A Walk in the Night and Other Stories Summary

Alex La Guma

A Walk in the Night and Other Stories

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A Walk in the Night and Other Stories Summary

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A Walk in the Night and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by South African author and anti-apartheid activist, Alex La Guma. The book was published in 1968 and contains seven short stories that detail the injustices arising from South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. The title piece, “A Walk in the Night”, tells the story of an impoverished black South African man who is tempted to join a gang after being unjustly fired from his job. The other stories in the book take place in a crowded prison, a restaurant, and a boxing ring. La Guma won the Lotus Prize for Literature in 1969.

The volume begins with the title story, “A Walk in the Night”. Michael Adonis, known as Mikey, is fired from his job at a sheet-metal factory for swearing at a white foreman who accused him of being lazy when he requested to use the bathroom. Mikey walks home through his impoverished neighborhood, seething with resentment over what has happened. The neighborhood is filled with gang activity and prostitution, and a woman uses toilet water to make tea. Mikey meets his friend Willie Boy at a café and tells him about being fired. Willie Boy brags that he never even tried to look for honest work. Willie Boy’s gang enters the café to look for Sockies, a gang member who is supposed to assist them with a burglary that night.

The gang teases Mikey for being a “good boy”, because he refuses to join them. Mikey goes for a walk through the neighborhood to shake off his anger. During the course of his walk, he gives a homeless boy named Joe money for food, and is stopped and searched by police who suspect him of possessing marijuana. He goes to a pub where he talks to his friends about racial injustice in South Africa and America, crime in their neighborhood, and movie heroes. He finally heads home to his tenement where his neighbor, an alcoholic Irishman named Uncle Doughtry, invites him over for a drink. Still angry at the injustices he had suffered that day, Mikey taunts Uncle Doughtry by withholding his bottle of cheap wine.

Uncle Doughtry unintentionally insults a drunken Mikey, who mixes his words with those of the foreman who fired him. In a rage, Mikey strikes Doughtry in the head and kills him. After sobering up and realizing what he had done, he flees back to his own apartment and bolts the door. Shortly after this, Willie Boy comes to borrow money from Mikey. When Mikey does not answer the door, Willie Boy goes to ask Doughtry for money instead. When he sees the old man’s corpse, however, he is frightened and runs away. A police constable catches Willie Boy running from Doughtry’s apartment and chases and kills him. Shaken by the events that transpired, Mikey decides to give up his “good” life and join the gang after all.

The next story in the series, “Tattoo Marks and Nails”, takes place in a South African prison. Over one hundred prisoners are packed into an overcrowded jail cell like “sardines in a can or tangled like macaroni.” The prison is extremely hot in the summer and there are few guards on duty. The prisoners are all awaiting trial for crimes that range from petty theft to murder. The boss of the cell is a prisoner known as the Creature, who puts cellmates who offend him on “trial” and doles out punishment. A man who once complained to a guard about the Creature was later found stabbed to death in his sleep. A prisoner who has spent some time in a POW camp strikes up a conversation with one of his cellmates, Ahmed the Turk, and watches as he gets into a confrontation with the Creature.

In “At the Portagee’s”, two diners at a Portuguese café flirt with two young women at a different table. The diners witness the restaurant owner, a fat man known as the Portagee, throw a poor beggar, who offers him sixpence for fish, out of his restaurant. This story examines socioeconomic inequality in South Africa. The next story, “The Gladiators”, is about two boxers, one white and one black, who compete in a boxing match before a large crowd. Kenny, the white boxer, assumes he will easily defeat his black opponent, the Panther, but he loses round after round. The mostly white crowd jeers at the Panther and calls him kaffir, a racial slur. The Panther knocks Kenny out and the match ends.

Another story, “Blankets”, explores street violence and poverty. A man named Choker is stabbed three times in the back. As he lays dying in the street, someone places a blanket over him while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. While drifting in and out of consciousness, Choker flashes back to earlier moments in his life, including his impoverished childhood, his time spent in prison, and sleeping with a lover. The ambulance arrives, and he is put on a stretcher and taken away. The next story, “A Matter of Taste”, recounts a rare moment of inter-racial solidarity as two black railroad workers share food and cigarettes with a poor white man, and help him board a train to Cape Town. This heartwarming story is followed by the harrowing tale, “The Lemon Orchard”, in which two white men exact revenge on an educated black teacher who disrespected a minister.

La Guma’s stories revolve around the themes of racism, social inequity, poverty, crime, and injustice. The stories in this collection examine the lives of various marginalized people in apartheid era South Africa, and the things that they have in common, as well as what divides them. They also depict the dehumanization of black and poor people during apartheid and condemn the widespread social injustices of this chapter in the nation’s history.