A slick thriller that raises uncomfortable questions

2010-06-09 00:00


The Soldier Who Said No

Chris Marnewick


THIS is Durban advocate Chris Marnewick’s second novel. Unlike his acclaimed Shepherds & Butchers which was an attack on the dehumanising effect of the death penalty in the guise of fiction, this time he has written what appears, on the surface at least, to be a more straightforward thriller.

It opens with South African immigrant to New Zealand, Pierre de ­Villiers, being suspended from the Auckland police force for making a racist remark to a Maori colleague. On the same day someone takes a shot at the New Zealand prime ­minister with a Bushman arrow. De Villiers is an archer of some accomplishment, and he becomes a suspect.

And he has other problems to face. He has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and there are things in his South African past that he is going to have to deal with if his life is ever to move on. The novel moves between the present and the eighties, the dark days of the so-called “total onslaught”.

De Villiers had a walk-on role in Shepherds & Butchers, and another of the characters from the earlier book, Johann Weber, also makes a reappearance, and a slightly disturbing one.

Marnewick shows New Zealand as a place so smug in its political ­correctness and so sure of its rightness that injustices rooted in its past and the current problems of ­assimilating large immigrant communities from all over the world are largely ignored. But the South Africa to which De Villiers must return to face his own demons is not perfect either. There is a dose of Afro-pessimism here, as Marnewick shows a country sliding into corruption and decay.

But the past, which still echoes, was no better. De Villiers was a highly trained recce, who, after refusing an order which he considered unjust — giving the book its title — finds himself being brainwashed and under suspicion.

His personal past, too, stretches long, long fingers into his present, and must be dealt with before he can reach any kind of peace or any sense that somewhere is now home.

The Soldier Who Said No is a slick thriller, but it also raises uncomfortable issues for emigrants, immigrants and many others.

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