Drama of sixties SA

2010-07-14 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

A Case of Knives

Julian de Wette

Umuzi

THIS is a clever, tightly choreographed and multilayered tale involving a cross-section of South Africans living through historic times.

The story is told with sophisticated understatement by its poet author who shows time and again that he understands the power of quiet words to represent dramatic deeds.

Set in South Africa in the sixties, the story revolves around the family and the multiracial band of servants living in one of the homes of the South African Prime Minister, Dr Schoon, the former minister of native affairs. In between visits to the powerful herbalist “Khotso” in Comfimvaba, the PM is devising plans to sever links with the British Crown to make South Africa a republic, and to usher in the homeland system.

Even readers with just a tenuous grasp of South African history will enjoy the interplay between fiction and reality that this book offers and its clever dissection of the idiocies of apartheid legislation and its impact on individual lives.

One such idiocy is crystallised in the story of the Schoon family’s white butler who endures a mighty struggle to reverse his application to be classified as Coloured — a move he made voluntarily so as to be able to marry the Coloured nanny. Unrequited love, humiliation and frustration combine to create an explosive mix of emotions which are expressed in the end with fatal consequences.

This is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of good fiction to refine our senses, climb into the hearts and minds of others, and, ultimately to deepen our understanding of society, both past and present.

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