Not politically correct

2009-12-23 00:00

Book review

Saracen at the Gates

Zinaid Meeran


SARACEN at the Gates is this year’s winner of the European Union Literary Award, given annually to a South African debut novel. The first thing to say about it is that it is gloriously, deliberately politically incorrect, something we don’t see often enough in South African writing. Meeran is making a point here: it does us no harm to laugh at absurdities and prejudices. In doing so, we might well make the not- very-large jump towards recognising our own.

The plot concerns Fordsburg curry mafia princess, Zakira Cachalia. She lives for shopping and hanging out with her acolytes­ at Milky Lane: at least, during the hours of daylight. At night, unknown to her parents, she’s out clubbing, drinking and drugging. In the meantime, her less talented twin, mummy’s boy Zakir­, ranges from being a Muslim fundamentalist to trying to set up a wannabe Swedish boy band.

Zakira’s parents are anxious to see her set up with a suitable curry mafia prince, but she’s none too happy with the ones that they produce. And once she meets Sofie Jasat, who has abdicated any claim that she might have had to princesshood in favour of anarchy, she heads down a very different path.

Sofie and her gang of Saracens­ hide their activities of defacing public buildings and plotting to bring down the Johannesburg sex trade under the guise of a baking club. It’s not the baking or the anarchy that attracts Zakira, it’s Sofie. And that is a problem for Zakira, and even more so for her parents­.

Saracen at the Gates is by turns satirical, funny and sad. Meeran spares no one as he lays bare the posturing of the society around us, although his main attack is on Johannesburg’s curry mafia.

It is a very enjoyable read, although the middle third of the book should have been tighter: Zakira and Sofie’s somewhat tortuous affair does rather drag its feet and the plot meanders along as if it has lost some impetus. But Meeran’s is a lively new voice on South Africa’s writing scene, and for the most part, well worth a prize.

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