The Jive Talker: An Artist’s Genesis

The Jive Talker: An Artist's Genesis BY Samson Kambalu. Free Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $24.

The cover of The Jive Talker: An Artist's Genesis

When London-based conceptual artist Samson Kambalu was eleven, he founded his own religion, Holyballism. Based on sun worship and influenced by Nietzsche, Freud, and Frida Kahlo’s painting Nuclear Sun, the “holy ball” is the religion’s sacred/blasphemous object: a soccer ball plastered with pages ripped from the Bible and kicked about for “exercises and exorcisms.” Kambalu’s memoir, The Jive Talker, is another form of exorcism and exercise, a literary, polyphonic performance of exuberance and delight.

Kambalu, the fifth of eight children, was born in Malawi in 1975, four years after Hastings Kamuzu Banda was made president for life and just over a decade after the nation had gained its independence from Britain. His name at birth was Kondwani, meaning “Don’t worry, be happy,” a rather ironic designation given the difficulty that would define his early years. Malaria, deadly black mamba snakes, and numerous accidents were a regular part of his childhood. When he was twenty, his father died of aids; his mother died of the disease seven years later; five of his aunts and uncles also perished from it. Kambalu’s first sexual experience was with a South African prostitute, from whom he feared he had contracted HIV. Yet his tone in this memoir is surprisingly witty, and tautly composed anecdotes create a rollicking and rapid-fire pace.

The book opens with Kambalu’s father, Aaron. Ambitious and dogmatic, he was a “medical clinical officer” whose postings required the family to relocate frequently. The bathroom was always the room in the house he prized most, and his Diptych—a large two-part bookshelf filled with the complete works of his favorite writer, Nietzsche (“the perfect philosopher for the toilet because of his searing aphoristic style and cold truths”)—was the center of the family home. He loved cutlery even more than food, and after a couple of bottles of Carlsberg Brown beer (which he called jive), he would regale his children with drunken sessions on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or the “two great European narcotics,” alcoholism and born-again Christianity—hence his nickname, the Jive Talker.

Kambalu is himself a kind of superman, albeit a self-effacing and ruthlessly irreverent one. He began reading Nietzsche at eleven, won a place at the prestigious Kamuzu Academy (the “Eton of Africa”), and organized the first conceptual-art exhibition in Malawi. Yet Kambalu’s übermenschliche heights are soon comically grounded. Departing Malawi for Johannesburg at nineteen, in search of adventure and a record deal, he proudly purchased a camera on the street. It turned out to be a knockoff: Instead of a Canon, it was a Camon. In Johannesburg, he tasted grapes for the first time (“the fruit of the vine that the Bible kept harping on about”) and was so moved by the experience that he wept. Later that evening, he vomited them up.

Kambalu’s strengths as a writer, however, are also his weaknesses. He is a master of the crystallizing and riotous anecdote and is Dickensian in his ability to bring characters to life. Yet his tone occasionally teeters into flippancy, and some of his descriptions of women are more sophomoric than evocative. While he imagines various concepts of national identity and deftly integrates them into the larger story, he avoids any substantial introspection on the issue.

When Kambalu learned of his mother’s death, he was living in Nottingham and completing his graduate studies in fine art, and the book ends with his reaction: “On the wall behind the TV a transcription of my favourite work of art by conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp slowly came into focus through the tears; an epitaph he made for himself that now lies on his tombstone in Rouen: D’ailleurs c’est toujours les autres qui meurent’ [Besides, it’s always other people who die].” Duchamp’s wry last words pointedly articulate Kambalu’s perspective, the emotive strength of which lies in a mordant unsentimentality. It is a bittersweet, rousing message: Sometimes the ultimate jive talk is the jive we tell ourselves.