Book review – The unlikely secret agent

2010-09-25 12:25

An old African proverb holds that until the lion tells its story, tales of hunting will glorify the hunter.

The past few months have seen the recounting of personal lives involved in the liberation struggle.

As welcome as they are, some do their cause little good – ­being patently mired in crushingly ­self-congratulatory garnishing.

As I read one such recent biography, I wondered why the author – a reasonably intelligent man – couldn’t see that a story of great courage was hampered by such unnecessary indulgence.

Drama was inherent in his story as it is in most true stories, without the need for such embellishment.

Not so The Unlikely Secret Agent by former Umkhonto we Sizwe operative and former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils.

It’s a thoroughly captivating, gripping story whose great strength is that it is a true story told simply and with the utmost integrity.

Yet, it does not ignore the ­time-honoured canons of storytelling.

Each chapter leaves the reader wondering what is going to ­happen next.

This is done seamlessly, without a hint of contrivance – a feat ­worthy of experienced writers.

Eleanor Logan was to all appearances an ordinary salesperson in her mother’s book shop in downtown Durban.

There was a staid Englishness about her apparent persona, about her conservative ­parents and about the book shop.

She did her best to maintain that ­image behind which, however, lurked the secret world of armed resistance.

Outwardly – despite the extremely tense times – things seemed to be going their usual, mundane way in the book shop until that fateful day when the dreaded Security Branch invaded it.

The game was up, yet not quite.

The cops wanted to “question” Eleanor about her partner, Ronnie Kasrils, in ­connection with sabotage.

Under the ­notorious 90-day detention statute, they had the “lawful” right to arrest ­anyone without a warrant of arrest or even having to inform the suspects’ next of kin as to why and where they were ­detained.

The man heading the squad was a ­Neanderthal throw-back, Grobler, whose malevolence could make the toughest quake in their boots.

But despite her innocuous nymph-like appearance, Eleanor’s courage and ­commitment were extraordinary.

She was the repository of information which could have blown the lid off a ­nascent Umkhonto we Sizwe, thereby thoroughly destabilising bourgeoning militant underground resistance.

It was an endgame – either she spilled the beans and looked after her own safety and survival, or she would be subjected to savage interrogation.

On the book’s cover appears a tribute by the spy ­thriller master, John le Carre.

It reads: “This is a wonderful book about a courageous and extraordinary woman who was highly principled, yet endowed by nature with all the ­clandestine skills.”

I won’t detail the amazing “clandestine skills” she employed in order not to spoil it for the reader. Indeed, I could not put the book down.

Perhaps Le Carre gives “nature” too much credit.

Eleanor was resolute in not revealing her secrets.

Ronnie persuaded Eleanor to tell her amazing story.

Sadly, she died of a stroke before the writing was complete.

But a grieving Kasrils did not abandon the project.

Her death made him all the more ­determined to complete the book in homage to an “unlikely” heroine.

Thank God he did and what a story – vividly capturing her courage and ingenuity, her unshakeable integrity and, equally, the inhumanity of a grotesque ideology which turned ordinary people into monsters and some into “unlikely heroes and heroines”. – Ronnie Govender

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