*Whilst I don’t normally review fiction on this blog, I had undertaken to review the fiction books I read on Instagram, however for this book I realised I had far more to say than I would ever be able to fit in an IG caption, hence this post. For those here for the crafty things, feel free to skip!
Way back in the late ’80s Bryce Courtenay, then in his early ’50’s, sat down to write a book. He had heard somewhere that nobody ever got their first novel published, in fact number 4 appeared to be the sweet spot at the time (if you were lucky), so he decided to give himself 5 years to write his first 4. He granted himself a year each to knock out his first 3 ‘never to be published’ works, allowing a whole 2 years for his magnum opus. He wanted to learn how to write in the first person to begin with, so he set out to write a ‘super hyped auto-biography’ for his first effort (he explained in the introduction to the audiobook version that he made Peekay far better than he himself had been, but that the story does follow the events of his life). Exactly 1 year and 17 minutes after he started, he finished the manuscript, then he gathered all the typewritten pages together, tied the bundle up with string and proceeded to use it as a doorstop for the ever-banging kitchen door (it was around 8″ high, the fact that he was most proud of at the time!)
The book spent 4 months as a very effective doorstop until one day his eldest son’s girlfriend came round when they were all out and accidentally kicked the it, loosening the string binding and sending papers all over the kitchen. When Courtenay came home 3 hours later she had a gathered it all up and was sitting, a pile of read papers on one side and a pile to be read on the other, and declared that this absolutely had to be published as it was the best book she’d ever read. He smiled indulgently, metaphorically patted her on the head and said something along the lines of ‘there, there dear, don’t be silly, now could you just tie it all back up again and put it back where it was’. Eventually he was persuaded to send it to a literary agent, and 2 months later it was auctioned in New York for $1 million. He went on to write another 20 published books in the following 22 years.
Having been published for the first time in 1989, The Power Of One went on to be published in 18 languages and was turned into a ‘Major Motion Picture’ in 1992, starring Stephen Dorff as the lead character in his teens, and with cinema greats such as Morgan Freeman as Geel Piet, John Gielgud as headmaster St John and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Doc. I’m pretty sure that this is what triggered me to buy the book, probably with my Christmas or birthday money, and which I lugged with me on our annual summer camping trip to Provence. I devoured the 630 odd pages in 2 days, barely stopping to eat, and almost completely ignoring any requests to shift my backside and do anything else until I had finished reading it (I think I grudgingly stirred myself enough to go to the local market for a couple of hours)
Back then I was an idealistic 14-year-old, one of the leaders in my school’s Amnesty letter writing group, and going through that phase, as all youngsters seem to, of seeing the world in black and white and thinking that if you just persuaded adults to see things the way that you did, they’d know just how wrong they were to be racist/sexist/misogynist/elitist/choose your own ‘ist’. Back then I didn’t know much about the history of South Africa or the issues that had plagued its black citizens for a couple of centuries. I knew that we didn’t buy food that was imported from South Africa because of ‘apartheid’, but I couldn’t really have told you what that was, beyond ‘it’s not a good thing’. As it turns out, in the 3 years since the book was first published, much had happened in South African politics and the rights of its citizens. Nelson Mandela had been released after spending decades in prison, President FW De Clerk had repealed the last of the apartheid laws in ’91, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) talks had been taking place, and only months before I read it, 68% of the white population had voted for democracy. Less than 2 years later, the population of South Africa was to vote in the first universal suffrage general election for the country, where the African National Congress (ANC) easily overthrew the governing National Party and beat several other parties who would go on to form the new opposition. Days later, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of the country.
Fast forward to 2007 and I found myself living and working in Johannesburg for 6 months, having been seconded to a life insurance company there who had sold some software to the insurance company I worked for back in the UK. I was sent out to help them work out their actuarial calculations, since they had been struggling to understand the very different system we operated under in the UK – we were not, for example, allowed to discriminate on the basis of where our customers lived or the colour of their skin when calculating premiums, in fact we were only allowed to use age, sex and smoker status to calculate our rates. I spent my weekends eagerly exploring, both on the Highveld and further afield. Whilst initially I had met up to go shopping with a friend I knew from a US scrapbooking forum, who remarkably happened to only live 2 miles away, the arrival of 3 colleagues from the business side of my company a fortnight after me, who were there to provide training to some of the South Africans who would be servicing our product, meant that for the next 3 weeks my sightseeing went up a gear and gave me a springboard to go further later on.
