Where there's smoke, there's mirrors

The European and American tradition of the political novel is deeply entrenched. From Emile Zola to Gore Vidal, the perceptions and attitudes of citizens in these smug old democracies have long been shaped, influenced and reflected in many great works of fiction.

South Africa too has a rich history of political fiction, from Alan Paton to Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Njabulo Ndebele and Lewis Nkosi. But there is, of course, a vast difference between the literary political novel and the “novel of politics”, which is how Joe Klein, the originally “anonymous” author of the best-selling Primary Colors, described his 1996 roman-à-clef about an American presidential campaign.

Klein, at the time a journalist with Newsweek, caused a scandal with his thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for the top job.
This was partly because he had opted to publish the book anonymously, but also because he vividly exposed the behind-the-scenes ruthlessness of contemporary American politics.

The thing about a “novel of politics” is that it can be used, as political scientist James F Davidson has noted, “in the teaching of politics and administration in supplying some vicarious experience where real experience is impossible”.

And it is this exposure of the innards — the nuts, bolts, cogs and wheels within the wheels — of contemporary politics, rather than a more subtle expression of ideological ideals, that distinguishes the novel of politics from the political novel.

There are many deliberate echoes of Primary Colors in South African writer Brent Meersman’s recently published Primary Coloured, (Human and Rousseau) about Charlene Kennedy, a charismatic, streetwise politician and her bid to launch a new opposition party, the Social Democrats. The cover, the suave narrator, the charming but unpredictable candidate, the episodic nature of the plot and the careening from one crisis to the next all mirror Klein’s original satire. But Meersman’s Primary Coloured is no pale copy. How could it be, set as it is in our young, robust and volatile democracy?

Other real-life echoes, of course, are that Meersman, currently the Mail & Guardian‘s theatre writer, was a former theatre producer who served as Patricia de Lille’s chief of staff at the launch of the Independent Democrats in 2004. He was largely responsible for the ID’s ­innovative, fresh campaign, including the placement of ads for the party in the classified sections of national newspapers.

Told from the perspective of Joel Moritz, a former theatre manager who has decided to “serve democracy” by accepting a position as the chief of staff of the newly formed Social Democrats, the narrative turns — as Meersman himself has described it — into a version of West Wing meets John le Carré.

During a meeting with a potential funder, Joel remarks: “Politics isn’t that different (from theatre) … You write scripts, politicians perform them, you get the newspaper crits in the morning.”

Meersman is an intelligent and witty writer and has packed enormous punch into the rollicking saga that brims with intrigue, subterfuge, betrayal, corruption, death threats and all those everyday ingredients that make for an interesting life in politics.

There’s a mining scandal, a plot to assassinate the president and even the candidate herself. Meersman also explores a murky underworld where “money was playing a far too large role in the fledgling democracy”.

From this perspective Primary Coloured offers ordinary readers a rare glimpse into and understanding of the political process that swirls beneath the headlines.

The author’s ear for dialogue is superb and his analysis of the contemporary political landscape is astute, informed and at times highly entertaining. Meersman has also conjured to life a menagerie of fantastic characters, from Kennedy’s handlanger, Valentine Hardly, to a range of petty political arrivistes drawn to power, glory and money.

Much of the book’s entertainment value lies in matching real life characters (and parties) to their fictional equivalents. Ultimately Primary Coloured is not an unflattering portrait of the candidate, but it does expose her flaws — and those inherent in the system.

For those who view politics as a sport, Primary Coloured offers hilarious insights, commentary and wry satire. If there is a criticism, it is that the novel is overpopulated with minor characters that detract from the central theme. But Meersman helps the reader to keep track of it all in his “Who’s Who” list at the back.

Primary Coloured is an important addition to South African political writing in that it provides a uniquely intimate and accurate portrait of our young democracy in all its gory glory.

Marianne Thamm is a freelance writer

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