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Category Archive for 'South Africa'

In Dark Star Safari (2002), author Paul Theroux travels along Africa’s east coast from Egypt to South Africa, through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and other countries. Though he begins his trip full of hope, he discovers that life on Africa’s east coast, as seen here in 2002, is not what he remembered from his Peace Corps days. Then he had been a volunteer in Malawi and a teacher in Uganda, leaving the country just as Idi Amin came to power. Despite the political upheavals of the 1960′s, his memories of Africa during that time are good ones. In 2002, approaching his sixtieth birthday, he is determined to travel from Cairo to Cape Town, believing that the continent “contain[s] many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too,” and that there is “more to Africa than misery and terror,” something he aims to discover as he “wander[s] the antique hinterland.”

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If a reader were to base his/her whole opinion of this latest book on the “bliss” Paul Theroux experiences when he sees the Ku/’hoansi bush people, one might conclude that this book is a genuflection to simpler cultures living the hunter-gatherer lives of their forbears, a rare reaction by Theroux who is notoriously hard to please. That felicitous conclusion would be completely wrong, however, even in relation to his experience among the lovely Ju/’hoansi bush people who so impress him in Namibia. When he makes this statement, Theroux has already traveled through South Africa, spending significant time in Capetown and discovering that while the special townships created for the poor have improved in the last ten years, that new, even more desperate, poor are arriving from rural areas and making new, and even more primitive settlements in slums on the outskirts. His travel plans up the west coast, from Capetown to Timbuktu in Mali, along the south and west coasts of Africa, allow him to seize opportunities as he travels, make notes as he goes, and post his observations in ways similar to his observations of the Horn of Africa and the East Coast ten years ago. His visit with the Ju/’hoansi on Namibia has been the first sign of hope that he has had in his trip. Angola, his next stop, proves to be the turning point. One of the richest countries in the world in terms of its oil production and revenues, all of which end up in the pockets of politicians and businessmen, Angola becomes the centerpiece of the book in terms of the corruption at the heart of African life. Ultimately, Theroux must decide whether it makes sense to continue into increasingly devastated West African cities.

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Opening with a scene in which a priest is painting a vibrant black Madonna, this novel focuses on the life of the model, Niki, a woman who posed originally because she desperately needed the money and was willing to travel thirty-five kilometers to Fr. Claerhout’s studio, often on foot. She is a favorite model, along with her daughter Popi, a five-year-old, light-skinned child with blue eyes and softly waving hair, two symbols of South Africa for author Zakes Mda. With vivid scenes from South African life, both the good and the bad, from the 1970s to the present, author Mda presents a clear-eyed vision of South Africa’s transition from a restrictive, white-ruled government to a democratically elected government with room for both races. The black people here are real, not idealized, people with real hopes, dreams, and strategies for survival, and they evoke enormous sympathy from the reader, especially as their personal limitations and faults become clear. Though Mda has no sympathy for the abuses inflicted by the Afrikaners who were in power for so long, he reveals a broad vision of a future that includes both races working together. Concentrating less on national violence and battles for survival, and more on the individual, racial conflicts of people in Excelsior, many of whom the reader has come to like and respect, he presents an exciting story of complex issues in a clear, straightforward narrative which throbs with life and offers both hope and warnings for the future.

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Once again, Deon Meyer creates a vivid and sometimes frightening look at life in contemporary South Africa, which serves as the background for a real can’t-put-it-downer of a thriller. In the course of his six previous novels, each of which has been more exciting than the previous one, he has continued to expand his plotting and characters. This is his most complex and intricate novel yet, filled with twists and ironies and a series of surprises in the conclusion that makes it all work. Unlike most of his previous novels, however, this one is divided into four separate sections, each of which develops independently from the others, like individual novellas, with little to connect them until late in the novel. What the reader knows from the outset is that South Africa’s Presidential Intelligence Agency (PIA) has uncovered a plot which suggests that militant Muslims are planning a takeover of the country with the aid of violent gangs and disaffected youth from the poorest neighborhoods of Capetown. Since the PIA itself is threatened with the prospect of its absorption into a national super-intelligence agency, they are sometimes overly zealous in promoting their own interests.

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In this challenging and important philosophical novel, South African author Ingrid Winterbach explores the particulars of one woman’s life to provide insight into the universal, as, of course, do many other good authors, but she goes way beyond the one or two significant new insights one has grown to expect. Here, her main character, Helen Verbloem, a writer and lexicographer of the Afrikaans language, wants to understand the very essence of life itself, what it means to be alive (if life can be said to have “meaning” at all, rather than simply existing as a fact), and how the Big Bang began a chain of events which has led ultimately to sentient human beings, often imperfect, such as Helen herself. She wants to know how man developed a consciousness and a conscience, and how—and even if—individuals, such as herself, have any unique place in the grand scheme of life. Why am I here, she wonders, and does my life matter? The resulting novel is astonishing—so grand in concept, so challenging, as the author leads the reader step-by-step through many discussions of the evolutionary cycle, and so exhilarating in its bold creativity, that I found myself constantly amazed at the unique ways in which the author employs all this information to create a whole new understanding of Helen, even as Helen herself is evolving with new understandings of her world.

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