Books

Our future's imperfect and the past, tense

Jane Rosenthal

Jane Rosenthal reviews 'Dark Windows' by Louis Greenberg and 'Half of One Thing' by Zirk van den Berg.

'Half of One Thing' takes place during the final stages of the Boer War.

DARK WINDOWS by Louis Greenberg (Umuzi)

Although this is marketed as an “intelligent literary thriller”, I think it’s far more serious and interesting than that implies. Premised on a seamless conflation of New Age religion and politics, both of which deal with faith and hope, it is set in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg in the future when the ruling party is called Peace Gaia, the president is a married lesbian and home security systems are heavily taxed.

Peace Gaia seems to be a send-up of New Ageism and environmentalism, as well as a sardonic take on the concept of the “rainbow nation”, as everyone wears bright colours except for a few dissenters. How the citizenry copes with this can be seen through various characters: Jay is a passive agent of the president’s office; Lang, his boss, has turned himself into an automaton of duty regardless of his opinions and Beth, Jay’s lover, has attempted to reform her life by marrying a Catholic businessman.

The president initiates a secret project to hasten the incomplete Transformation of the people, which involves sacred rituals in rooms recently vacated by the “recommuned”. Jay and Beth think there is something seriously dodgy about this. Greenberg keeps the reader in suspense until the last page and the ending is a complete turnaround.

HALF OF ONE THING by Zirk van den Berg (Penguin)

It is 1902 in the eastern Free State where the Boer War is in its final stages: handfuls of Boers are still on commando but some have decided that there can be no further point in dying for a cause that cannot be won.

The imperial British are scheming to capture the elusive Boer general, De Wet, and into this volatile and violent situation comes the protagonist of this novel, a New Zealander who agrees to act as a spy for the British. He falls in love with a Boer woman, which further unhinges the balance of expedience and morality in his mind.

The smooth, cool narration of these events belies the serious issues underlying day-to-day survival. When is it justifiable for a soldier to shoot to kill? Should spies and “hens-oppers” (Boers who wanted to stop fighting) be executed, and if the common soldiers refuse to make up a firing squad, is the execution carried out by the leader murder?

Full of detail about the lives of soldiers and women out in the field, and not too gory, it’s a seductive read – but it leaves a sense of the madness and suffering of war and its aftermath.

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