Tormented by past sin, an HIV-positive man in South Africa must choose drugs or redemption.
Review By Leila Green
61 pages, Two Dollar Radio
“Telling too much about yourself can leave you feeling broken into, as if your head were a conquered city offered to the circle for pillaging”
In 2004, the South African government declared lifesaving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) free for all its HIV-infected citizens. Prior to this, many HIV-positive people subsisted in the shadows, scavenging for expensive treatments. The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, is set in this period. It focuses on Nathi, a delirious HIV-positive young man who struggles to reconcile with his past. Guilt overwhelms Nathi; literally and figuratively infecting his body and his choices. He narrates the story and spends most days in this early 2000s Cape Town getting high and he earns a living by selling excess ARVs on the blackmarket.
For Nathi, HIV is like a death sentence that seems more than welcomed. He drops out of school, quits his job, and becomes an avid drug user. He spends his days shuffling around the city with his equally lost friends in a daze; huffing glue and scrounging coins. Nathi doesn’t seem to care about his fate. At first, it seems his HIV diagnosis is the cause for his self-destructive ways. But harsh, conjured memories trace the origin of his ways to a single, unforgivable deed.
In The Reactive, guilt is the gravitational force that pulls everything down into ruin. In Nathi’s world of shame, he deems his body so worthless that he poisons it; ingesting and sniffing toxic chemicals. Nathi’s relentless quest to punish himself contradicts his line of “work”—selling lifesaving drugs. While others resist HIV’s probable death sentence, Nathi seems to embrace it. But even after Nathi resigns to fate, a strange series of events forces him to make a choice: be prisoner to his past or work toward forgiveness.
Ntshanga's frenetic, often unfocused story is colored by its narrator Nathi's drug-induced tendency to zoom in on strange details. Nathi lingers on certain moments or images just long enough to make them distorted. In this way, we see the world through his lens: twisted. From Nathi’s viewpoint, a standing, swaying man is like “a supporting character excerpted from a malfunctioning video game, now stranded in a different reality.” A dull sky looks like “the screen of a malfunctioning cell phone.” And an overcast sun spills out light that is “as gray as bath water." Jumps between thoughts and events aren't always logical, but Ntshanga handles the first person present narrative incredibly well. These little, woozy touches make The Reactive shimmer in refreshing light. Disturbing and visceral—yet tender and political—The Reactive achieves two impressive feats: it tells the heartbreaking story of a single man’s redemption and it draws from the palette of a fractured “rainbow nation” to paint an essential portrait of pre-ARV South Africa.