The main centre of experience is Bloggs who, running away from a brutal government, faces the possibility of ignominious death on the streets of Johannesburg. Depressed by the shame of failing his family, the equilibrium between his inner self and the outside world descends into chaos. Yet in that moment of weakness and vulnerability, Bloggs finds answers within himself, opening a whole dimension of existence and meaning to his life.
There are a lot of people like him in Johannesburg and they wander “around the world like thin smokes.” The meaninglessness of their condition is an experience only understood by themselves in a melting pot of cultures that make the city what it is.
They sleep on cardboard paper and plastic sheets on the pavement. The streets are replete with adventure, people doing business, shoppers, pick-pockets and muggers. However, despite all the forces, there is a flame of humour that Bloggs still carries with himself, as when he wakes up early in the morning and says, “I would, laughing at myself, trace with my finger the lines of my scrawny ribs indented overnight on that cardboard.”
In despair, Bloggs roams the city looking for death. One night he picks up a fight with another evil looking destitute man. The two are locked in a fierce confrontation which ironically does not end bloody as could be expected. The man surprisingly flees, abandoning his lair to Bloggs. The confrontation passes into dawn, symbolizing the occurrence of a transformation.
Craving for change in their living conditions, Bloggs and his friend Nkosi, AK47, decide to quit living on the street. They go to stay at the Central Methodist Church in the inner city of Johannesburg.
They find the church overflowing with a life of its own, and there is an astonishing truth that the reader may encounter even in the madness of a character like Chimwene. One may, as well, have the question on the role of religion in life as Bloggs begins to use prayer in difficult situations.
There is nothing remote from the normal in the delirium, nightmares, human degradation, and reactions which the characters in Shattered undergo. It is a brutal honest account such that the reader may even find it worthwhile to explore what it could have meant for them in a similar situation, and how they would react in its extremity.
Nkosi, nicknamed AK47, Connie and Rasta all have peculiar dreams unique to their experiences in life. When Bloggs wakes up from another dream, the stench of his corpse still lingers in his nostrils. He has not only become a stranger to himself but to his family, too. AK47 who holds his crutch like a gun during his nightmares dies in xenophobic violence and Rasta commits suicide after having a fantastic dream.
The other characters major lightly. Rather than assuming more distinct and detailed forms, they fare through the maze of suffering as auxiliary figures mirroring both the psychological and social catastrophe.
However, Bloggs finds support in his two friends, Matt and Dan. The three have a symbiotic relationship bonded by similarity of experience and condition. Desperate, Bloggs meets Connie. The two fall in love but they have to suffer their need without fulfillment because they are already sworn in marriage to other individuals.
Sometimes Bloggs finds himself in survival situations where he is compelled to throw away his moral inhibitions but guilt always forces him to obey the battle between reason and conscience:
“To live in disharmony with reason and conscience for me is inhuman. Conscience is the hand stopping the other hand of the self from committing a terrible crime against all morality and God!”
To release stress, Bloggs, Dan and Matt often find themselves perched on wooden benches at a shebeen in Shanty Town, drinking an opaque brew known as Joburg Beer:
The past in a way catches up with Bloggs. A shocking discovery awaits him when a teenage girl innocently walks into the children’s room. She turns out to be his daughter from a brief affair many years ago. The shame is so much overwhelming that Bloggs declares: “I deserved a firing squad!”
Bloggs moves from the depressed man in need of help to the healer. He is asked to go and talk to victims of violence in the hospital. Coming from the hospital, he is begged to give the final speech and prayer at a funeral of a refugee woman. He connects with the vulnerable youth and anonymously offers counselling to people in crisis.
In Book Three, Bloggs decides to go back home to see his family, which he does. His visit ends prematurely. The appalling graphic suffering and decay he witnesses breaks his heart. When he gets home, he learns that the men in black suits and dark glasses had been looking for him. At that moment, they return to his home and Bloggs is forced to flee again in order to survive. He is smuggled across the border “in a giant tool box.”
Just as he lands back on Johannesburg soil, events unfold which show that his brief absence, like back home, had created a vacuum. Relationships with people around him are becoming more meaningful.
He learns of the coup by the soldiers back home and in the middle of his confusion his wife, tired of loneliness, sends him messages that she is coming to him, “where the cure is.” His visit, after all, had not been in vain. Yet he cannot desist from thinking about:
“Figures such that one could never miss the sound of liquid cascading down the pipes of their skeletal bodies. The SHATTERED LIVES of a BRUTALIZED NATION!”
The book ends with the sad realization of the treachery in the coup that only “a cell version of the deposed president had usurped the throne!” In Shattered, it is the enduring spirit of freedom, the humane battle against repression and forces of dehumanization that constitutes nobility and hope.
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