Friday, July 23, 2010

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (book review)

I'm taking a departure from my travel posts today to report, semi-relevantly, on a book I just finished: it's about Africa, and I prob. would never have picked it up if I hadn't been going to Africa, and never would have finished it if I hadn't been on "Africa time."

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book this much. Like the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it has everything: fighting, romance, poetry, exotic setting, political undercurrents, growing up, humor. It reminds me how high a value I place on a child’s point of view, and a believable voice distinct from the author’s. It’s sad that these things are so rare, but that much more satisfying when they’re done well. It also reminds me that purple prose and direct, simple narration need not be mutually exclusive—nor do “literature” and an action-packed plot. Some might say Courtenay gets carried away with flowery lyricism at times, but, having traveled through South Africa, rightly renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful and starkly varied countries, and survived the apocalyptic-seeming turmoil of childhood, I find it not only appropriate, but imperative. Some might also complain that the book weakens its anti-racist message by letting whites dominate the cast, and even at times portraying blacks in a paternalistic fashion. But to me these potential weaknesses are more than balanced out by the great, direly underestimated finesse of telling a tale which is true on the personal level first, political second.

It is perhaps a “boy” book, though I have as little interest in boxing, or other sports, as anyone, yet I found myself engrossed by its minutiae. To me it is the novel Invisible Man should have been: vivid and compelling in particulars from which the larger themes emerge, rather than gesturing vaguely toward grand themes and coyly if not incompetently withholding real-world particulars. The fact that we never learn the narrator’s real name, for example, somehow seems quite natural in The Power of One but painfully forced in Invisible Man. And while the basic metaphorical premise of Invisible Man is plenty powerful, we never learn why that narrator should become personally obsessed with it, or how it germinated in his individual mind, whereas “the power of one” emerges naturally and directly as Peekay’s way of explaining and directing his own experience, based on real conversations we’ve seen him have with specific characters. It reminds me some of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in how it operates on two totally different levels: a thriller and a philosophical challenge at once, deftly switching from the simplest style and physical detail to the most poetic and spiritual.

As much as I didn’t want the story to be over, I’m glad we don’t quite see Peekay win in the end. The last section seems a bit tangential, but it lets the reader know that the hero has completed the full spiritual journey, even if he never beats the longest of odds to reach his personal goal—indeed, one senses that his actual, more personal but modest triumph may have finally convinced him that his goal of world champion boxer is in the end superfluous.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to be reading this book in Africa, even if The Gambia is a long way from South Africa. South Africa somehow got a great place in line when talented writers were being handed out. Of course it has a long, complicated, and tragic history to draw on, but there seems to be even more to it than that. Tragedy, turmoil, and cultural melding abound throughout the continent, but only at its southern tip has their representation in literature blossomed so. For better or worse, the writers of South Africa have become spokesmen for the whole continent—and The Power of One is as good an embodiment of their message as any I’ve yet encountered.

1 comment :

  1. I've heard the title phrase, but what you describe (well!) is not what I expected. I'll put it on my list of have-a-looks.