On the first weekend they were with me, we all went to Soweto on a day trip that was eye-opening on many levels – run by residents of Soweto (unlike the many commercial coach trips that went in and out in 2 hours flat) we were taken to many historic locations such a Nelson Mandela’s house (both to give him a wave in passing at his post-presidency mansion in Houghton, and to visit his original house in Soweto that has been turned into a museum), the Regina Mundi Church (home to many illicit political meetings during apartheid) and the Hector Pieterson Museum (that one you will need to look up, I could fill pages on my thoughts on what I learned there alone) The tour also took us to different neighbourhoods, starting in an area that could easily have been a suburb in any UK town (sun and blue skies notwithstanding) but which was in stark contrast to the highly walled neighbourhoods in Jo’burg next door. We also visited an area that was filled with the tiny former miners’ quarters, where whole families now lived without electricity or running water and where I went on to work closely with the nursery based there for the rest of my stay, pouring much of the subsistence allowance I was provided with into getting them both educational and janitorial supplies, and linking the helpers up with someone who could give them some early learning education. We saw shanty housing, soon to be cleared slums, recently regenerated slums and a football training centre (where the kids all wanted to know about Manchester United). Following that weekend I saw many more areas in and around Jo’burg, visited Pretoria and on a rather random detour back from Sun City, the Voortrekker Monument, and on a weekend break to the Cape, went over to Robben Island, all of which gave me far more understanding of the many complexities of the history of South Africa.
Back to the book (bet you’re glad we got back to that!) The story starts in 1938 with our 5 year old hero telling of his life on a farm in the remote Lebombo Mountains in what is now Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). He loves his black nanny, hugging her and listening to her stories as well as spending time in the fields with the other black workers and learning their various languages (including Zulu), but his world is to be ripped apart in fairly short order when his mother is hospitalised for a nervous breakdown and he is sent away to boarding school. Unfortunately for him, born to an ‘English’ family, the school is both run and attended by Afrikaaners and he was treated as the enemy in camp and tortured for every treacherous act carried out by the ‘English’ in the Boer Wars (I learned much later than my great great grandfather had served in the Boer Wars as he was a career soldier. He was not English ;o) ). At the time there were understandable ongoing tensions between the two groups of white South African settlers, not least because the British invented the concentration camps during the second Boer War, rounding up Afrikaaner women and children and placing them in camps where many died of famine and disease. Although South Africa was officially a British colony, in the run up to WW2, many Afrikaaners were on the side of the Nazis, and hoped that the Germans would eventually help them run the Brits off ‘their’ land.
Our hero swiftly learns that not everyone is equal in everyone’s eyes and that his black nanny and in fact all other blacks and people of colour are beneath contempt by the white South Africans (the Afrikaaners seemed more vicious in their approach, but the Brits weren’t much better) This is something that plays out through the rest of the book, from leaving that boarding school a couple of years later, to travelling/moving to Barberton after the farm fails (where it turns out his mother has returned, apparently cured of her breakdown but now a somewhat rabid born-again Christian), to his friendship with German classical pianist Doc, now a local nature expert who ends up locked up in Barberton Prison for the duration of the war as an ‘enemy alien’, to his time hanging out with Doc in prison, then moving on to another boarding school in Johannesburg and finally ending up working in mines up in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)
Peekay, as our hero is eventually named at the first boarding school, spends his young life trying to help the underdogs through many ingenious methods, and he has a great variety of assistants along the way, all of them bucking the system in their own quiet (or in some cases not so quiet) way. He also spends a good chunk of his childhood when at home trying to get round his mother’s increasingly crazy beliefs about what the Lord does and doesn’t want people (especially him) to do. Boxing is a recurring theme from early in the book, as he meets guard Hoppie Groenewald, a railway champion boxer, on the train to Barberton from his first boarding school. Groenewald, having discussed with him the many challenges Peekay has faced at school, assures him that he has what it takes to become welterweight champion of the world and takes him to a boxing match at the changeover point of the railway where Peekay is to spend the first night of his journey. The mantra ‘First with the head, then with the heart’ plays out throughout the book, both in and out of the boxing ring.
Despite the seriousness of much of the book’s contents, it is told with a good deal of humour, and it’s easy to empathise with and cheer on the many downtrodden characters that appear throughout the book. The book does end seemingly abruptly at the mines without Peekay going off to university, however the follow up book, Tandia, is very much worth a read as to ‘what happens next’.
I chose to read this book again now, because in reading many articles following the Black Lives Matter resurgence, I saw numerous references to the fact that people are not born racist, they are taught to be so, and I feel like this book shows the many ways that children especially are indoctrinated by their elders into believing that they are superior to others. While there are many amazing and positive things that happen to Peekay in the book, remember that it is semi-autobiographical, so although Bryce Courtenay elevated Peekay’s successes above his own in real life, it does actually follow the events of his life, and it comes through in the writing just how much he has always rejected the premise that just because he was white, he was above his fellow black citizens of South Africa (in fact, having eventually left to study at university in England, Courtenay was banned from returning to the country, and ended up marrying an Australian who told him he could come home with her. There he railed in subsequent books against aboriginal injustice, but he was never kicked out of the country and he died in Canberra in November 2012)
I should add, as a closer, that while the film is good, it deviates greatly from the book in the latter half, bringing characters and episodes from Tandia into scenes from The Power Of One. It still gets the message across and is enjoyable, just don’t expect the two to match!