Proudly idiosyncratic

2009-02-11 00:00

DENIS Beckett’s first novel is a little bit like a literary version of his former TV show, Beckett’s Trek, which, in those heady dawn-of-democracy days, sought to introduce naive and sometimes prejudiced South Africans to each other and encourage them to talk about the issues that would shape their now collective future.

Except I don’t remember laughing out loud so much at Beckett’s Trek.

The enigmatically titled Magenta, on the other hand, is funny, mainly because of Beckett’s keen and irreverent eye for the idiosyncratic and the absurd in post-apartheid South Africa. His targets will be familiar: the black anti-apartheid cadre turned serial empowerment partner, the disillusioned white youth wooed by the right wing, the white afro-pessimist business executive with his selectively used arsenal of racist language, the returned exile — Themba Ndlovu — who has a profound but rather dull formula for utopia that no one seems ready to hear.

At the centre of all of them is protagonist Bart Dunn, a middle-aged, ex-lefty, waning TV personality, critical of aspects of the new South Africa, frustrated by the “wasted strength of democracy”, but determinedly optimistic and firmly wedded to the liberal ideals of respect for others and open debate — much like Beckett himself.

After the murder of his estranged best friend which throws him (drooling, it has to be said) into the company of the deceased’s widow and her troubled son, Bart’s life becomes a rollercoaster ride which includes being kidnapped by a right-wing army cell, being caught up in a chaotic attempt to defuse a bomb and several narrow escapes with gun-wielding hoodlums who turn out to be not so evil after all. In between there’s quite a bit of sermonising from Themba.

Beckett himself has indicated that he didn’t write Magenta to make people laugh. On the Book SA website, he says he wrote it to “start a revolution” and bemoans the possibility that the “manifesto” might have been too well disguised as a novel. I disagree. There’s no way to miss the didacticism and for me there is lots of evidence of Beckett’s trying to make his narrative fit the message.

But there’s a great deal in this rich and entertaining book to make up for such noble ambitions. It’s the kind of book that makes you squirm and proud to be a South African at the same time, and that can only be healthy.

Sharon Dell

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