
The marketing blurb on the back cover of this book is wrong: this story is not of "the new South Africa" but of South Africa on the cusp of change. The police & government officials in the story are still white, & there are many other plot indicators that the setting precedes the end of the apartheid era. Its first copyright is 1991, after all.

It's a really lovely, unformulaic story about black South Africans in poverty. I enjoyed the touches of magical realism, the honesty about struggl...more
Maryam Almutawwa
It wasn't like what I expected ...

It was a good book but for some reasons I didn't enjoy it that much... And I couldn't find that cruel ugly part that everybody is talking about and accusing the story for, maybe because I was already aware of most of the mentioned facts of South Africa. I felt like the author tended to rush in concluding the story in the last chapter, as if he had these limited pages that he had to fill and no more !!! However, I liked Toloki and his attitude with dealing with r...more
I'm not sure how I feel about this book. I found Toloki's and Noria's stories compelling, and their coming together. It's just hard to read about so much violence, even if it's realistic. I've been reading about necklacing, a popular method of lynching in the 80s and 90s, taking 20 minutes to die. I've also looked up professional mourning, something I've always associated with Asia, but it seems more an ancient Roman/Greek and Middle Eastern practice. At least I've been educated. :-)
I think this...more
Mary Anne
Jul 03, 2014 Mary Anne marked it as to-read
Shelves: fiction
Read this in one of my many English classes in college.
Jun 09, 2007 Tracey rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in more than a novel of "african history"
In Ways of Dying, the story is told through the voice of the village. Characters and events are seen as the village sees and hears of them, and the reader is left to distinguish reality from rumor. Although Ways of Dying does center on two young people who have left the village for life in the city, it is nothing like a stereotypical small town character journeys to the big city novel. Ways Of Dying mixes mystical caricatures with blatant realism in its depiction of people living in South Africa...more
Matshidiso Khutwane
Very sad story, but inspiring
Elizabeth Goldsmith
The back says that "the beautiful and tragic Noria helps him heal the past," and this is really a good indicator of the book. It's a beautifully woven story, but the characters feel more like caricatures...the topic is interesting, but I wish he could have gone into the depths of what it means to be a professional mourner--it felt like he only skimmed the surface. And overall, the writing is good but not amazing. I wanted more to emerge from this book, but in the end it never came.
A good friend recommended this book, and I must say it just makes me love her more. What an amazing feat! Such a soft and endearing way of entering into lives so fraught with violence and loss. The female heroine was all you could want of the bad-girl-gone-sage-mother, but it is the male hero, the professional funeral attender, who captivates. By the end of the novel, I felt like the world was a terrible place and a better place than I imagined.
Nina Chachu
My reading this novel is partly due to serendipity, but also due to some frustrations with IT at work, so I felt that there was no other alternative but to pick up an interesting book and start reading! I had heard of Mda, but not read any of his works. It is both a commentary on life in South Africa at the end of apartheid, a kind of love story and a tribute to creativity. It came well recommended and I enjoyed it.
Nontobeko Lamula
I found this book really funny! it is so out my 'normal' types of books i read and it was such a pleasant surprise. What really gets me is that you end up forgetting that the main character is homeless and start seeing things through his eyes. It makes you stop and wonder if you are taking your life far too seriously! A good read if you're looking for something lighthearted but that will resonate with everyone.
This book offered an interesting, sad, and yet entertaining look at life in the South African townships and settlements. Colorful characters show how people handle death and how they live. It was helped by a fascinating book club discussion with a member who visits the townships with a group of her university students every year.
Erin Mindell
I recently re-read this book, and I actually liked it just as much. It's rich in symbolism without being over the top, which is refreshing and rare. I think that it helps to know a little about what was going on in South Africa when Mda was writing this, but it's a good story without background, as well.
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Zakes Mda is the pen name of Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda, a novelist, poet and playwright.

Although he spent his early childhood in Soweto (where he knew political figures such as Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela) he had to finish his education in Lesotho where his father went into exile since 1963. This change of setting also meant a change of language for Mda: from i...more
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