REVIEW: Ken Barris
Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is divided into ten chapters, spanning the period 1973 to 2010. They can be read as individual pieces, although they play loosely into each other. Certain characters (or their children instead) reappear from time to time, so advancing not only their individual accounts, but providing an intelligently devised chronicle of South Africa’s political trajectory from the depths of apartheid to the affirmative symbol that was the World Cup, so wonderful while it lasted. The intelligence lies in the proximity of Coovadia’s characters to historical centres of power. Although they orbit at various distances from key figures in the anti-apartheid constellation, the narrative is always focused on these more or less peripheral figures, rather than their political masters. So while the novel sketches notables such as Saths Cooper, Essop Pahad, Thabo Mbeki, Shabir Shaik and others, more attention is paid to their less luminous associates. The result is a novel that beautifully foregrounds the experience of ordinary people against a backdrop of the larger history that frames them.
The first sequence is dated 1970. The metric system has recently been introduced, and the hard winter of apartheid is at its height. It is obvious which is more significant, but it is typical of Coovadia’s indirectness that the title is drawn from the metric system (all the more whimsical because the device disappears fairly rapidly after the first sequence). This tale is told from the perspective of Ann, the wife of activist professor Neil Hunter. Her life is not easy, because Neil is under surveillance, and arrest is a constant possibility. As the biograpical details accumulate in this sequence, and in later sections in which Ann appears, it becomes clear that Neil represents Rick Turner, the influential University of Natal activist who was assassinated in 1978. Ann later marries a writer named Sebastian, as indeed Turner’s ex-wife Barbara married Ken Follett.
While the action of this chapter is rich and compelling enough, Ann’s vision is the real centre. She is a subtle and emotionally fluid observer, a woman whose understanding is shaped not only by her critical attention to experience, but also by her rueful self-knowledge. The political drama into which she is drawn would probably dominate the telling in less original hands than Coovadia’s. Instead, the historical struggle is filtered through the mesh of Ann’s perspective, without straining out the individual complexity of being alive in difficult times.
Ann, however, is not the only lens. Each chapter introduces a new situation and witness, drawn from divers corners of society, advancing in time as the country suffers and celebrates the bewildering transitions that lead to the present. The narrative moves, for example, from a men’s hostel in Pietermaritzburg, where a passbook is lost with terrible consequences for its young owner, Victor Moloi; to Boxing Day in Phoenix Township in Durban, 1979, where a musician named Yash battles to retain his dignity in the face of his wife’s antagonism, and the racist hostility of his employer; to London in 1985, where Ann returns, working for an anti-apartheid organisation.
There is structural brilliance in Coovadia’s compound eye and its episodic gaze. It enables him to survey a period of broad social change economically and fluently, without having to write War and Peace. Secondly, the tempo and timbre of each chapter changes to suit its particular occupants. The writing is excellent too, never precious or strained, and I sometimes read descriptions or metaphors over again because I enjoyed them so much.
Attention is also paid to continuity, with threads of anticipation stitched into earlier chapters. In a chapter about a Shabir Shaik analogue set in 1995, for example, we meet his son Vish, gay and horribly thin, with suggestions of undisclosed ill health. This becomes full blown in the 2003 chapter entitled “Sparks”. It is named after Sparks Mokoena, a deftly named caricature of Parks Mankahlana. Mankahlana was Thabo Mbeki’s spokesman, one of the two principal defenders of Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. With tragic irony, he died of AIDS (a few years earlier than Sparks), while his death was attributed to chronic anaemia (his wife), and the toxic effect of anti-retrovirals (the ANC). It is a savage lampoon, and the ironies become vitriolic, particularly in its treatment of the relationship between men in power and those who serve them. Even more seriously, in its treatment of how meaning can be abused and surfaces manipulated. It is a climactic chapter, though it is not the last, because that troubled relationship between the world of politics and private life blares out as loudly as a vuvuzela.
The concept of South African literature is not a fashionable one in academic circles, but Coovadia has magnificently finessed a defining tension in what South African writers do: between the compelling world of history, and the even more necessary world of individual life, between the great actors who make our history, and the small men and women who make our country. – Barris is a novelist and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. His novel Life Underwater won the 2013 University of Johannesburg prize.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014