As a work of fiction, Cion itself bears a strong connection to the past--to Mda's first novel. The character of Toloki previously appeared in Ways of Dying, a melancholy, mesmerizing tale set in South Africa in the last years of apartheid. On Christmas Day, Toloki runs into Noria, an old village acquaintance, as she is on her way to bury her son, the victim of violence perpetrated by antiapartheid revolutionaries. Over the next few days, Toloki reminisces about his past; his abusive artisan father, Jwara; his friendship with Noria; the strange and possibly predatory relationship between Jwara and Noria; and all the events that came to shape Toloki's life. With few opportunities available to him in his village, Toloki leaves for "the city" (perhaps Johannesburg), where he hopes to find work with a friend of his father's, the carpenter Nefolovhodwe. The man made a fortune after inventing the Nefolovhodwe Collapsible Coffin, which can be "carried by one person, like a suitcase, and it could be put together in easy steps even by a child."
Observing that "Nefolovhodwe had attained all his wealth through death," Toloki decides that he should have a similar occupation. He does not have any practical skills, but he is known to have "the saddest eyes," hence his decision to offer his services to families. Toloki's work gives him an intimate knowledge of ways of dying in South Africa: a boy is shot by unnamed revolutionaries, a laborer is burned alive by a white colleague, a child is killed and eaten by wild dogs, five people are murdered after a dispute with a shopkeeper over chicken pieces, a patriarch is killed by his two sons after allowing his mistress's children to shave first in preparation for a funeral. "Our ways of dying are our ways of living," he observes.
Toloki's move to Ohio is explained in Cion's opening page: "The sciolist has delusions of Godness." The sciolist in question is, of course, Zakes Mda himself, who jumps at the idea, suggested by Sam Crowl, his colleague at Ohio University, to transplant Toloki to another culture. Toloki, who is creating his own story, describes Mda as having "a belly that hangs out like an apron" and tries to avoid the author at all times, except at crucial points in the story, when the plot warrants a move that Toloki cannot bring about. Explaining his reasons for accepting the move to the United States, Toloki says that although death was plentiful in South Africa, "it lacked the drama of the violent deaths that I used to mourn during the upheavals of the political transition in that country." Despite talk of the AIDS pandemic "stalking the homesteads," Toloki says he spends most of his time mourning deaths caused by "diseases that never used to kill anyone before--diseases such as TB and pneumonia that used to be cured with ease not so long ago."
The mention of AIDS here is particularly interesting. In January 2003, the novelist and critic Norman Rush wrote a scathing piece in The New York Review of Books in which he accused Mda of committing a sin of omission by not mentioning AIDS in Ways of Dying or The Heart of Redness. Toloki's statement in Cion may well be a pointed answer to Rush's criticism. In any case, it's very difficult to understand why Mda should be singled out and accused of silence on AIDS. After all, Mda's compatriot J.M. Coetzee had not written about AIDS in his fiction at the time that Rush's article appeared, and yet Rush did not find it relevant to talk about a "sin of omission" in Coetzee's work. A novelist is under no obligation to talk about every single issue facing his society, or those that have greater resonance in the West. South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world. Should one accuse Mda of a sin of omission for not writing a novel about rape, too?
Cion stands out from Ways of Dying in one notable way, however. In Ways of Dying, Mda uses the first-person plural point of view, adapting and extending the oral storytelling tradition of South Africa:
It is not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people's closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, 'They say it once happened...' we are the 'they'. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.
But in Cion, Toloki takes matters into his own hands, wrestling the storytelling mantle from the community and the novelist and speaking for himself. The oral tradition is still present in Cion, though, as in all Mda's work. It can be seen in the stories the Abyssinian Queen tells the children at night, to the chagrin of Mrs. Fairfield, who complains that they are "voodoo stories."
Although Cion is an engaging novel, it suffers from occasional didactic lapses. Mda's fascination with history and politics directs the story, and the characters struggle to find their own motivation, their own psychological life. When Orpah does not appear at dinner or play the sitar, Toloki comments that "the silence leaves a hole in me. Don't ask me why." Exploring the reasons is precisely what the story should do. In addition, Toloki is at once befuddled by Halloween celebrations and savvy enough to arrange for legal mediation between Obed and the sorority girl he fondled. Such inconsistencies make for an occasionally jarring narrative, in which Toloki does not so much act out of his own volition as service the plot. By contrast, the characters and story line set in nineteenth-century Virginia are much more fully realized, and one can only speculate that it might be because Mda is more interested in the historical story he wove than in the modern one.
Throughout his work, Mda has explored the appeal and the danger of constructing a modern self that is untethered to history and tradition. The cion of the title could be Toloki, who has been transplanted to America to become an itinerant mourner; but a more likely interpretation is that it refers to the African-American community, cut off from one continent and grafted onto another. Learning about its roots, Mda seems to say, is the community's only chance at the success and prosperity that everyone, from evangelists to politicians, seems fond of promising.