Monday, February 27, 2012

The Power of One: Glad to have finally finished it!

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay

Although originally published in 1989 (in the height of apartheid), I'd never heard of The Power of One until my sister read it for her book group. The plot sounded appealing to me, so I put it on hold at the library. Some actually call this "a classic novel of South Africa," although I think that title should belong to the work of Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing instead (whose books I read years ago).

I think my opinion of this novel will shift some as I sit with the ending for a few days...but I wanted to write this review while it was still fresh in my mind. It feels like I've been reading this novel for a long time...although it stuck in my mind when I was not reading it, I was also really ready to be done with it. Not a great sign...

English boy Peekay is sent to boarding school at the age of 5 (!) because he has no father and his mother has had a mental breakdown. He is horribly, mercilessly bullied by his South-African schoolmates, who all see him as the enemy because of the Boer War. Right away, I felt dubious because I kept thinking about my own 5-year-old son and realizing that Peekay seemed more like 10 than 5. His only friend is his pet chicken, Grandpa Chook, who understands Peekay thoroughly and can do magic tricks. (Seriously.) In spite of the bullying, Peekay survives and finds a way to rise above it all. (His extreme genius assisting him in this endeavor.)

The story begins to get more interesting when the school year ends and he's sent on a 2-1/2-day train journey to join his family in their new home. (Yes, a 5-year-old, sent alone on a 2-1/2-day train journey...) Along the way he makes some true friends, among them a train guard named Hoppie, who teaches him all about boxing and inspires him to become a boxing champion one day. (In spite of this great friendship, Hoppie goes off to war and is never mentioned again...which seems odd to me.)

When he arrives in his new home in Barberton (where he is to live with his grandpa and his born-again-crazy mother), he makes more true friends in Doc (a German professor of music) and Mrs. Boxall (the town librarian). When Doc is interned in a nearby prison because of his German ancestry, Peekay develops friendships in the prison and begins taking boxing lessons there. Biracial prisoner Geel Piet becomes his dedicated boxing coach and teaches him everything he knows.

Years later Peekay goes off to another boarding school, where he becomes friends with a Jewish boy, Morrie Levy. In the final book of the novel, Peekay spends a year working in the mines in Rhodesia. This is a very MALE book...about the world of boxing, boarding schools, prisons, and mines. Few women live in this world, and the black ones do not even have real names.

First, what I liked about the novel:
  • Learning more about the history of English-Boer hostility during World War II
  • Reading about life in South Africa during that period--especially as a former coworker was visiting South Africa while I was reading the book and blogging about her adventures and perspectives on the country's crime and racism
  • Peekay's unlikely friendship and adventures with Doc
  • Some of the earlier stories during the train journey, and the colorful characters such as Hoppie and Big Hettie
  • Peekay's efforts to transcend his difficult beginnings and become his own person
  • The imagery of the African singing and the music Doc wrote as a tribute to the African tribes (in fact, I really enjoyed all the musical bits, especially the prison concert)
Well. My biggest beef with this novel is that Peekay is too damn perfect. For example (spoilers below!):
  • He is several classes ahead of all his peers, wherever he goes, because of his sheer genius.
  • He knows several African languages, in addition to Latin.
  • Everywhere he goes (after the initial boarding school disaster), people come to worship him.
  • He develops a highly successful scheme to smuggle in tobacco and other goodies into the prison, and smuggle letters to prisoners' families out. All while he is a child.
  • He NEVER loses a boxing bout. Never, ever.
  • He becomes a cactus expert under Doc's tutelage.
  • Peekay and Morrie become chosen for the most select group of students to be tutored by the headmaster. Of course.
  • Peekay and Morrie make a mint in boarding school through various schemes dreamed up by Morrie, all of them rip-roaring successes.
  • He exceeds in every single task he takes on (academics, languages, boxing, rugby, mining), with the one exception of the piano, at which his talent is merely passable.
  • He becomes a virtual god for the African people--referred to as the "tadpole angel."
  • Even the Black Mamba he faces does not bite him.
  • He displays superhuman strength and will as a 17-year-old miner and survives an accident that would have killed anyone else.
  • He gets the opportunity to take revenge on his most bitter enemy.
The book was far too could have lost 100 to 150 pages and been much stronger. Courtenay often resorts to getting preachy and "tells" far more than he shows. The bad people are REALLY bad, and they all get their due in the end...every one of them. Several people lose their lives because of Peekay, and he doesn't seem to have any sort of self-reflection or guilt that he caused their deaths through his arrogance. He takes all his privileges and success for granted.

I believe that Courtenay, who grew up in South Africa but now lives in Australia, had great intentions to write a book that examined the origins of apartheid and criticized the cruel way that blacks were treated. But instead, it's just another book about a white savior--a perfect white boy who triumphs over the odds. The black tribes all come to worship Peekay because he begins smuggling in tobacco to the prison and starts a letter-writing initiative so they can contact their relatives...and they've seen his expertise in the boxing ring. In fact, he becomes legendary across South Africa so that when he moves to his new school in another part of the country, they all know about the "Tadpole Angel."

I thought it would be more about the origins of apartheid and race relations in South Africa, but really, it wasn't. It was about this perfect boy and his life .

I'm not sure I understand the meaning of "The Power of One," especially because of all the friends and supporters Peekay developed throughout his life. They all lifted him up and helped him accomplish what he did. Yet when Morrie tries to help him by lending him the money to go to Oxford, he refuses his aid. This didn't make much sense to me, especially as Morrie wouldn't have had such success over the years without Peekay...and he allowed others to help him before. Instead, he puts aside his academic career to choose a rough, dangerous life in the mines.

And the ending...horrific, unredeeming, and sickening. Any fondness I had for Peekay as a character dissolved in the last few pages. In spite of all the love and support he received, Doc's wise guidance, and all the superhuman success he'd achieved, when he meets his nemesis, he must take revenge in a truly merciless manner? Maybe the message of "The Power of One," in the end, is that each person is alone and must fight to the death to survive? Closing the book, I felt sick to my stomach.

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