Fiction, but not entirely so

TALES OF THE METRIC SYSTEM by Imraan Coovadia (Umuzi)

In this novel, his longest to date, Coovadia has burst beyond his previous urbane, ironic, witty, obscure and oblique style into something impassioned, inspired and often lyrical.

He moves away from a tightly constructed net of ideas to show people’s real inner lives, daily experience.

This novel is far richer, deeper and more philosophically interesting than its rather dry title might suggest; and it’s very different from the satirical romp The Institute of Taxi Poetry, which won the M-Net Award in 2013.

Written as a set of interconnecting stories, Tales of the Metric System will take you into the world of our recent past, covering a 40-year period; it is set mainly in South Africa, from 1970 to 2010, and ends with a flashback to the mid 1970s.

The characters encompass a diverse bunch of South Africans, including Neil Hunter, an academic and political activist in Durban, Yash, a young guitarist and his cousin, Logan Naicker; also Samuel Shabangu, caretaker of the Caledonian Christian Men’s Hostel and his vulnerable young protege, Victor Moloi.

Among the many women we meet powerful, chatty Parveen, married into the inner circle of the ANC; Esther Koroleng, an angry nurse in a township; Tanith, opportunist and driver of a Mercedes sportscar; and Shanti, Born Free, insouciant and kind.

Though Coovadia does make light reference to the changeover from the imperial system of weights and measures to the metric system in 1970, this is really a metaphor for the change in consciousness that began to manifest at that time, once people began to recover from the rigours of the big political trials of the 1960s.

Coovadia examines and investigates how to decide what counts in life, how to measure this, and what is immeasurable – yet vitally important. Various characters remark on these questions throughout the text, gently reminding the reader of what binds this novel together.

For example, with reference to revelations of the TRC process: “There was no simple way to measure a sin.” Or that in 1970, given the changing world, to expel a boy for having brandy in his school locker was to fail to know “what counts”.

In the first story (and the last), Coovadia presents Neil Hunter, who is closely based on Rick Turner who was assassinated in 1978.

Hunter is, as Turner was, an academic, a philospher and political activist with links to the Sorbonne and Sartre. He runs a free university from his home, inviting students of all races to gather, discuss Fanon, Black Consciousness and such, and to have a meal.

In the 1970s a multiracial gathering was far from usual. Needless to say he is under the surveillance of the Special Branch of the police and keeps things in readiness for a flit over the border if it proves necessary.

His wife, Ann, supports his views and activities. By the fourth story in the novel she is in London working for the Defence and Aid Fund (supporting the families of political prisoners and exiles) and in close contact with the ANC in exile.

In previous novels Coovadia has created some strong women; he has the real measure of their contribution to society. Here Ann’s low-key character is revealed in some detail. When we first meet her she is driving to meet a teacher about her rebellious son, Paul, who has fallen foul of the rules of his expensive private school in Natal.

Seriou and sinister
This parenting duty turns out to be far more serious and sinister than it at first seems, and the real issue is not the brandy in the locker, but resistance to school cadets. Coovadia’s take on the political activities of liberal-to-radical white males is fairly sardonic, especially with regard to the unintended consequences of their activities that adversely affect less privileged beings. An example is the playwright who puts on a play in Shabangu’s hostel, and remains unaware that the Special Branch has recorded it, and arrested someone.

But, in Ann, he shows a white South African of integrity and serious sensibilities. He shows her in relation to three husbands: the first, father of Paul, is of conservative Afrikaner stock; the second is Neil Hunter and the third is an English writer.

In her thoughts on family life, she reflects that, “Love is more mysterious than gravity”. Very Coovadia – dense, poetic, surprising. In a more extensive flourish of the metric metaphor, Ann reflects on London:

“In the vision of the city, different to Paris, was something to stop Ann’s heart. She saw the infinity of bridges and motorways, squares and churches, more solid than the plain houses she had left behind in South Africa. This infinity told her Neil had died at the edge of what was meaningful and could be recorded. She was no better than a spectre in the system of what could be defined, counted and exchanged.”

The relationship of fiction to history
These interconnected stories are all fictions, but not entirely so. And there is no disclaimer asserting that the characters are not based on real people; many of them are, or are composites of known people.

This will be clear to anyone fairly familiar with South African history, and raises the question of the relationship of fiction to history.

Chimamanda Adichie, whose novel Half of a Yellow Sun, and other stories on the Biafran War in Nigeria have brought that devastating history to life for the reading world, said in an interview that, “Successful fiction does not need to be validated by real life.”

Coovadia turns that round somewhat in a comment he gives to Vadim Gerasimov, a diplomat in the Soviet Embassy in London, where the fourth story is set. He says, “… novels are more important than ever … They allow us to step back and see where history is taking us.”

Satire still intact
Those who value Coovadia’s incisive satirical take on life will be glad to hear this is still intact. The chapter called “Truth and Reconciliation” begins with this line: “Everyone wished to confess, not to admit anything.”

He takes a cold look at the mindset of the previously advantaged and powerful in private schools and liberal (in the 1960s and 70s) universities; he mocks the rich – he says of a luxury hotel in Johannesburg, “It put you in a stupor”; he has the measure of Aids denialists (a brave portrait here).

When it comes to death he does not shrink from the seriousness of the end of consciousness. There are three violent deaths in this novel, each one the result of wrong thinking, a mistaken view, opinions that turn into sentences. Death by criminal neglect, necklacing and assassination. And though no one takes responsibility, the reader will think about who is to blame.

Neil Hunter dies, in the novel, still dreaming that “in the ideal world, everything would count and nothing would be measured, everybody would be lover and beloved …”

The era spanned by this novel is full of fascination and Coovadia’s novel explores this fully. His writing is deceptively simple, absorbing – and exhilarating; there is something to ponder on every page, some quirky juxtaposition, neat and understated, but which is effective in compiling this very complex portrait in Tales of the Metric System – once you know what Coovadia really means by this.

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Jane Rosenthal
Guest Author

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